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Green for the good of cities

When most people think about cities, they think about skyscrapers — the 20th century's enduring vertical urban legacy. In New York it's the Art Deco magnificence of the Chrysler Building. In Chicago it's the soaring architecture that frames the lakefront.

But when I picture a 21st century city, I think in inches, not thousands of feet. I see blades of grass. I see Prospect Park in New York, Millennium Park in Chicago, the Riverwalk in Tampa, or the downtown waterfront parks in St. Petersburg — the spaces in between the buildings. My ideal city vista is from the green ground up — a spectacular point of view on its own but one that can also pay off with enhanced quality of life and a dazzling return on investment. And it's a point of view more cities are embracing.

Health studies show that proximity to parks directly affects the health of a community. Grass and trees help clean the air. Cleaner air reduces the symptoms of asthma. Children who live close to a safe park are more likely to exercise. A recent study by the University of Pennsylvania showed a significant decrease in crime in neighborhoods where vacant lots had been cleaned and greened. Projects like these give a city multiple returns on its park investments.

Parks today are being created and restored by pioneering landscape architects and city leaders to address public health concerns, water and energy needs, food demands, transportation challenges and economic stresses. As cities struggle with the effects of global warming and rising sea levels, parks can play an important new function. For instance, Singapore's newly redesigned Bishan Park is part of a long-term initiative to transform the country's water bodies from their utilitarian functions into vibrant, new recreational spaces. The city is also using greenery in creative ways to provide insulation and cooling, and to help clean the air and water.

London's 500-acre Olympic Park transformed a so-called "brownfield" — a former industrial dumping ground — in one of London's poorest neighborhoods into the largest urban park in Europe. The project includes cleaning up the polluted waterways, creating new wetlands that will help manage flood risk and, once the Olympics conclude, providing nearly 3,000 new homes, about half of the units qualifying as affordable housing.

In tough financial times, public-private partnerships have emerged as one important model for expanding the presence of parks in our cities. The new Brooklyn Bridge Park, forged from abandoned shipping piers, is a spectacular success with its waterfront vistas. Since parks can increase the value of neighboring real estate by up to 20 percent, the city will capture income from adjacent real estate development to cover the park's maintenance, allowing it to be self-sustaining.

While these new partnerships have helped spur some of the most exciting and expansive new park projects around the nation, we can't let government, at all levels, cede its role in investing in urban parks. Parks are part of the public realm and require public dollars for their continued maintenance and also to ensure that the benefits of green space are enjoyed by every neighborhood.

To achieve this, we need to make a stronger case for parks as a critical component of our urban infrastructure, linking them through design and policy to water, transportation, health, housing and economic development. And we need to develop more efficient funding mechanisms. Philadelphia, for example, is stimulating green space growth by using a stormwater fee credit program for commercial properties that install water-absorbing features like parks, rain gardens and wetlands. Oklahoma City's "MAP" plan was a visionary $350 million project funded by a temporary 1-cent sales tax that created new park, recreation, sports and cultural facilities.

Back in Chicago, far below its towers, a recent study of downtown's Millennium Park demonstrated it generates $11 billion a year in added tourism revenues, has reduced violent crime in the area by 27 percent and spurred a real estate boom with thousands of new residential units boosting population growth in the surrounding neighborhoods by two-thirds.

It doesn't take too much imagination to see the enormous opportunity that literally lies at our feet. The cities that thrive a generation hence will be those that invest today in urban parks and combine both private and public support to connect the dots between community health, safe places to play for our children, and economic development.

Catherine Nagel is executive director of City Parks Alliance, an independent national organization that is dedicated to greater investment in our nation's urban parks and which organized "Greater & Greener: Re-Imagining Parks for 21st Century Cities," a four-day international summit in New York City that concluded this week.

Green for the good of cities 07/17/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, July 17, 2012 4:31pm]
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