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Parks and Public Spaces

Public spaces—including plazas, streets, sidewalks, parks, and more—are vital to cities and contribute to the health and welfare of their citizens, businesses, and economies. They are the spaces in which citizens interact with each other, and they contribute to that intangible sense of place that is so important to community. Parks are an invaluable part of city life, making cities more beautiful, enhancing social and cultural vitality, promoting health through activity, and increasing the land value of surrounding areas. Fortunately, creating parks and other vibrant public areas can be a relatively low-cost, high-return project.


Cities should create and implement a plan to increase the quality and amount of parkland and to ensure that every resident has easy access to a park. Given that space can be hard to come by, cities have gotten creative, adding parks above highways or using temporary street closures and pop-up parks. It is also important to ensure equitable access to parks, which can mean creating new parks in underserved neighborhoods or adding ramps rather than stairs for existing parks. To fund such ventures, cities can use general revenue or bond sales, look for charitable and corporate donations, or consider a special sales tax or developer impact fee.  


Beyond the aesthetic and community-building benefits, investments made in the urban environment also have substantial payoffs. Development and sustained presence of parks and tree canopies in city neighborhoods bring a great deal of economic opportunity, as parks boost the property value of adjacent neighborhoods and are important factors in attracting and growing businesses, while tree plantings on streets or other plantings in vacant lots are a low-cost way to push back against blight. Parks also attract commerce to surrounding areas in the form of coffee shops, food vendors, and retail stores, further strengthening a city’s economy. Building and maintaining parks also creates jobs for planners, construction workers, landscapers, and parks maintenance staff. 

Adding Hours Rather than Acres: Extending Playing Time to Create Parkland, Peter Harnik, City Parks Blog, June 29th, 2012. Read more.

Proceed Without Caution: Cities Add Parkland by Closing Streets and Roads to Cars, Peter Harnik, City Parks Blog, April 12th, 2012. Read more.

Developer Impact Fees Pay for Parks, Coleen Gentles, City Parks Blog, February 29th, 2012. Read more.

Parks Breathe Life (and Jobs) into Cities, Angelina Horn, City Parks Blog, December 22nd, 2011. Read more.

The Excellent City Park System, Peter Harnik, Trust for Public Land, January 1st, 2006. Read more.

Resources: What Makes a Successful Place?, Project for Public Spaces. Read more.

In a brilliant collaborative effort, Atlanta, GA  partnered with several business and levied additional sales taxes to pay for an improved transportation system enveloped by thousands of acres of green public space. The Atlanta BeltLine Project brought 33 miles of multi-use trails, 1300 acres of public parks and has created 30,000 permanent jobs. 


The City and non-profit stakeholders worked in partnership to revamp the Buchanan Street Mall in San Francisco, CA, using civic engagement processes to gather input on the space’s redesign.  


Columbus, MO received a $200,000 Brownfields Cleanup Grant from the Environmental Protection Agency to turn an abandoned petroleum facility located downtown into a three-acre park, complete with playgrounds, benches, gardens, local artworks, and an amphitheater.


Dallas, TX is currently building a five-acre “green roof ” over the Woodall Rodgers Freeway—a project that received one-third of its funding from the federal government and another third from private donors.


In New York City, Sustainable South Bronx, a community-based organization, successfully lobbied for the creation of Hunts Point Riverside Park between the end of an abandoned street and the Bronx River. Several other parks are slated to open nearby, dramatically increasing neighborhood access to the river and parkland.


Los Angeles, CA has been working since 2012 on an ambitious project to create 50 new parks, especially in neighborhoods currently underserved by recreational areas.


Katya Spear