Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Sounds familiar to me: recommendations from a guy who visited every park in Boston

Although they sound pretty familiar given my writings, in the Boston Globe Ed Lyons writes ("What I learned from visiting every park in Boston") about his experience visiting every park in Boston, and makes five recommendations:

1.  Enlist all park owners in creating a unified view of the system.

For parks planning, I recommend that local jurisdictions provide guidance and information on all the parks in their jurisdiction, regardless of what entity runs particular facilities  and that they be conceived of as a network ("The layering effect: how the building blocks of an integrated public realm set the stage for community building and Silver Spring, Maryland as an example"). 

This is particularly true for DC, where the most parkland in the city is under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service, USDA runs the National Arboretum, etc.

In other communities, parks may be run by the city, a county, special parks districts, the state, or the federal government, or nonprofit entities.

One special problem, not just in DC, but in many places, is that federal law apears to bar federal park and recreation facilities (NPS, Fish & Wildlife, National Forests, Army Corp Recreation Facilities, etc.) from distributing any information that is not produced by federal agencies, which means that information about local communities can't be displayed. 

Similarly, "for profits" can't participate in festivals and other events held on federal property, unless they are concessionaires with pre-standing agreements.  So the River Festival in Anacostia Park can't have displays from any local businesses or services that do good things--no car sharing displays, no displays about the local business district, etc.

Both policies are counterproductive especially in view of how these agencies tout every year their positive economic impact on local communities (e.g. Economic Impact of National Parks and The Value of Public Lands, Headwaters Economics).

In DC, the National Arboretum, a USDA facility, doesn't even provide information on the NPS facilities located on the same river.

A unified view includes privately-owned spaces as part of the network of parks and open spaces.  Separately the Boston Globe editorializes in favor of the inclusion of "privately owned public spaces" in such systems ("Boston should publicize hidden gems of open space"), something I discuss as part of the "Silver Spring layering" piece. From the Globe article:
But there are many more privately owned spaces set aside for public use, some more familiar than others — from the Custom House observation deck, to the Christian Science Plaza, to the tiny District Hall in the Seaport District, or the Harborwalk, a space for public access that crosses through virtually every privately owned parcel along the waterfront and through the Seaport District. These spaces are usually the result of trade-offs: In exchange for zoning variances or tax incentives, developers agree to provide some form of public amenity, usually in the form of space set aside for access to all.

But the nature of such agreements — even the fact of their existence — is often unknown to the public. What’s more, in some cases, owners and developers are no longer living up to their original agreements for what are called “privately owned public spaces.” In one recent example, the InterContinental Hotel in the Seaport District was cited for operating an outdoor bar that encroached on public space.
The "unified view" should also include integrated programming and schedules.  For example, one writer at the Boston Globe ("Boston already has a waterfront park: let's make it easier to get there") makes the point that while it's great that a nonprofit is proposing a new waterfront park ("Trustees of Reservations hope for 'jaw-dropping' park"), there are already existing great waterfront park facilities that are underused and proposes that the parks be marketed and promoted.

Physical access should also be addressed on a cross-agency basis   One of the comments on the Globe piece pointed out the need for connections--greenways, etc.--between parks as well as their inclusion on map and other information products.  A reader pointed out serious access issues to "national parks" in DC, which I addressed in "A gap in planning across agencies: Prioritizing park access."

Focused more on access to regional and national parks assets rather than intra-community, I just came across a visitor transportation planning document from the UK that looks to be quite interesting, the Visitor Bus Toolkit: Developing successful visitor bus services in National Parks and other special landscapes, published by the New Forest National Park Authority.

Across the country, some parks departments have developed arrangements with local transit agencies to facilitate access.  Amtrak is becoming more amenable to transporting bicyclists seeking to do long distance riding on trails.  While not addressing parks access issues within a city or county, in Canada, the nonprofit Parkbus, facilitates longer distance transit access to national parks from four major cities.

Equitable access is another issue that should be addressed.  The Metropolitan Parks and Open Space Commission in Greater Minneapolis has developed a parks equity toolkit to ensure that parks are working towards expanding utilization by underserved groups.

2.  Develop smartphone-ready maps and information.

3.  Create physical maps and wayfinding signs in parks.

Some parks systems--states, counties, cities--do a great job and provide information on all their parks, in a unified guide and/or with separate brochures for each park. Although this system of information tends to be agency specific, not cross-agency as recommended in point #1.

Detail from the park information matrix created by John Innes for Henderson, Nevada.

From a planning perspective, the graphic designer John Innes  has created a super-interesting map representation of parks resources for communities for use during planning.  He calls this a "wrap around information matrix," and has done it for Knoxville, Tennessee (he lives there) and Henderson, Nevada.

A comment on the article suggests including greenways and walkways connecting parks, in mapping and wayfinding.  Many communities do this.  Many do not.

Some of these ideas date to the earliest period of parks planning in the U.S., such as creating networks of parks, for example, Boston's "Emerald Necklace," connected by parkways. 

A contemporary example is how St. Paul, Minnesota is extending their parkway system through an initiative they call the Grand Round.  From the Minneapolis Star-Tribune article, "Planning for St. Paul's Grand Rounds pushing forward":
The St. Paul Grand Round is a visionary project to "continue the development of approximately 30 miles of scenic parkways connecting neighborhoods across the entire city with off-street bicycle and pedestrian facilities," a website touting the project says.
It's part of a broader St. Paul city-specific initiative called Vibrant Places and Spaces.

John Innes also designed two different parks wayfinding programs in Greater Knoxville, a Greenway system and a Blueway system for water-based resources.

The Blueways maps by John Innes use his wraparound information matrix format.

4.  Renovate to create unique destinations.

Lots of places are doing this.  But it's a mistake to believe that only through "renovating" is it possible to do great things.

The real issue is using space in creative ways, including programming. (Recreation centers in particular should be used a lot more creatively to support self-help initiatives such as bike co-ops.)

Montgomery County Maryland proposes to do this with their Energized Public Spaces plan and initiative.

But yes, renovated facilities or completely new parks and spaces are a key element.

The nonprofit Trustees of Reservations in Boston is proposing a in-water pool in Boston Harbor.  The Philadelphia Horticultural Society does pop up beer gardens.  Besides plantings, and the "beer garden," PHS programs the spaces with "educational gardening workshops, family-friendly activities, live entertainment  and special events."
Pop Up Beer Garden, Philadelphia Horticultural Society
Pop Up Beer Garden, Philadelphia Horticultural Society

Cities with lake and river access often have beaches.  Chicago has an extensive program to provide more access to the Chicago River.

Edgewater LIVE on June 15, 2017 with musical act "Breakfast Club"presented by Tri-C at Edgewater Park. (Kyle Lanzer/Cleveland Metroparks)

In June, Cleveland opened a fabulous beach house on Lake Erie ("Cleveland Metroparks' Edgewater Beach House is the architectural hit of the summer," Cleveland Plain Dealer).

The building includes a concession stand, restrooms, a second floor viewing deck, and a beach-side bar during the summer.  From the article:
The building replaced a dowdy, one-story beach house located about 200 feet to the north of the present site, where the older structure crazily blocked views of the beach from the main Edgewater parking lot.

The new building sits at the intersection of three major generators of foot traffic: the beach itself, the big parking lot, and trails from pedestrian tunnels south of the beach that pass under the West Shoreway and lakefront rail lines to connect to the Detroit Shoreway neighborhood.

The pair of tunnels at West 76th Street, specifically, spills you out into the light and air just south of the beach house, where an elevated walkway carries you right out to the second level of the new structure.
They have a broad program of improvements for the waterfront ("See what's popping up on Cleveland's waterfront"), are expanding their trail system, created a special signage program promoting Cleveland within certain parks ("Popular Cleveland script signs to be installed at three postcard-worthy locations"), and had a great beach party to celebrate the parks system's 100th anniversary ("Cleveland Metroparks turns 100 with beach party of the century").

Interestingly, the revitalization of Cleveland's waterfront parks came about because of how the regionally-tasked Cleveland Metroparks Authority took control and management of the parks from the State of Ohio parks department, which was not particularly engaged.

The Knight Foundation is a major supporter of the iTowpath trail system in Akron, Ohio, while the Philadelphia Circuit Trail system also enjoys significant support from foundations.

Recently I attended the "grand opening" of a bike pump track on the 9-Line trail in Salt Lake City, located under a freeway underpass, along the trail, and adjacent to a community garden.  Planning is underway to add amenities to the trail.  The pump track is creative use of otherwise unprogrammable space and extends the range of activities available.  (The city also organized a community fair alongside the grand opening, which was also cool.)

I also like the public art project of creative signs that was included.  Public art can be an important element of parks.

In the Wasatch Front, the Salt Lake Valley Trails Society advocates for trails in the region, arguing that pump tracks and the state high school mountain bike league are ways to bring young people to biking, and later to biking as transportation.

As far as utilization of space/facilities is concerned, recreation and community centers ought to be providing space to "self-help" groups like bike co-ops, rather than expecting these groups to find and rent expensive space.

A particularly innovative facility is a community oven.  Toronto has 18 total, with a number placed in public parks.

5.  Create neighborhood "park hopping" events.

As argued in the Silver Spring piece cited above, many community sub-districts have plenty of park and open space resources, but they are poorly coordinated and under-managed.  Integrated planning needs to happen at multiple scales, including within sub-districts of cities or counties.

One way to promote parks is through open houses, walks and rides between facilities, and other events. 

Park People in Toronto publishes guides for people organizing events in parks:

-- Park Friends Group Guidebook
-- Adopt-a-Park-Tree-Manual
-- How-to Host a Campfire in the Park
-- How-to Host a Movie in the Park
-- How-to Host a Picnic in the Park

I believe that my testimony on parks planning in 2012 ("Testimony: Agency Performance Oversight, DC DPR") led to DC DPR starting such a program the next year, but in my opinion local park open houses aren't marketed well, although DPR has definitely upped their game in terms of providing a wide variety of "day of" recreation resources that are deployed at such events.

Three more recommendations not in those offered by Ed Lyons, but equally important.

6.  Create a citizen capacity building infrastructure on parks, open space, and recreation practice

I am a big fan of conferences as training events.  Park Pride, the friends group in Atlanta, and the (San Francisco) Bay Area Open Space Council have annual conferences.  The latter conference includes advocacy activities, while the Park Pride event focuses on technical training.

Park People does local events and a national conference.  Celebrate Fairfax, the big festival in Fairfax County, Virginia, runs an event training program with 12 different sessions on various elements of running large events.

But a series of programs/training events doesn't have to rise to the level of a conference.  In NYC the CityParks Foundation runs Partnership Academy as a training resource.  Tree-focused groups like DC's Casey Trees group and the City of Providence, Rhode Island provide trainings for citizen foresters.

Seattle's Department of Neighborhoods supports neighborhood-initiated projects and other programs and is another model.

7.  Create a unified "friends of the parks" networked structure. 

I don't understand why communities require separate friends organizations for every park and recreation structure (and library), or at least, I don't understand why these organizations aren't organized as a network, with a master friends group providing legal structures, accounting, and technical support, with separate sub-groups/affinity groups for each facility.

The master group would be tasked with the big administrative stuff, negotiates big sponsorship agreements, providing a conference and training, etc., while the affinity groups would focus on programming and fundraising "for their park," without having to deal with "the boring" but important stuff like dealing with the IRS.

8.  Creating more formal roles for citizen-delivered programming.

More places are "allowing" citizens to deliver recreation programming.  Baltimore County has set up their recreation program where programming is only provided by citizens.  They started this as a budget measure in the 1970s (now Harford County, Maryland does something similar too).

Most of the programming tends to be focused on team sports, but nothing limits people from offering other programming.  And I think in such situations, it is necessary to have a training-capacity building program to support citizens and friends groups doing this, and Baltimore County has not created such a program.  In well-resourced areas this isn't a problem, but it can be a problem in lower-income areas.

Still this is a way to expand the range of programs available, especially beyond team sports.

Trail ambassador and parks ambassador programs are another way to add opportunities for citizen engagement.  The Regional Parks Ambassador Program in Greater Minneapolis-St. Paul is focused on reaching traditionally underserved segments of the population.

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