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City Parks’ Grand Rebirth

Neal Peirce / Sep 04 2009

For Release Sunday, September 6, 2009
© 2009 Washington Post Writers Group

Neal PeirceST. LOUIS — City sponsors were so nervous about the unveiling of their new downtown park this summer that they arranged for an ice cream truck to park at the site on opening day, just to attract passerbys.

They needn’t have bothered. Citygarden, just west of the famed Gateway Arch on the Mississippi River, has drawn crowds of people–a cross-section of the city and region’s population–from its opening hour onward.

The attractions include a cornucopia of trees, contemporary sculpture, an 180-foot rectangular basin with a six-foot waterfall, a state-of-the-art “spray plaza,” a state-of-the-art LED video wall displaying art and movies, plus a high-quality cafe overlooking the combined attractions.

What this new park doesn’t have are any formal entrances or barriers to separate its manicured paths and quiet spaces from the surrounding city streets. Richard C.D. Fleming, president of the St. Louis Regional Chamber and Growth Association, suggests it’s an “intimate version of Millennium Park,” the Chicago lakeside extravaganza opened in 2004.

For St. Louis, for years so forsaken its downtown had the feel of a big and mostly empty living room, the public’s warm embrace of Citygarden caps a remarkable comeback decade which has seen the center city draw 5,000 residents and more than $4 billion in new investment.

But there’s no single formula for new parks. Just climb up a short flight of stairs to the newly-opened “High Line” park on Manhattan’s West Side. You’ll find clusters of families and couples strolling, chatting, sipping lemonade and nibbling on waffles or sandwiches along what for years constituted a desolate and weed-choked stretch of abandoned elevated freight railroad track.

Now, from the meandering concrete walkways of this sliver of protected park space in the sky, the visitor catches stunning views of the Hudson, the Statue of Liberty, Midtown and Wall Street skyscrapers, plus amazingly intimate glimpses into the forbidden interiors of nearby apartments, stately townhouses, and offices.

Or check auto-happy, sprawling Houston. Two-term Mayor Bill White has made parks a top priority. Lead example: Discovery Green, 12 once-industrial acres on the east side of downtown. Among Discovery Green’s features: a shaded walkway featuring 100-year-old oak trees, thematic gardens with native Texas plants, birds and butterflies, fountains and spacious green lawns, a model boat basin, a children’s stage, WiFi everywhere, and two restaurants. Plus lots of people watching.

Indeed, if there were ever a bonanza decade for America’s parks, this is surely it. Add stunning new parks in Boston, Atlanta, Cincinnati, Denver and Santa Fe, plus the success of conservancies in revamping great old parks in such cities as Pittsburgh, Brooklyn and San Francisco.

And by good fortune, there’s a skilled chronicler tracking and analyzing the wave–Peter Harnik, parks expert for the Trust for Public Land and author of a soon-to-be published Island Press book on today’s parks phenomenon.

For amost a half century, Harnik notes, the reigning American park model was Disneyland– “corporate, programmed, extravagant, rural, flawless and electrifying.” City parks “began grinding down relentlessly everywhere” as people realized “the park experience could be sanitized, social classes could be segregated.”

So why the big turnaround now? Partly it’s the “wow” in the new city parks–fascinating gardens, theaters, concerts, fountains, ice skating. That’s why, says Harnik, the 2004 opening of the Millennium Park in Chicago had the biggest impact on the American parkland scene since New York’s great Central Park opened in 1873.

But Harnik insists there’s more to the revival–that we’re seeing a revival of factors “ignored in the din of massive suburbanization and sprawl–human scale, walkability, efficiency, and respect for ecological principles and democratic ideals.” Or put another way, we’re reawakening to parks’ ultimate value: “an interplay–a conversation–between people and nature.”

And as if that’s not enough, new and revived parks bring massive associated benefits. The parks embellish cities’ reputations and become “must see” destinations for tourists. And they turn into meeting places not just for city residents, but magnets for visitors from across their metro areas.

It’s true, new parks can be tremendously expensive. Millennium Park’s pricetag–borne jointly by the city of Chicago and private donors–was close to a half billion dollars.

But, insists Harnik, parks make huge financial sense. Property values close to new park locations rise vigorously–a development recognized soon after Central Park’s opening in the 19th century and now an established factor of urban economics.

But there’s more. Citizens get free recreation and services. Tourism booms. And government gains by parks’ stormwater management, air pollution control, cooling of the urban “heat island” effect, and contributions by volunteers. Harnik added all those up for Philadelphia’s park system, ranging from the city’s massive Fairmount Park and Independence National Historical Park to neighborhood gardens. The total, he calculated: $1.9 billion a year. Mayor Michael Nutter concurred: “A well-run, properly funded and focused park system is priceless.”

Neal Peirce’s e-mail is

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  1. Posted September 4, 2009 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

    I’d like to add downtown Phoenix’s recently opened Civic Space Park to the list of new urban parks. It is a downtown urban destination that offers downtown residents, workers, students and visitors a park with unique urban design, sustainable construction, adaptive re-use and a landmark public sculpture by artist Janet Echelman.

  2. Posted September 4, 2009 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

    Great piece, Neal. A couple parks you mentioned I covered in a 2007 article in Urban Land magazine about parks conservancies. A lot of great work has been done by conservancies in Louisville, Pittsburgh and Prospect Park in Brooklyn. Link to the article here:

    Another notable downtown park, built in the 1990s, is the Bicentennial Mall State Park adjacent the state capitol in Nashville.

  3. Posted September 4, 2009 at 6:11 pm | Permalink

    Nice piece about parks. My concern as a country bumpkin: are city parks safe? Probably so, because a “well-run park” would have security. Nevertheless, there are the quiet hours when lone joggers may be at risk, or not?

  4. Gary Kreie
    Posted September 9, 2009 at 8:46 am | Permalink

    You mentioned the revival of old existing parks. Another park to add to that list is the Forest Park in St. Louis, a great large urban park that hosts the Zoo, Art Museum, MUNY Opera, Golf, boating, and Science Center. Revived through money from the city, a support group — Forest Park Forever — and generous donations from many, but primarily the Taylor family, which owns Enterprise Car Rental in St. Louis. Here is a link:

  5. Virgina Gunby
    Posted September 10, 2009 at 12:51 pm | Permalink

    It is encouraging to read Neal Pierce’s comments on the
    Rebirth of City Parks. In Seattle an Olmsted designed Arboretum, has a connecting 2 lane, Lake Washngton Blvd. running through it which have been impacted since 1963 when the Boulevard through the Arboretum was used to connect to access and exit ramps for SR 520, a major state highway across Lake Washington, to the growing suburban Eastside, including the Microsoft large home campus .
    Today during the planning for rebuilding the state highway are debating the problems and benefits of closing the ramps permanently and restoring the Arboretum’s 1st class Wetlands and surrounding trees, islands, and wildlife habitat. Two SR 520 design, promoted by neighboring communities K, and the Chamber of Commerce L, keep the Arboretum ramps and move new entrance and exit ramps, onto the University of Washington’s land, north of the Lake Washington Ship canal, with either a risky deep 150’wide/1500’long tunnel of large, diagonal bascule bridge.
    Park supporters are rallying to remove the ramps permanently, which were designed for a north/south , the R.H. Thomson Freeway, which Seattle Voters defeated at the polls, and take this opportunity to restore and regain what we think of as our Northwest “Central Park” for the people’s use and enjoyment , and remove the noisy vehicles.

  6. Posted September 11, 2009 at 9:33 am | Permalink

    Great article, Neal! It’s clear you get the value of parks to a city. Louisville gets it, too. In 2004, Mayor Abramson launched City of Parks, a public-private partnership to reinvest in existing parks, create new parks, complete the 100-mile Louisville Loop, and celebrate our natural and cultural heritage. Nearly $160 million has been committed to: continue building the 100-mile Louisville Loop shared-use path; purchase land and design a 4,000-acre park; add 150 acres of new parkland and 500 acres to the 6,200 Jefferson Memorial Forest; invest $40 million in upgrades and new facilities in existing parks; and grow environmental education. And we’re just getting started. Parks have been a part of Louisville since Frederick Law Olmsted designed the original 18 parks and 5 parkways. (We now have 123 parks and a forest.) We’ve witnessed how parks encourage good growth, neighborhood stability, and healthy residents. Louisville, a City of Parks, come see for yourself. You can find out more at

  7. Linda Stoll
    Posted September 17, 2009 at 9:43 am | Permalink

    Park development – even those that come with a high pricetage – appears to be a successful venture for large communities. Does that trend carry over to small communities, especially those under 20,000 pop? Are there examples?

  8. Trina Miller
    Posted September 20, 2009 at 10:08 pm | Permalink

    I thought that this story was very uplifting! If possible, I would love to get more insight on steps to try in order to gain assistance on getting county officials interested in revitalizing a community with a park that has a walking trail/greenway and playground . The preferred land, however, is owned by a church that is not in the position to donate the land to the county. This community has been hit greatly with a huge amount of vacant homes, due to the economic situation and housing issues, but many residents in this area are extremely hopeful in the possibilities. Please share any words of guidance.

  9. Posted May 20, 2011 at 8:05 am | Permalink

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  10. Posted August 13, 2011 at 11:16 pm | Permalink

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