inPRACTICE / Urban Recreation: The Park Outside Your Door

The Avenues of Ingersoll & Grand // Des Moines, Iowa

In developed urban areas, how do you increase recreational opportunities within the constraints of existing infrastructure? With the concept of Urban Recreation Districts, the Iowa Parks Foundation (IPF) and its partners have sought to answer that question.

The idea grew from the state's Parks to People program. "The goal of the Parks to People program is to employ public-private partnerships and local planning to connect citizens to nature and improve parks across the state," states the IPF's website. The IPF and its partners took what they learned from these collaborations—with municipal, county and state parks cooperating with other stakeholders in regions across the state to benefit their own sites and the region as a whole—and turned the focus toward urban areas.


"We took that idea of Parks to People and asked, how can we get people—residents, the tourism industry, the city—to think about not purchasing land for parks, but taking existing land and then look at it block by block to see how we can convert that into a place that is beneficial for people, from a health perspective and from a mindful perspective," said A. Michael Bell, PLA, ASLA, and partner with RDG Planning & Design. "The goal was to create a healthy community from built infrastructure."

The concept is being applied in The Avenues of Ingersoll & Grand Urban Recreation District in Des Moines, Iowa. "The Avenues" include two east-west streets just past downtown, Ingersoll and Grand.

More than 20 years ago, a group of business owners created the Ingersoll Beautification Committee, working to slow traffic and make Ingersoll Avenue more pedestrian-friendly, said McB MacManus, studio coordinator with RDG Planning & Design. That initial effort developed into a streetscape project, with a three-block portion finished around 2000 that provided "proof of concept for reducing the lanes and widening the sidewalks, adding planters, things of that nature."

A couple years later, a self-supporting municipal improvement district was developed along with a TIF to provide property tax-based revenue for the district to improve infrastructure and maintenance. All of this made The Avenues a perfect pilot project for the Urban Recreation District concept.

"The idea was, how do we insert recreation opportunities into a dense urban core?" McManus said. "As opposed to bringing people to the park, we're bringing the parks to the people."

"What we've done is tried to take a look at the fabric of this area and break it into pathways, places and people," Bell said. "How can we understand the network of pathways, sidewalks, trails and streets and think of them as living systems that promote getting people connected and active, and also think about, as you're passing through these places, what is your perception of place, and how do you emotionally connect to that place."

He added, "We love the fabric and viability of these businesses and homes, and the denseness of this area, but we also want to create pop-up parks, permanent parks and influence future development so it thinks not only about its own financial success but also lending to a wonderful place to gather for the neighborhood surrounding the development."

For example, open space might be designed to serve as a parking lot for a business during the week, transforming to a pocket park on the weekend. Or as Bell explained, art and lighting are integrated into a freeway underpass to create an enhanced sense of safety for pedestrians while strengthening the connection between The Avenues and surrounding neighborhoods, including Drake University to the north.

"So many communities have grown up separating business and residential, and this has never been that way," McManus said. "Both are woven together in such a way that one has a real interest in the success of the other. And this notion of health and wellness as it's developed in more recent years—that concept of even in your workday, go out for a walk, or maybe park your car once then walk to do your errands, or even ride your bike from home to work—this area's already set up for that in so many wonderful ways that blending the health and wellness into that residential and business community seems like a natural fit—not an easy fit, but a natural fit." RM



The Avenues of Ingersoll & Grand:
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