Parks Without Borders: Creating a Seamless Public Realm

Rocky Run Park / Flickr
Rocky Run Park, Arlington, Virginia / Flickr

“Parks are not islands that exist in isolation, they are connected to streets, sidewalks, and public spaces,” said NYC parks commissioner Mitchell Silver. “It’s our goal to create a seamless public realm for New York City.” The Parks Without Borders discussion series kicked off last week to a standing-room only crowd in Central Park’s Arsenal gallery. The enthusiasm generated by the Parks Without Borders summit held last spring inspired Silver to build the momentum with a series of shorter discussions. For this one, park leaders from three different cities, each with a uniquely successful park system, were invited to address the question: How can innovative park planning create a more seamless public realm?

Every day, 25,000 people go to work at the Pentagon, and the majority of these people live in Arlington, Virginia. How has a county that is both transit-oriented and a D.C. bedroom community come to have the 4th best park system in America? Jane Rudolph, director of the parks and recreation department for Arlington, uses a collaboration approach to find new spaces for parks and create a more seamless public realm. This approach allows the department to not only create new parks, but also encourage their cultural and spatial integration into an increasingly dense and diverse town. Joining forces with developers, the school district and local universities have enabled the Arlington parks system to expand and flourish, fitting new parks into areas not originally planned for such. These partnerships have lead to successful recreational spaces, such as Rocky Run Park (see image above).

Unlike Arlington, a county planned with a dearth of open space, Minneapolis is a city blessed with the structure that fosters an exceptional parks system, for two reasons: there is an abundance of natural resources, and Horace Cleveland, a forward-thinking landscape architect, developed an early master plan of the city during an industrial boom. Because of Cleveland, 70 percent of the land abutting the city’s 22 lakes remains public open space. Consequently, the people of Minneapolis are serious about their parks. The parks system’s trails are used so heavily by commuters that Jayne Miller, superintendent of Minneapolis parks and recreation board, says “We get calls if the trails aren’t cleared [of snow] by 6am.”

The challenge becomes how to keep playing this vital role in the lives of its citizens, addressing the needs of an increasingly diverse, younger, and more international population. One of the strategies is to provide safe space for low income and at-risk youth, introducing them to the parks through gardening, employment programs, and environmental education. In terms of creating and improving spaces, Minneapolis recently finished a new 4.2-acre park, Downtown East Commons, which used to be a parking lot, and they now have the country’s first public natural filtration swimming pool in Webber Park.

Webber Park / Star Tribune
Webber Park / Star Tribune

Like many American cities, Philadelphia experienced a significant drop in population between 1960 and 2000 when industry left, resulting in drastic cuts in the tax revenue. Public spaces were hit hard. As the population climbed again in the 2000s, the city scrambled to improve the facilities, starting with Center City. As a result, a number of beautiful and iconic public spaces, such as Spruce Street Harbor Park, Dilworth Park, and the Schuylkill River trail, were recently created.

“The real question remains: can we replicate the success we had in Center City” in the most disadvantaged neighborhoods of Philadelphia?, asked new commissioner of Philadelphia Parks and Recreation Kathryn Ott Lovell. To ensure they are able to create a more seamless public realm and re-integrate forgotten parks into the fabric of the city, the department is using two strategies. The short term strategy is enliven all open space, regardless of its condition, with pop-up events, such as traveling the beer garden Parks on Tap. The longer term strategy is to invest a half a billion dollars in civic infrastructure, with a focus on the parks hit hardest by disinvestment.

Parks on Tap at Powers Park / Parks on Tap
Parks on Tap at Powers Park / Parks on Tap

As the discussion drew to a close, Lynn Kelly, executive director of New Yorkers for Parks, said, “If this doesn’t leave you with the impression that parks are as necessary to cities as sewers, roads, and schools, I don’t know what else will. Parks are a city’s soul.”

This guest post is by Chella Strong, Assoc. ASLA, a recent master’s of landscape architecture graduate, Harvard University Graduate School of Design. 

One thought on “Parks Without Borders: Creating a Seamless Public Realm

  1. Beth Kelley 01/30/2017 / 10:31 am

    Reblogged this on Mental Flowers and commented:
    A very important discussion of how to make parks feel like part of the city and not just pieces of land tucked away for kids or dogs.
    Even in a lush city like Seattle, where I live, some of the parks are integrated into people’s every day commutes or habits, while others are beautiful but tucked away and hard to get to. They are slowly moving to add more centralized open spaces for communities as they see the economic benefits like increase in real estate values, as well as events like farmer’s markets and other festivals.

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