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Infrastructure Week 2019: Parks as infrastructure—providing resilience and quality of life

May 15, 2019

By Gary Sorge

Across America, 1 in 3 people do not have access to a park within a 10-minute walk of their home. Here’s why that’s a problem.

Stantec’s Discipline Leader for Landscape Architecture, Gary Sorge, takes a look at the current state of parks in American cities and what we can expect in the future. This Q&A blog is part of a 5-part series for Infrastructure Week 2019.

What is your perspective on the poor marks from the American Society of Civil Engineers on city infrastructure, and the current state of parks?

When people think of infrastructure, they think of roads, bridges, and airports. But parks are just as important as any other city infrastructure, especially when you consider how they are woven into the social fabric of a community.

It’s important to first make the distinction between the municipal parks that are funded by taxpayers and the shiny, new parks in big cities that get a lot of media attention and draw hordes of locals and tourists. Parks like the latter have relationships with conservancies and other private organizations or “friends” groups that are providing vital programming and maintenance operations. Taxpayer-funded parks, on the other hand, usually don’t get the same attention and are challenged by budget cuts and limited resources, sometimes leaving them short-staffed and unable to keep up with overgrown vegetation, public defacement, and other maintenance challenges. When it comes to funding, these parks are sometimes seen as an easy place for budget cuts.

Another challenge parks face is that they are living environments, with a delicate ecosystem of water, soil, and vegetation. When neglected, it’s harder to elevate the park from a D or C rating to a B or an A because it takes much more work to make the ecosystem healthy again.

Looking at the big picture, parks are slightly better off than infrastructure like roadways and bridges, but there is still a lot of room for improvement.

A landscape architect’s rendering of 125-acre remediated tar ponds, transformed into a community park—Open Hearth Park in Sydney, Nova Scotia. Now constructed, downtown residents have access to trails, cycle tracks, sports fields, and an outdoor concert venue. The park landscape captures, treats and conveys stormwater, protecting an underlying layer of incapsulated soils.

What are our burning priorities on infrastructure investment, from your perspective?

When it comes to infrastructure investment, I do look at the value of green space, not only for its impact on social well-being but also air quality, heat reduction, and overall quality of life for city residents.

Across America, 1 in 3 people do not have access to a park within a 10-minute walk of their home. This is a dire statistic as parks offer not only respite but a place to socialize with neighbors, exercise and maintain physical health, gaze at the open sky, and take in the natural habitat.

Vegetation also plays a critical role in mitigating health challenges in urban environments. Cities tend to be hotter than rural areas because of an effect called the urban heat island, which can have negative impacts on the environment and quality of life. But parks help offset these effects. Increasing vegetation in urban areas encourages transpiration cooling, whereby trees and other plants absorb sunlight and heat and release water into the atmosphere from their leaves, cooling the surrounding air. 

Is there a model out there for what we should be doing in your sector (good financing models, specific projects, etc.)?

Park leaders are looking to generate enough revenue to sustain operations, maintain facilities, and provide healthy programming, whether it’s through planned activities or having lifeguards on hand to supervise public swimming. But oftentimes any revenue that is collected ends up in a general fund and isn’t tagged to specific initiatives, making it harder for a park director to make the case to public officials for adding or expanding certain programs.

Fee-based services can help address financing challenges by bringing in additional revenue for parks without the need to charge entrance fees or privatize public spaces. Food concession stands, concerts and other live events with sponsors, parking fees (resident vs. nonresident), and weddings or event spaces are all key revenue generators. One county in New York, for example, built a very extensive network of parks, many of which are sustained through the revenue that’s brought in by some of these offerings.

West Side Boulevard in New York City provides a 5.9-mile continuous bike route, now part of a larger interconnected system in Manhattan.

What can we be doing to build parks now?

As cities look at ways to improve resiliency, parks are an important part of this conversation. There is often land being developed that is best left undeveloped—a new frontier for creating cohesive, connected parkland in urban areas that can benefit both public health and wildlife habitats. Looking at how to include parks in holistic community design that truly benefits residents is the approach we should be taking. Urban and infill development are positive things for our cities, but we need to balance that with a space for natural ecosystems.

This should be part of the discussion we’re having around resiliency. Parks make urban environments more resilient—they help mitigate damage from storms and flooding, reduce the heat-island effect, and clean the air. As we continue to see more and more extreme weather events, we should include parks as part of the solutions we’re bringing forward.

When people think infrastructure, they think roads, bridges, and utilities. But parks are just as important to our wellbeing.

How do you see parks in the future? Say 2030?

For many people, parks tend to be for that one-off, planned activity that they must dress a certain way for or bring certain things to. I’d like to see parks become more ingrained in the day-to-day, a place that people experience as they commute, shop, exercise, and so on.

In cities and suburbs, we’re talking a lot about the first and last mile—how people connect to the transportation networks that take them to and from their homes and workplace. While we look at how to make those connections, let’s talk about what they look like. Why can’t those connections be part of a park-like environment? Spaces with park-like amenities, evoking the same sense of well-being for pedestrians, should be part of the everyday public realm.

How do you see Smart Cities and technologies fitting into park construction and maintenance?

Parks will begin to take some of the forward-thinking concepts from smart cities, like innovative stormwater management and smart lighting controls that keep lights on when they need to be on—and off when the park is vacant, helping to reduce light pollution and energy consumption.

Many parks struggle with flooding and stormwater-management issues. The City of New Rochelle, New York, for example, suffered from frequent flooding in one of its parks, with water nearly a foot-deep sitting stagnant for days at a time. Not only did the flooding make the park inaccessible to residents, but it also left lasting damage to the turf area and park facilities. We worked with the city on a park master plan that essentially elevated the fields and created storage capacity underneath for the floodwaters, diverting it from the local combined sewer outflows and increasing the park’s resilience to future storm events.

At the end of the day, cities need to be looking at their population growth, particularly small and midsize cities that aim to compete for workforce and economic growth. We’re seeing millennials and Gen Z moving into urban centers, and they’re looking for a certain quality of life. People are making decisions about where to live based on the availability of quality park space, within walking distance from their front door. I believe that’s putting a greater spotlight on the need for quality public space equal in importance to education, transportation, and utility systems that we rely on every day.

Other blogs in this series:

Infrastructure Week 2019: The future of green infrastructure

Infrastructure Week 2019: Brownfield development is the future of the US urban landscape

  • Gary Sorge

    A landscape architecture discipline lead, Gary seeks nature-based solutions with a multidisciplinary approach, collaborative design, and attention to detail—advocating for healthier, more equitable, and sustainable places designed within communities.

    Contact Gary
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