Restoring urban parks: New life in old spaces
When Charles McKinney was hired as the administrator of Riverside Park in New York in 1981, he was in charge of a once great park that had changed dramatically. When the 316-acre park was created in the 1870s, the four-mile stretch of land attracted residents from each of the communities along its border. Residents used the area to meet with friends, have picnics or play sports. Like many urban parks, it was a refuge from the bustling city. However, in the two decades before McKinney was hired, inadequate funding had left the Parks Department understaffed, and area residents rarely used park facilities, causing the park to deteriorate.
Situations like that of Riverside Park are all too common. Across the country, parks departments have been encouraged by local governments to concentrate on sports and recreation programming, leaving little money for maintenance or improvements for basic facilities in urban parks, says Kathy Madden, director of the Urban Parks Institute at the New York-based Project for Public Spaces (PPS).
In turn, residents stay away from the parks. Residents stop using a space for a variety of reasons, says the PPS publication “How to Turn a Place Around.” According to the book, the space may be unused because residents feel that it is unsafe or simply because it does not have the facilities that the community needs.
To bring residents back to those spaces, many parks directors are using previously untapped resources. Riverside Park, for example, has undergone a dramatic restoration over the past 20 years. By partnering with Riverside Park Fund, a non-profit formed by concerned residents, McKinney has garnered financial and volunteer support from residents, who have led the way in improving facilities and increasing attendance at the park.
Like McKinney, many parks directors are finding it necessary to use unique partners or methods to revitalize urban parks. They are asking residents to offer ideas, volunteer time or even contribute funds. In several cities, parks departments have been supported by mayors and other city officials who have led the revitalization effort by connecting city departments, school districts and businesses to revitalize deteriorated urban parks.
See and say
When faced with the task of improving deteriorated parks, parks directors must determine if the parks are meeting the needs of their communities. According to “How to Turn a Place Around,” observing how the parks are used is the first step in revitalizing a park.
When McKinney and his staff began evaluating Riverside Park, they examined park use, condition and design history, and interviewed park users. While assessing the park, the staff found that many facilities were not being used frequently or correctly.
“When we saw any facility that was not being used, we looked at unmet demand. We had people playing soccer on lawns because there were not soccer facilities, kids skateboarding on benches and people using other areas improperly,” McKinney says.
After identifying unused areas, park staff worked to improve them. For example, one area of the park had been devoted to square dancing, but, since that activity had declined in popularity, the park staff replaced the existing dance floor with a sand volleyball court that is now frequently used by residents.
Assessing parks also means asking the communities what they need from the areas. “The important starting point in developing a concept for any public space is to identify the talents and assets within the community. In any community, there are people who can provide an historical perspective, valuable insights into how the area functions, and an understanding of the critical issues and what is meaningful to people,” according to “How to Turn a Place Around.”
As New York did with Riverside Park, San Rafael, Calif., relied on community input to revive deteriorating Albert Park. “[The park] is in the central downtown area, and surrounding it is one of the oldest parts of the city. In the mid-90s, [the park] had fallen into disuse and become a hangout for transients. Facilities were not attractive to the community, and [residents] stopped visiting the park,” says Carlene McCart, director of the city’s Community Services Department.
Sharon McNamee, then director of the park, spearheaded an effort to get resident input. “We found partners and community groups that were interested in components of the new master plan,” McCart says. “We hired a consultant and had a series of public meetings. We heard a lot of different ideas, which were reviewed by the Parks and Recreation Commission.”
Several unique facilities sprang from residents’ requests. The park bordered an area of town populated by the descendents of Italian immigrants who settled the city, and San Rafael had a sister city in Italy. To reflect those ties, residents wanted the park to include Italian bocce courts and a formal Italian garden.
The city provided seed money to begin construction of the courts, and the Marin County Bocce Federation was formed to help raise additional money. Six bocce courts were built in a brick patio area, with a wheelchair-accessible building providing a public restroom and kitchen, and an administrative office for the federation. The courts attract between 400 and 600 people a week to the park.
In addition to observing park use and asking what communities need in their parks, parks departments should consider partnering with other groups to help with the revitalization effort, Madden says. Residents in many communities have formed non-profit organizations dedicated to revitalizing parks. In New York, the groups range “from unstructured friends groups that [clean up] empty lots to highly structured, highly funded organizations, such as the Central Park Conservancy,” Madden says.
One of those groups, the Riverside Park Fund, was started to perform a variety of functions. “The initial desire to form the organization came because people felt a great sense of caring and were very concerned about [the park’s] condition,” says James Dowell, executive director of the Riverside Park Fund. “The fund was founded to, first of all, show public officials that this was a park that was important to people; to go in as volunteers and do something for the park; to raise private money to leverage public funds; and to accelerate improvement.”
McKinney welcomed the help because the park’s budget had been decreasing each year since he was hired. “Six hundred thousand [dollars] became $500,000, and that became $400,000, so we had to build on our other strength, which was community involvement,” he explains. “The Riverside Park Fund [is composed of] positive helpers who work to raise public funds and to increase volunteerism.”
The fund boasts 4,000 member families who make yearly contributions. “The vast majority [of members] are people who live within six blocks of the park and use it on a regular basis,” Dowell says. The Riverside Park Fund has become an umbrella organization, supporting the park’s playground and tennis associations, among other sub-groups.
In addition to financial support from residents and area businesses, the fund has culled a workforce from the community through a program called “Adopt the Park.” The program lets residents adopt a section of the park that is important to them, such as a garden, playground or tennis court. “Most people in the area don’t have backyards, but they may have an urge to cultivate, so we let them adopt gardens,” McKinney says.
“Some people tell me that [gardening in the park] is the only thing that keeps them sane,” Dowell says.
Like the Riverside Park Fund, the resident-led Albert Park Renovation Committee in San Rafael worked with city staff to identify what park facilities would help the community, who would use the park and what funding methods were available. “Without [the partnership, the park] wouldn’t be where it is today,” McCart says. “If the city had to fund improvements, it would have taken a long time to get where we are today. By parceling out our master plan and phasing it in, working with one non-profit at a time, it has moved us closer to completion.”
Official seal of approval
In addition to forming partnerships with resident groups, parks directors can try enlisting the help of mayors or other local government officials who can pull departments together to revitalize deteriorated public areas. “Mayors are realizing that parks need to be defined more broadly and that they aren’t just for recreation,” Madden says. “Park-type improvements — such as taking little intersections that have traffic islands and turning them into mini-parks — give value to these cities and urban areas. Mayors have taken on the task of improving the city’s public spaces so that the definition of parks evolves to include public space.”
For example, Chicago parks have gotten a major facelift with the help of Mayor Richard Daley, who has made it a goal to live up to the city’s motto, urbs in orto, or city in a garden. Daley has brought the Chicago Park District, Chicago Public Schools, as well as other departments together to “green” the city. “No [one] city department is concerned exclusively with quality of life and attractive public spaces,” Daley said at a PPS conference last July. “So all of them have to be. And it’s the mayor’s responsibility to keep them on the same page.”
Chicago’s Campus Park Program tears up asphalt lots at city schools and replaces them with grass and trees. So far, the city has created 80 campus parks, which added 200 acres of park area to the city, and 20 more parks are planned for completion next spring. Another initiative, the Neighbor Space Program, pulls together several departments to turn tax-delinquent lots and river edges into small parks and gardens. The program has acquired 21 acres of underused property and converted them into 72 community gardens and parks.
Other city officials also are taking charge of their community’s parks. In Philadelphia, Malcolm X Memorial Park suffered from vandalism and drug activity, and residents of the 3rd District had had enough. A non-profit group, Friends of Malcolm X Memorial Park, contacted Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell with its concerns. Blackwell made revitalizing the park an official project of her office, encouraging partnerships with the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, as well as city departments and area businesses. “It was really a neighborhood venture,” Blackwell says. “My job was to be in touch with all of the [organizations].”
Now, the park has chess tables, playgrounds and basketball courts, and it has become a regular gathering place for the community. “It is a total change from what it was,” Blackwell says.
Whether through observation, community meetings or partnerships, parks directors have several tools to aid in park revitalization. “Form partnerships with other institutions, like cultural institutions, planning departments or whoever would be involved in parks in [your] city,” Madden advises. “[Parks departments should] view themselves more holistically as the facilitators creating a city’s public space. They need to form partnerships and to try, in a sense, to market parks as the glue that holds a city together, as the thing that makes a city more livable and improves the quality of life.”