The Value of Urban Parks

The U.S. House Urban Caucus’ Urban Parks Taskforce organized a briefing on urban parks and their role in creating green spaces which can revitalize neighborhoods, improve health, and create jobs. Parks also play a major role in fighting childhood obesity, providing safe and healthy places to play. Caucus members heard from Joe Hughes, Professor, Georgia Institute of Technology; Susan Wachter, Professor of Financial Management, Wharton School of Business, University of Pennsylvania; Eddie George, ASLA, former NFL player and landscape architect; and Salin Geevarghese, Senior Advisor, Office of Sustainable Housing & Communities, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). The National Recreation and Parks Association (NRPA) and ASLA played key roles in putting the panel together.

Introducing the briefing, Representative Chaka Fattah (PA), who is chair of the caucus, said a new consensus is forming among the administration and legislative branch: urban parks can’t be separated from broader urban revitalization efforts.

Representative Albio Sires (NJ), sponsor of the Urban Revitalization and Livable Communities Act (HR 3734), which now has 114 House co-sponsors, said when he arrived from Cuba in his youth, local parks were his refuge. In his community, parks provide a crucial space for working class families and a foundation for “important social structures.”

Sires said parks need to enable both “passive” activities (sun-bathing, dog walking, or sitting and reading the newspaper) and “active” activities (frisbee-throwing, jogging, touch football). “What’s active, what’s passive — we need to plan these out and integrate into park design.” In addition to the health benefits, he argued that parks are crucial to economic revitalization. “If you fix up a park, you’ll see the houses nearby get fixed up. Businesses come back.”  

However, Sires said small city mayors still need to continually hunt for funds wherever they can get them, “pulling a little from here and a little from there,” to get their local park projects off the ground. To increase the federal funds that can be used for park investment, he led the development of the Urban Revitalization and Livable Communities Act.

The panelists made arguments for increasing investment in urban parks:

Joe Hughes, Professor, Georgia Institute of Technology: After studying the role parks can play in resolving the real estate crisis, Hughes found that under-performing commercial real estate in urban areas could be transformed into urban parks. Vacant properties, if turned into parks, become productive assets, instead of economic drains on local communities. “Parks play a role in market restoration, value creation, job creation, green space development, and neighborhood stabilization.”

In the case of Atlanta, which has had a high rate of bank failures, a five billion investment in transforming underperforming real estate into urban parks could create 100,000 new jobs. Additionally, the plan could yield higher property values (and, therefore, higher tax revenue). To make his case, Hughes pointed to a study that shows homes less than 1,000 feet from a park are worth 11 percent more than other homes. “Parks are critical drivers of economic development. We should be thinking at a big scale about how to transform our urban core.”

Susan Wachter, Professor of Financial Management, Wharton School of Business, University of Pennsylvania: “Parks help create communities of lasting value,” which Wachter says is the true measure of neighborhood sustainability. “Parks bring nature to the city, create safe spaces, enable social interaction, sequester carbon.” Most importantly, Wachter added, parks can create environmentally and economically resilient communities.

She cited a “before and after event” study done in Philadelphia that isolated the effects of investments in various forms of green infrastructure. The return on investment (ROI) was high for homes near the improvements. Planting trees raised nearby property’s value by 10 percent. Improved streetscapes yielded up to 28 percent gains. While residing next to a vacant lot dropped property values by 20 percent, stabilizing the empty lot led to a 17 percent increase. Being located within a business improvement district (BID) improved property values by 30 percent. “Planting trees alone can help create a virtous cycle of reinvestment.”

Eddie George, ASLA, former NFL player and landscape architect: “I am all about healthy people and healthy spaces.” George said parks are linked to economic development, combat the urban heat island effect, and provide critical stormwater management services. In Columbus, Ohio, George’s firm is revitalizing the downtown, pulling down a vacant 9-acre shopping mall. “The City Center Mall outlived its usefulness. It was designed as a fortress and cut off connectivity. The demise of the mall led to increased disinvestment in the area.”

The new 9-acre park George is designing in the mall’s place, Columbus Commons, will tranform the space into a sort of Millennium Park for the city. The park, which will open in 2011, will offer mixed-use spaces and ground-level retail. There will be green roofs on parking garages.

George argued that maintaining parks will cost local governments. “Many cities can’t afford this, but we need to invest.”

Salin Geevarghese, Senior Advisor, Office of Sustainable Housing & Communities, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD): Geevarghese said the issues were all interconnected. “People don’t see these things as separate and don’t live these things separately.” As a result, EPA, HUD, and the Department of Transportation forged a partnership on sustainable communities (see earlier post) to deal with the cross-cutting issues related to transportation, green space, and housing. 

Echoing arguments made by Ron Sims, Deputy Secretary of HUD (see earlier post), Geevarghese said where you live, “your zip code,” can predict how healthy you are, how educated you are. “How can we disentangle that?” He thinks that community ownership is intimately linked with community safety, and requires investment in community infrastructure, including parks.

Also, Geevarghese thinks the concept of green jobs need to be reformulated to include parks and recreation, or “conservation,” jobs. 

The panelists agreed on a range of other points:

  • The federal government should be involved in local urban parks because they are just another form of infrastructure. Historically, the federal government has invested in infrastructure to get the country out of severe economic downturns.
  • Green infrastructure is not just about environmental sustainability, but also about creating communities of value, and reversing disinvestment in urban cores.
  • The private sector needs to be more involved in urban park financing and development.
  • Non-profits also need to be at the table. Representative Chaka Fattah said foundations have played a “energizing role” in revitalizing parts of Philadelphia.
  • At the regional and even local levels, the transaction costs involved in getting everyone to the table are high.
  • Local leaders need to understand parks have economic benefits. George said “it’s not just about spending more money. Park projects are an investment.”

Learn more about the legislation

Image credit: Columbus Commons / Eddie George, EDGE

Restoring Mughal Landscapes

The Dumbarton Oaks Garden and Landscape Studies Program, which is affiliated with Harvard University, organized a lecture on the restoration of two of the most important Mughal empire landscapes — Humayun’s Tomb in New Delhi, and the Bagh-e Babur in Kabul, both UNESCO World Heritage sites. The Aga Khan Trust for Culture, an Islamic philanthropy, has spent the last few years undoing the damage caused by colonization and, more recently, urbanization. Ratish Nanda, an Indian architect, who organized the restoration work, said the threats to cultural heritage are real. “Right now, no historically relevant Mughal Garden exists in Pakistan today.” Restoring Mughal landscapes means creating a plan for sustainability and addressing the economic and social factors that support cultural landscapes.

Aga Khan’s Cultural Trust believes gardens are a part of modern life, and need to better integrated into contemporary society. In India, Mali, Egypt, Pakistan, Afghanistan, there are key examples of Mughal garden art that need to be preserved. One park that was recently restored in Egypt now “brings more visitors than the Great Pyramids.”

Mughal landscapes originated in Persepolis, Iran, in 7BC. Inspired by Koranic descriptions of paradise, the gardens attempted to offer visual representations of heaven.

Humayun’s Tomb, New Delhi: The tomb of Humayun, one of the Mughal emperors, predates the Taj Mahal by two centuries. This site in New Delhi is one of the densest set of Muslim buildings in the world. During the era when the tomb was built, it was auspicious to be buried near saints. Given a Sufi saint is buried in the area, Humayun decided to create his tomb there as well.

The site is imbued with colonial history. After the failed Indian Uprising in the mid 180o’s, the last Mughal emperor and his sons fled to Humayun’s Tomb. Once the British put down the uprising, which Indians view as the first major step in their independence movement, they brought the emperor out of the tomb and exiled him to Rangoon, Burma, while executing his three young sons.

Soon more and more Brits were coming over to see the site of Mughal’s final defeat. So the local colonial administration decided to turn Humayun’s Tomb into a tourist site. To demonstrate their mastery over the Mughals, the British intervened in the landscape design, replacing the Islamic landscape design with English country gardens.

Since then, there have been four efforts to restore the gardens to their original Mughal design, yet each successive effort ended up doing more damage by moving water channels and altering the original design.

In 1999, Aga Khan’s trust completed an MOU with the Indian government to restore the site to its original design. Nanda said the site “had been beautified, but not restored.” Excavating the site, the trust found the early fountains. They recreated almost 180 groundwater recharge pits, dug out wells, and restored the rainwater system. Lemon, lime, and hibiscus plants were brought back. All sandstone used was hand-chiseled.

Bagh-e Babur, Kabul: In Kabul, the tomb of the Babur, the original emperor of the Mughal empire, was created in 1508. It’s been the site of numerous battles in contemporary Afghan history. Nanda said when he first visited the site in a few years ago, he was dismayed at the degradation of the place Babur wished to be buried. Recently, the garden had been the site of a battle between two warlords. “It looked like a madman has shot bullets into every wall and every tree.”

Restoring the tomb and gardens created opportunities for employment. “The great thing about conservation work is that it involves lots of jobs.” They first rebuilt the walls surrounding the site — this involved creating almost a mile of mud walls by hand.

The gardens were then restored to their original design. Nanda said this is “cutting-edge restoration,” and won the approval of UNESCO. While the restoration doesn’t represent the original tomb and garden, “it represents the original intent.”

Like other orchards in the region, the garden is broken into a grid and features zones with different types of fruit plants — cherries, apricots and quinces now grow in the gardens, drawing some 15-20 thousand people for picnics each Friday.

Nanda said the restoration work on both sites is incomplete. Aga Khan believes the sites need to be integrated into the communities through education, training and job programs, so they can stand on their own and survive long-term. There are plans to make Humayun’s Tomb in New Delhi accessible to more New Delhi residents, particularly students. The Bagh-e Babur now has events spaces and an adjacent pool that earn revenue to pay for the garden’s upkeep. Every business associated with the gardens must be included in economic sustainabilty plans if the restoration is to take hold, Nanda argues.

The trust has more projects coming in New Delhi. Plans are underway to turn a New Delhi British tree nursery into a 70-acre publicly-accessible arboretum. “Right now, it’s still a government tree nursery, and there’s no public access.” The goal is to turn it into an educational park. A landscape master planning process underway will restore the original New Delhi habitat.

Read more about Humayun’s Tomb and Bagh-e Babur.

Image credit: Humayun’s Tomb, New Delhi / Mitesh Vasa Blog