Parks Without Borders

Strengthening Our Vital Green Infrastructure

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Posted: Wednesday, May 4, 2016 1:16 pm

C+. This is the grade assigned to the condition of our nation’s parks, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers’ 2013 Report Card on America’s Infrastructure.

Every four years ASCE evaluates public parks as part of the nation’s vital public infrastructure (which earned a D+ overall). The report included this frank assessment about our parks:

"The popularity of parks and outdoor recreation areas in the United States continues to grow, with over 140 million Americans making use of these facilities a part of their daily lives. These activities contribute $646 billion to the nation’s economy, supporting 6.1 million jobs. Yet states and localities struggle to provide these benefits for parks amid flat and declining budgets, reporting an estimated $18.5 billion in unmet needs in 2011."

If parks are so popular and important, why do they struggle for adequate funding to maintain the basic features that provide so many acknowledged environmental, social, and economic benefits? And since they do struggle, what can be done to address this concern? Assuming that this grade is an average of exemplary, high performing “A” parks and struggling “F” parks, what are the lessons from success that can be applied to help improve the failing parks?

In general, parks that are better funded, planned, built, maintained, and operated make it easier to build the case for funding. This article identifies three responses to help improve the mediocre grade of our nation’s urban parks: the emerging trend in recent park development, called megaparks, as the source of innovative strategies to improve and fund parks; a concept called parks without borders as a tool to strengthen parks; and an undervalued source of funding, the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

The Problem: Making the Case among Competing Public Interests

In general, parks and recreation programs play a critical and yet more complex and nuanced role in community stability and vitality than their competitors for funding: housing, police, health care, education, or safe roads and bridges. Accounting for the social, environmental, and economic benefits that parks provide is both a blessing and a curse because those benefits are dispersed among a wide array of other municipal services and other programs. Because of this, discussion of financial support for public parks involves civic ethics and extends to politics, environmentalism, social justice, tourism, and other realms. Therefore park stewards and advocates must cast a wide net to secure the full range of funds that support the numerous benefits parks provide.

The message to the public when seeking support is therefore based both on how parks look and function as well as less tangible improvement of community life through recreational and educational programming. One of the most important arguments in making the case for adequate funding is the role parks play as green infrastructure in our cities – soaking up rainwater and keeping it from overburdening aged storm sewers and reducing flooding downstream, as well as serving as passages for recreation and as wildlife habitat.

Public parks have long been subject to boom and bust funding cycles. The first flourishing of public parks as a generally accepted civic asset in the early 19th century led to a systemic model that consisted of one or more major parks, some connecting boulevards, recreation grounds, and a few neighborhood parks. Author Galen Cranz describes the succession of epochs of American park-making that show progress since then, from Pleasure Grounds, to Reform Parks, Recreational Parks, Greenway Parks, Environmental Parks, and now Sustainable Parks.

In the era of declining public support, urban park systems in the U.S. became victims of this evolution: many types of parks, spread over a very large area, serving many purposes. In the decades following urban decline and disinvestment, few cities could sustain the care and feeding of so large a range of landscapes and facilities.

Counter Trends

Despite this challenge, new opportunities have nevertheless led to myriad modern-day offspring, among which are reclaimed brownfield waterfronts, greenways, rail trails, pocket parks, roof parks, freeway decks, overlines, sidelines and underlines, community gardens, “leftover” wildscapes both above and below ground, zip lines in caves, subterranean metro parks, floating parks, pop-up parks, parking space parks, and freeway-to-park conversions. These have made possible the flowering of a new urban landscape that spans public and private sector responsibility. They are transforming many traditional park systems and in the process inciting considerable enthusiasm, stretching the public’s perception of urban open space.

Megaparks: A New Model of Public Park

Among these recent developments is an emerging type of park best described as megaparks - very large, or very intensely developed start-up parks established through unconventional means. Megaparks blend 19th century American entrepreneurial spirit, City Beautiful initiative, contemporary American and international influence, with increasing citizen demand for enhanced urban quality.

New York remains a crucible of innovation and a global phenomenon. Nationwide, megaparks have flourished in Chicago (Millennium Park), Irvine, Calif. (Orange County Great Park), Oklahoma City (Core to the Shore Park and Myriad Park), Houston (Discovery Green), Louisville (Waterfront Park and the Parklands of Floyds Fork), and in Birmingham (Railroad Park and Red Mountain Park). In Washington, D.C. and Dallas, highway bridges are being transformed into parks and in several other cities, highways are being decked over to reconnect severed downtowns.

Linking infrastructure and parks, New Orleans and Dallas have bundled enormous flood control, water quality, transportation, and community development projects with major parkland creation.

These high-budget megaparks are also catalysts for high stakes economic development and community revitalization. Megaparks are not burdened by decades of declining maintenance, by cycles of urban decay, or by the political apathy that frequently afflicts established park systems. Perversely it is sometimes easier to get buy-in for these new special parks than to maintain funding for the older parks and smaller neighborhood parks and programs. Recognizing that maintenance is a deciding factor in long term success, megapark development strategies generally include revenue generation, endowments and other mechanisms to assure sustainability and attract private sector interest. This and other unconventional approaches represent a significant trend from which the lessons learned can be applied to other major parks and the wider realm of municipal park systems.

Parks without Borders

Megaparks offer lessons in how we can plan and design parks and their settings for better chances of success. Megapark successes in New York, Chicago, and elsewhere across the country suggest models to help assure and safeguard investment.

In examining best practices in contemporary urban park development, it is increasingly apparent that, to be successful, parks must be considered in the context of their cultural and natural surroundings: adjacent developments, neighborhoods, streets, forests and waterways. While this is common sense, myriad obstacles prevent full realization of it: political tunnel vision, siloed planning policy, lack of informed citizen support, departmental balkanization, poor timing, and inadequate funding, and sometimes plain lack of imagination and aspiration.

The challenge is to shift our way of thinking about how parks are planned and built, so that they both influence and are influenced by their surroundings. The type of unconventional partnerships and development processes that megaparks frequently enjoy can be a guide to making this happen.

Paying for Parks: the Federal Role

The urgency of the message of urban parks’ importance and their plight, as well as the desire to share best practices in partnerships that could help, led to the formation of a national advocacy organization, the City Parks Alliance (CPA). CPA builds on efforts by the National Recreation and Park Association and others to strengthen urban parks. CPA has in turn formed Mayors for Parks, a coalition of mayors focused on promoting the need for adequate federal support for the nation’s urban parks.

The most promising vehicle for this is the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF). LWCF is a 50-year-old program that dedicates up to $900 million from the royalties paid to the federal government from off shore gas and oil extraction revenue. Mayors for Parks, along with a host of other advocates successfully advocated re-authorization of LWCF for three years, funded up to $450 million, with a dedicated percentage of funds to urban parks. Federal funding will help support innovative funding from public-private partnerships and spinoff from other programs such as transportation and Clean Water Act compliance.

Linking Success, Process and Funding

A+ megaparks are leading the way in innovative thinking about how to make parks exciting, relevant and economically sustainable game changers in cities. The specific ideas that make them successful are applicable at a system-wide level and at smaller scales as well. These ideas are brought together in the Parks without Borders approach. Improving our nation’s urban parks requires support at all levels of government, and the LWCF is the most promising and immediate vehicle at the federal level. Together, these can help to raise the national grade in parks from our current C+, and secure the legacy of our vital green infrastructure.

Eric Tamulonis is a landscape architect and a principal at WRT planning and design. He is a board member of the City Parks Alliance.

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