Revitalizing Cities with Innovative Parks


Peter Harnik, director, Center for City Park Excellence at the Trust for Public Land and author of “Urban Green: Innovative Parks for Resurgent Cities,” presented cutting-edge models for cities seeking to add much-needed parkland. At a briefing at the National Building Museum, Harnik said designing accessible parks may be “harder than rocket science” because designers need to integrate “math, horticulture, psychology, sociology, landscape design, and communications.” For instance, you can’t “limit access to parks like you would a highway, you have to design public access for all.” However, even well-designed parks face challenges. Quoting Jane Jacobs, parks are “volatile places” and pitifully few have “staying power.” For every Central Park in New York City, there are dozens of now “dispirited places.”

The Central Park Conservancy formed in 1980 is the “seat of the urban parks movement,” and Central Park still provides the paradigm for what a park experience can be. While Disneyland, with its sanitized park experience, almost pushed the Central Park model off its perch, people favor complexity. Chicago’s Millennium Park, one of the most successful modern urban park uses Central Park as a model, and features complexity: sculpture, gardens, serpentine bridges, and ice-skating. Millennium Park cost upwards of half a billion, but now, “it’s almost unimaginable for a tourist coming to Chicago to not visit Millennium Park.”

Cities can either create new parks on undeveloped land or transform brownfields into park space. While some parks can be created at the edge of wildland, which really involves a “process of conservation,” new parks more often need to be created out of old sites. Increasingly, cities must buy up cheap land where they can, finding any “useable or affordable spaces,” including rooftops. Harnik argued that “innovative urban parks require creativity and a willingness to experiment.” For instance, sharing land with schools and other community facilities can lower costs and create more bang for the buck.

Harnik thinks wealthier communities, which often enjoy access to private green space, need new parks less than poorer areas. “Poor people need the benefits of publicly-funded parks more. Regardless of race, low-income citizens always vote for more parks.” While a neighborhood park can easily cost $3 million, the costs of park development can’t be hidden in budgets, Harnik argued. “Budgets need to be included in master plans. There are no appropriations without budgets. Budgets also help mobilize pro-park advocates.” Harnik said the key was to create a park plan so compelling that you can “override cost considerations.” As an example, he again pointed to the pricey Millennium Park, which has done “so much for Chicago.”

Harnik outlined fourteen ways to build out innovative parks in crowded cities: 

1. Buy the land. Harnik pointed to Boston’s Public Square and the Santa Fe Railway Park as examples of good investments made by local governments.

2. Use urban redevelopment. Portland’s Pearl District was cited as an example.

3. Turn part-time schoolyards into full-time parks. “Ideally, these facilities should be in use 16 hours per day.”

4. Turn landfills into parks. Boston’s Millennium Park offers 100-acres of green space on top of a landfill. “While you can’t add trees or put up structures, these are important green spaces.”

5. Make double-use of stormwater retention ponds. Harnik cited High Point in Seattle (see an ASLA case study on this project).

6. Turn cemetaries into parks. Hartford’s cemetary now features jazz concerts. In D.C., a cemetery doubles as a dog park. “Owners can come for free, but dogs are charged a fee, which is used to finance upkeep of the cemetary.”

7. Invest in rooftop parks. New York’s Riverbank State Park is, in effect, a massive rooftop park built on top of water treatment infrastructure.

8. Deck reservoirs with parkland. The E.P.A. has ruled that reservoirs must be covered. Instead of using a tarp, some cities are covering reservoirs with pavement and then grass, turning them into parks. Seattle’s reservoir parks are an example.

9. Expand community gardens. “While these are not parks, they have many park-like features.”

10. Re-use rail trails. In D.C., the Capitol Crescent Trail, a beautiful park, re-used an abandoned corridor. “The great benefit was that it was already leveled.” Harnik also pointed to Minneapolis’ mid-town greenway and the High Line Park in New York City (see an ASLA case study).

11. Benefit from boulevards. Commonwealth avenue in Boston and Pennsylvania avenue in Washington, D.C. are two examples of green medians.

12. Close park roads to cars (temporarily or permanently). Harnik also said parks should consider removing roads all together.

13. Use the space over roads. Seattle’s Freeway Park and the Rose Kennedy Greenway in Boston were cited as two examples. “The land is free, but the superstructure is expensive.”

14. Remove excessive parking, expanding park space. “Parking within parks takes up a huge amount of space.”

Harnik concluded that if the economic downturn ends soon, cities will reinvest in parks in a major way to fight sprawl, encourage smart growth, and create green infrastructure. If not, volunteers and local community activists will continue to push for more green space at the local levels. In either case, parks require a “political not planning process. It has to be a political campaign.” He also said perhaps the only up-side to the economic downturn was that land is now much cheaper in cities, which helps “trump local conditions.” Still, park conservancies and private park financing are critical to getting parks off the ground and maintaining them into the future.

Check out Harnik’s book “Urban Green: Innovative Parks for Resurgent Cities

Image credit: Mark Tomaras /2008 ASLA Professional Awards, General Design Award of Excellence. The Lurie Garden, Millennium Park, Chicago. Gustafson Guthrie Nichol Ltd

4 thoughts on “Revitalizing Cities with Innovative Parks

  1. Deborah Howe 06/16/2010 / 6:14 pm

    I’m a bit puzzled that Mr. Harnik thinks that designing accessible parks is harder than rocket science, for all the reasons that he lists. In my practice as a landscape architect, it’s a given that I “integrate math, horticulture, psychology, sociology, landscape design, and communications.” That’s what our profession does. The question that strikes me on reading this article in the ASLA’s The Dirt is why the TPL doesn’t seem to know about landscape architects and what we do — in addition to the rocket-science comparison, the use of the term ‘landscape design’ indicates to me that recognition of (or respect for?) the profession of landscape architecture is on the wane among allied professionals.

    More than ever, it seems, our professional identity is getting lost. I advocate at every opportunity for what we do, and my local colleagues here in Boston do, as far as I’m aware. I know that the ASLA advocates for us to Congress; a public and professional awareness campaign might be useful, too, so that we don’t have to keep reading articles in The Dirt that appear to marginalize our profession.

  2. ntomlinson 06/16/2010 / 6:39 pm

    There has to be a maintenance plan for parks like these – ones that are surrounded by the refuse and ruckus of the city.

    Toronto has a plethora of “parkettes”, but they’re often so exposed to noise pollution and littered with fast-food wrappers and newspapers that the point is lost.

  3. Prosend 06/22/2010 / 10:52 am

    I highly recommend the book to anyone that has an interest in park design. Mr. Harnick has well captured the challenges, mostly political, that designing new parks entails.

    Maintenance is a large problem for all park systems. Opening new parks is a good vote getter. Paying for adequate maintenance rarely is. Many “signature” parks require loads of public support and friends groups to stay in good shape. The remainder of efforts is slanted twards high maintenance needs of athletic facilities. Non athletic focused parks come in at the end and suffer greatly as a result. Poor planning on everyone’s effort.

    Almost everyone has fond memories of local parks from their youth, but times have changed the nature and purpose of parks today without changing the funding model.

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