Supplement Feature - April 2016
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Nature in the City

Urban Park Design Provides Access to Nature

By Dave Ramont

Some folks have it made in the shade. Or in the sun, snow or rain—it just depends. They live close to nature, and can immerse themselves in it anytime. But 80 percent of Americans live in or near a city, and for them this is not always an easy option. In many cities, one in three residents lacks access to a park or natural area.

Access to nature can provide numerous health benefits, including lowering stress, improving ability to focus, and elevating mood and energy levels. It aids in lowering rates of obesity, diabetes, asthma and depression. It can boost local economies, reduce air pollution and assist in energy efficiency. And accessible green space can have great social impact, bringing communities together.

Natural Transformations

The Maryland-based TKF Foundation has funded research showing that 10 minutes in nature, two to three times per week, can lead to mental restoration benefits. TKF is a private nonprofit that funds publicly accessible urban green space, creating more than 130 spaces in the Baltimore-Annapolis-Washington area alone.

Executive Director Mary Wyatt said, "We encourage people to apply for grants to us that are in distressed neighborhoods as an opportunity for them to have a place of beauty they could walk to, a place for more community cohesion." She points out that people in the most challenged, over-built areas have the fewest resources and opportunities to be in nature. And they know that access to these spaces does make a difference. With every space TKF Foundation funds, it donates a bench (made from recycled pickle barrels) and a journal. "We've collected thousands of entries that tell us that people do have a moment of respite and healing, and a renewed sense of well-being, even after a short visit," Wyatt said. By proving these successes, they hope to compel decision-makers—including cities and parks—to invest in urban greening.

But while TKF is a grant-making foundation, they don't just sign the check and walk away. Wyatt said it's a "collaborative visioning process," so that all potential users of the space are involved, building a sense of ownership and pride.

One success story is Intersection of Change, in Baltimore's struggling Sandtown neighborhood. This area along busy Pennsylvania Avenue was once a notorious open-air drug market. Then activists renovated a vacant building and opened Martha's Place, a home for drug-addicted and homeless women. An enclosed garden was added with trees and flowers, ivy-covered walls, a water feature and fish. Then a vacant building across the street was turned into an art and dance studio for kids and adults. The Choose Life Memorial Garden sprang up, with native and ornamental plants maintained by volunteers and shelter residents. A forest mural was painted on the wall of an adjacent building. The city turned on a long-defunct fountain and added roses and mulch. Flower and vegetable gardens began to appear in once-vacant area lots. During this transformation, the drug market disappeared.

Freddie Gray—who died in police custody in April 2015—lived in this neighborhood. Wyatt explained how, during the ensuing riots, there was a lot of destruction and vandalism throughout the area, but the spaces and buildings belonging to Intersection of Change were unscathed. "People were writing entries in the journal about what was happening, but it was a safe place, showing that this does make a difference in communities."

Another nonprofit working in this area is the Trust for Public Land. Since 1972, they've been involved in more than 5,200 projects nationwide—conserving farms and ranches, forests and wilderness, rivers and coasts, and historic sites. But much of their work takes place in and around cities.

Nette Compton, senior director of City Park Development at TPL, believes parks are a vital part of urban infrastructure. "We're focused on the idea of a 10-minute walk to the park, for everyone. When you look at all the benefits that parks have on a community, having them be close to home is crucial."

In New York City alone, TPL has designed and/or built 183 playgrounds. When planning these spaces, they incorporate green infrastructure elements—turf fields, trees and planting beds, and pervious pavers—so the playground also serves as part of the city's water management and flood control infrastructure, helping to absorb stormwater and alleviate CSO (combined sewer overflow) events that pollute local waterways.

One playground example is Arthur Ashe Elementary in Queens, serving 674 kids. TPL conducted visioning sessions to engage students, parents, teachers and residents in designing playground improvements to fit their needs and preferences. What was once a one-acre asphalt lot now has a turf soccer field, tennis courts, basketball courts, shade trees and landscaping, play equipment, a garden and outdoor classrooms. Compton said that while TPL does have landscape architects and planners on staff, in the instance of the schoolyards there's a bunch of agencies at play: the School Construction Authority, Department of Education, the NYPD and fire department, and the EPA. "We are the convener of all these partners and the community, and we can help lead a process that brings everybody to the table," she said.

Boeddeker Park in San Francisco sits in the Tenderloin District, a high-density neighborhood with the greatest number of citizens living below the poverty line. The park is within walking distance of 50,000 people, but for years was largely unused due to its inhospitable design, few amenities and safety concerns. TPL worked with the city and other donors to transform Boeddeker, organizing focus groups and community workshops.

The busy new park now boasts an outdoor clubhouse, fitness and play equipment, walking path with accessible ramps, basketball court, art works and a garden. Water-efficient landscaping and recycled materials add sustainability. Compton said, "It's important to be cognizant of the challenges that people in these neighborhoods are facing. It wasn't safe to be in this park—let alone worrying about access to nature—so we designed the park so it felt more open, had better sight lines. Building a connection that kids have with outdoor green space and a fun, safe place to be lays the foundation of kids getting excited about being outdoors."