PARKS, GREENWAYS, AND TRANSPORTATION: Increasing Usefulness By Combining Visions

Parks have many functions.  Urban parks were originally seen as oases, cool and green antidotes to the noise and density of the city; a place for quiet walks, meditation, and observation of nature’s wonderfulness.  Over the years, a growing working population with limited opportunity to escape the city demanded that parks also be used for family fun and active recreation: picnics, kids’ games, adult sports and exercise.  More recently, we’ve learned that green areas are the lungs and sponges of our environment, cleaning the air, absorbing water run-offs, lowering the temperature, and providing a vital tool for dealing with the globe’s escalating climatic disruptions.

But what if parks were also treated as building blocks for a regional healthy transportation network?  What if they were nodes in a web of connected greenways with multi-use paths designed for non-motorized use for both families at play and weekday commuters?  What if the vision was to improve access to local parks by neighbors as well as to facilitate movement between and through the parklands by everyone?

Boston is uniquely suited to the implementation of such a vision – especially if we include our other types of green and open space: the parkways, river banks, beaches, woods, playgrounds, even some of the cemeteries.   Of course, the routes would occasionally have to use the street grid; but in those areas the off-road feel could be preserved by the upgrading of sidewalks and the creation of cycle tracks – bike lanes that are physically separated from traffic.   The goal is not to turn the parks into roads, but to turn the entire city into a park, to lace the city with green.

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Big Vision, Careful Steps

None of this is as utopian as it may at first seem.  Several of the larger parks already serve multiple functions – rest, play, nature preserve, and active transportation.  And Northeastern University engineering students working under Professor Peter Furth have already done some of the preliminary designs for other parts of the proposed network.   (see http://www.coe.neu.edu/transportation/maps/index.html)

Another good aspect of this big vision is that it can be developed and tested in small steps.  Boston’s Hub On Wheels bike festival has shown that both our streets and parklands can handle large numbers of cyclists, with the added civic benefit of introducing people to parts of the city they probably never previously visited.  The Boston Collaborative for Food and Fitness, the Emerald Necklace Conservancy, the Boston Parks Advocates, and LivableStreets Alliance have collaboratively proposed a “Circle the City” program that would increase neighborhood access to in-Park recreational and cultural activities.

We can build on these initiatives.  What about rolling out a San Francisco-style Sunday Streets program that, on successive weekends, allows different neighborhood “main streets” – and the access routes into local open spaces – to be closed to traffic for a few hours?  What if the outbound lanes of Storrow Drive could be reserved for non-motorized activity on occasional Sundays from 7am to 10:30am – reopening just before Memorial Drive is closed on the Cambridge side?

 

Parks Make Cities Work

The benefits would extend beyond providing a safer place to play and a healthy alternative to driving.  City dwellers tend to think of parks as a place that we occasional visit.  But they are more than that.  They are an essential part of both the overall aesthetics and the fundamental infrastructure of the city.  Well designed and maintained parks add to the overall beauty of the built environment.  And like the plumbing and wires inside the building, parklands keep the place functional.  Parks are not “nice to have” ornaments but “must have” necessities.  In aggregate, these accessible green and open spaces serve as the veins and arteries of urban areas, part of the lifeblood that makes city life possible — healthy, social, prosperous, sustainable, and desirable.

Parks play a powerful role in public health and climate change management.  As one research summary noted: “In terms of overall health, local park and recreation users reported fewer visits to a physician for purposes other than check-ups than did non-park users, even when controlling for the effects of age, income, education level, health status and other possibly influencing factors.”  And the American Planning Association points out that: “The urban heat island effect, and its mostly negative consequences of modified temperature, wind, precipitation, and air quality patterns, is the primary instigator of local climate change…Parks are the first and best line of defense against these changes.”

Parks are also significant generators of private investment.  New York City’s High Line Park has attracted nearly $2 billion in non-public investment as well as generating over 10,000 jobs.  Emerging businesses often say that a key consideration when choosing where to expand is the availability of nearby outdoor recreation – by which they mean Seattle.  Massachusetts actually has an abundance of accessible activities, although that reality seems to have gotten lost in the headlines about Big Dig flaws, Beacon Hill corruption, and street murders.  Implementing a vision as big as this Metro Greenway Network would help Boston “regain its cool.”

Of course the cost of housing has to be addressed, as does the quality of our schools and the safety of our streets.  But a city’s image and “tone” also counts.  Mayor Menino’s enthusiastic support for bicycles, energy efficiency, and outdoor cultural events are important contributions.*   Making Boston the hub of a regional greenway network, into a citywide parkland, would highlight our ability to provide the quality of life that makes businesses want to locate here and people want to live here.

 

Environmental Justice…and Funds

This is not just about the business or social elite, not just about the Boston Common or the Emerald Necklace.  Boston, unlike most cities, has a relatively well distributed system of parks and greenways across the entire city, and even the metropolitan region.  But not all of them are equally cared for or used.  Connecting all the parts of the city’s open and green spaces would help end the isolation of the smaller parks and playgrounds, giving everyone a stake in keeping the entire network functional.  Creating a truly city-wide (if not regional) park system could lead to a more equal sharing of resources.

Of course, all the parks – especially those in currently underserved areas — need more money and police patrols.  But the best way to get both is to have more people feel like they’ve got a stake in the condition of the park system.  Improving access is one approach to increasing usage and give people a sense of connection to these resources.  By expanding the range of groups who see the parks as part of their own area of concern, by broadening the functions that parklands and greenways explicitly serve, the parks can gain a much stronger base of support and tap into new funding streams.  Some of New York’s greenways, for example, are being paid for as part of the city’s emergency evacuation system – a result of the discovery on 9/11 that the only way out of Manhattan was to walk over the Brooklyn Bridge.

There is research showing that merely seeing green growth makes people less stressful.  But what if you could walk, run, or bike through it?  Sounds like fun.  And those of us who need to get around the city will have a better way to do it.

 

* While the Mayor is at it, he should push the city’s Parks Department to rescind the 1890 rule forbidding bikes from all parks, and get them to stop refusing to allow bike amenities such as curb cuts or parking racks on park property!

 

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For more info about health impact of parks, see: (http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m1145/is_4_38/ai_100960607/?tag=mantle_skin;content)

On the business-impact of the High Line Park in NYC, see:

(http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/06/nyregion/with-next-phase-ready-area-around-high-line-is-flourishing.html?_r=1&scp=4&sq=the%20high%20line&st=cse)

On the environmental impact of parks, see:

http://www.planning.org/cityparks/briefingpapers/pdf/climatechangemanagement.pdf

 

People interested in learning more should check out From Fitness Zones to the Medical Mile: How Urban Park Systems Can Best Promote Health and Wellness from the Center for City Park Excellence which describes ways that parks can stimulate public use and  maximize their ability to promote physical activity and improve mental health including: structured programming of sports and exercise; reduction of automobile traffic within parks to help promote running, walking, cycling and skating; improved signage to assist with wayfinding and to promote safety; better design of parks and; and an increase in partnerships between park agencies and medical offices.

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Relevant Previous Posts Include:

DESIGNING EFFECTIVE PROGRAMS: Mobilizing Constituencies, Developing Expertise, Sustaining Action

Car-Free Sunday Streets; Night Light Follies; Priority Bus Lanes

THE THREE LEGS OF A HEALTH BUILT ENVIRONMENT: Smart Growth, Active Transportation, Human-Scale Architecture

FIVE STEPS TO MAKE GREENDOT REAL: From Promise to Impact on Transportation and Climate

LIVABLE STREETS: From Theory to Practice

WHEN IT IS NOT HEALTHY TO BICYCLE: And How To Minimize the Risk

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