Thinking beyond the Borders: A Recent Roundtable Discussion Hosted by NRPA and the American Planning Association Generated New Ideas on the Role Parks Play in Shaping Successful Cities and How Park and Recreation Professionals Can Contribute to Solving Urban Problems

By Levitz, Dena | Parks & Recreation, June 2014 | Go to article overview

Thinking beyond the Borders: A Recent Roundtable Discussion Hosted by NRPA and the American Planning Association Generated New Ideas on the Role Parks Play in Shaping Successful Cities and How Park and Recreation Professionals Can Contribute to Solving Urban Problems


Levitz, Dena, Parks & Recreation


Parks leaders and urban planners need to look beyond the borders of parks and think of the public spaces they manage as part of a comprehensive "public realm" that is much more inclusive than just the lands identified as "parks." These open spaces provide a type of connectivity for communities that can have great benefits to cities and urban metropolitan areas, say the planning and parks directors of nine major cities who gathered recently in Arlington, Virginia, for a roundtable sponsored by NRPA and the American Planning Association (APA).

In addition, the participating parks and planning leaders agreed that embracing such a view enables them to work across department lines. This allows planning, parks, health, water, public works and other agencies to create a new framework for collaboration at the municipal, regional, state and even federal levels to share ideas and resources to meet new challenges and contribute to solving problems.

These messages cut across each of the three sessions that comprised the invitation-roundtable titled "The Role of Parks in Shaping Successful Cities," which was coordinated by Richard Dolesh, NRPA's VP of conservation and parks, and David Rouse, APA's managing director of research and advisory services. The event was groundbreaking in that it brought together planning directors and parks directors from several of the largest U.S. cities for the first time. The roundtable also included invited guests from a number of national organizations and think tanks who participated in the daylong presentations and discussions on three topic areas:

* The role of parks in economic development and revitalization

* The role of parks in planning for health outcomes

* The role of parks in contributing to green infrastructure solutions for stormwater management

NRPA and APA have begun collaborating on several initiatives to demonstrate the principle that high-quality urban parks are essential to smart cities. NRPA CEO Barbara Tulipane, who opened the roundtable, spoke about how NRPA is giving greater attention to urban parks and said NRPA's hope is that the roundtable is not an end in itself, but merely a jumping-off point for these diverse stakeholders to come together on future initiatives and meeting challenges. "That's how we're going to change cities," she said.

Specifically, big cities and urban metropolitan areas are grappling with a number of common challenges, such as growth and economic development, ensuring the health of urban populations, and replacing worn-out or outmoded infrastructure for stormwater with more environmentally responsible--and inexpensive--alternatives. More effective and creative use of public spaces can be an answer to meeting these challenges.

The concept of an all-encompassing public realm is one city planners have begun to embrace enthusiastically, yet their parks counterparts have been slower to do so. David Barth, a principal at the large design firm AECOM and keynote speaker for the opening session on how parks are critical to economic development and revitalization, said this idea of looking at "the public realm" is particularly key as parks officials take on more responsibility for lands and public spaces and use public lands in nontraditional ways. Parks leaders must not think of these public spaces in isolation, but need to look at parks in the context of how they function in achieving the goals of general plans and city and county master plans.

Another critical factor for parks to contribute to the success of cities is to have only the highest expectations for public spaces, based around a set of 25 criteria Barth has developed that fall into the categories of social, environmental and economic benefits. "We must consciously, purposely design spaces so that every one of our public spaces is a high-performance one," he says.

Rather than just concentrating on iconic parks like Central Park in New York City or Millennium Park in Chicago, cities should aim to have every part of the public realm generate the kinds of benefits that these iconic parks do. …

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