Much More Than Open Space

July 21, 2004

Much More Than Open Spaces, City Parks Can Open Pathways to Opportunity, Report Suggests      

        WASHINGTON, DC,  City parks can play a broader role than traditionally understood in advancing urban policy objectives, three briefs from the Urban Institute conclude.

       Collectively titled Beyond Recreation: A Broader View of Urban Parks, the briefs draw evidence from an evaluation of The Wallace Foundation's Urban Parks Initiative. From 1990 to 2003, the initiative granted $38.6 million to 19 public-private partnerships in 17 cities to create parks in underserved neighborhoods, support urban reforestation and landscape restoration, and bring new programs to neighborhood and metropolitan parks.

       "The Public Value of Urban Parks," by researcher Chris Walker, sets forth the traditional and emerging views on the mission of parks. While parks are valued for their open spaces and recreational facilities, innovative programs and partnerships are demonstrating how parks can advance broader public policy objectives, such as job preparation for youths and adults, and stronger neighborhoods. "As parks expand their roles," Walker observes, "public support increases, promising to create a self-reinforcing process."

       Walker's "Understanding Park Usership" points up the value of systematic surveys to understand how people use parks and what they expect from them. This brief details five approaches to information gathering and describes how four parks put them into practice in the Wallace Foundation initiative. These tools, embraced by public managers in other fields, can provide park managers with solid facts about who uses parks, how, and why, augmenting such traditional information sources as public meetings. The result: more effective management of park assets and greater benefit for the community.

       "Urban Parks as Partners in Youth Development," by Margery Austin Turner, director of the Urban Institute's Metropolitan Housing and Communities Center, details how parks can contribute to the latest thinking about effective youth development programs. Parks have traditionally been viewed as venues for play. The evolving view, however, is that parks can be the locus for initiatives that help children develop physically, intellectually, psychologically, and socially.

       Among the park programs Walker and Turner cite:

       - The Garfield Park Conservatory Alliance in Chicago is helping prepare teens on the city's West Side for life after high school. Following training in leadership development, personal and social skills, and job readiness, participants work as docents, explaining exhibits to park visitors.

       - In Brooklyn, New York, Prospect Park offers a welfare-to-work program in which crews of recent welfare recipients perform routine maintenance. Parks are a particularly fruitful training ground because the work is low skill, continuously needed, and organized so a single employee can supervise a relatively large crew.

       - The San Francisco League of Urban Gardeners (SLUG) has two programs for teenagers. In one, Youth Garden interns learn such skills as beekeeping, rose maintenance, and low-flow watering. As they become proficient, the teenagers are promoted to help supervise or teach in the classes.

       - In Portland, Oregon, the Parks and Recreation Department shares facilities and programs with several school districts; collaborates with regional water and environmental agencies on land acquisition, watershed education, and resource protection; partners with "friends of" groups on park maintenance, renovation, and programs; and works extensively with youth-serving organizations and the public housing authority.

       "Park managers, community organizers, elected officials, and nonprofit organizations across urban America have found that when local residents are involved in the planning, building, renovating, and operating of urban parks, the odds are good that parks and communities benefit," says Walker, who oversaw the Urban Institute research.

       "Research shows that innovative park programs can contribute to revitalizing communities," says M. Christine DeVita, president of The Wallace Foundation. "Other institutions, such as libraries and museums, can benefit from this lesson. By embracing a broader vision of how they serve their communities, these organizations can, as parks have, increase their own public value, as well as the political and fiscal support they receive. It's a virtuous circle."

       "The Public Value of Urban Parks," by Chris Walker, is available at