Summertime in the park sings of sun-dappled trees, picnics on the green, bright rivers, playgrounds, concerts, trails and school’s-out exhilaration.
Prior to National Parks and Recreation Month this July, the powers that be from the National Recreation and Park Association, together with the American Planning Association, have put their heads together in a dialogue to see what they could come up with to make those fun times even more creative, enjoyable and safe.
According to Lauren Hoffman, senior public relations and communications manager for the nrpa, planning and parks directors from across the country convened to answer and discuss questions about the role of parks and recreation in economic development, in planning for health benefits and in green infrastructure management.
Rich Dolesh, nrpa vice president for conservation and parks, was an active participant in the roundtable.
“The initial meeting of the CEOs of NRPA and APA took place in June 2013, to discuss how their respective associations could do more to collaborate, especially on the issue of urban parks,” said Dolesh. “That conference led to the development of the NRPA/APA Roundtable.
“Urban planners and urban park and recreation leaders are often disconnected, and our organizations saw an opportunity to bring together leaders from both fields to tackle significant urban challenges,” he added.
“There were three keynote presentations by national experts: David Barth, a principal at aecom; Robert Ogilvie, vice president of ChangeLab Solutions; and Michael Van Valkenburgh, noted landscape architect and founder of Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates. Each team of directors from the nine cities gave presentations, and all joined in table discussions with invited guests representing national organizations involved with urban real estate, public financing, health and other urban issues.”
The issues the group focused on included the role of parks in contributing to economic development and revitalization of urban areas; planning for health outcomes; and reducing the cost of infrastructure to manage storm-water by providing green infrastructure solutions, especially by using parks and open space for innovative approaches and co-benefits.
- Business and community engagement through the lifespan of the project and strong leadership are critical to successful large-scale urban park projects.
- Increased innovation and collaboration in some cities transcended the traditional boundaries that agencies set for themselves. For example, in Philadelphia, Pa., the city water utility is now putting up $100,000 per acre for “greened acres” — city open space that traps and holds 1 inch of water in a storm event. The parks and recreation department is building new park facilities, creating wetlands and greening existing asphalt — all with city water utility funding.
- To get the highest level of cooperation and collaboration among agencies, one needs to build and strengthen personal relationships of peers. The Chicago Park District is involving almost all city agencies in the completion of the Bloomingdale Trail, which is an urban hiker-biker trail in densely developed neighborhoods that will provide a new 3-mile-long commuter and recreational greenway into the heart of the city.
- Virtually every city that participated in the roundtable emphasized that connecting communities to each other and connecting residents to their destinations is critical to their futures. Every one of the cities emphasized connecting people to parks — for health, for quality of life and for civic improvement.
- Few cities have any good methodology for measuring the health benefits of parks and open space. Everyone intuitively knows that parks and green space bring health benefits, but many asked “How do you quantify these benefits?”
- A solid master plan for parks, recreation and open space is critical to charting a path to the future. It must be inseparable from other large-scale community planning efforts.
According to Dolesh, there was one particular city that was singled out in a presentation by David Barth of Florida, that was not a participant in the roundtable but demonstrated the lessons learned very effectively.
Kissimmee, Fla., is a small city that understands the important role of parks in creating great communities, said Barth. It is investing $34 million in a waterfront park and surrounding street network to reconnect the downtown to the waterfront, in order to attract more residents and visitors downtown; create a more walkable and vibrant city center; catalyze the redevelopment of surrounding properties; and improve the water quality and habitat value of Lake Tohopekaliga.
“According to the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency, last year’s phase I park renovations have already attracted $50 million in new planned development, as well as $17 million investment from the local utility authority,” said Barth. The CRA also credits park improvements with an increase of 500,000 annual visitors to downtown over the past year, a 5 percent increase in downtown property values and an increase in downtown employment.
Fee-based rental venues for weddings, picnics and special events are booked 40 weeks in advance.
“Most remarkably the city chose not to borrow money or raise taxes to build the project, deciding instead to phase the project using their general fund, impact fees, gas tax, sales tax, concession leases, rental fees and other ‘pay-as-you-go’ funding techniques,” he said.
David Rouse, research director of the APA, worked closely with Dolesh and was pleased with the success of the collaboration.
“All the participants were very engaged in the discussion and highlighted the importance of parks in cities,” said Rouse. “What APA and NRPA are aiming for is to spread the findings to broader constituencies and get more officials in cities involved in planning these parks and initiatives.”
Dolesh said there are plans for further collaboration on the role of parks in supporting economic development, producing healthy outcomes for cities and contributing to green infrastructure solutions for stormwater management.