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

3 thoughts on “The Value of Urban Parks

  1. Georgia 04/21/2010 / 3:23 pm

    The research findings shared by Susan Wachter are encouraging to urban forestry and greening organizations.

  2. Kirk Meyer 04/23/2010 / 11:19 am

    There are SO MANY opportunities to integrate elements of the natural world into our cities. One cautionary note on vacant lots – many low income folks would prefer housing or business development on these degraded open spaces. In Boston, we’ve found that “interim” green spaces can upgrade the neighborhood with the promise that economic development may follow at some point. With regard to green spaces increasing property values, this is also a double-edged sword in that subsequent gentrification may displace current residents.

    One area in which land use conflicts are not an issue is the development of green schoolyards. Turning these wastelands into multi-use spaces for health & fitness, teaching & learning, environmental literacy and community use can change the dynamics of neighborhood life and provide outdoor classrooms for hands-on educational activities for our children. Sustainable schoolyard development is an equitable approach that will benefit all of a city’s diverse neighborhoods (rather than focusing on downtown areas) and will introduce kids to mini-ecosystems and the fundamentals of systems thinking so necessary if we are to solve the complex global issues we face today.

    Since many parents will not allow their children to visit urban parks because of safety issues, the schoolyard may be a child’s only supervised exposure to the natural world. Visiting parks during school time is often a “field trip” which requires releases from parents and perhaps the expense of bus services.

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m a HUGE supporter of urban parks. But let’s make sure we add school grounds to the mix. They may turn out to be the most valuable green spaces of all.

  3. Car Transportation 06/15/2010 / 1:07 am

    I fully support Susan Wachter’s research and think everyone should.

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