Birders, bikers, and others jostle in city parks
HOUSTON — After A month of no rain, the skies opened up and drenched a thirsty Houston, turning dirt trails into mud puddles - in other words, creating prime mountain-biking conditions.
Edward Varela was strapping on his bike helmet in Memorial Park, crisscrossed with miles of bike trails, when he got the news. "What? The trails are closed?" he said, finally noticing the warning signs. Then he shrugged and pedaled forward, ignoring them. "We didn't come all this way to turn back now."
Park officials had erected the signs to prevent further erosion from mountain biking. It's a difficult task with rebels such as Mr. Varela, but one that's becoming increasingly important across the country, as parks fall victim to their own popularity.
It wasn't long ago that people refused to set foot in city parks, considering them dangerous and unappealing. But over the past decade, as cities have cleaned them up and created dynamic public spaces, people have returned - with vigor. Today, joggers dodge inline skaters, mountain bikers chop up hiking trails, and skateboarders demand a place by bird-watchers.
Local leaders from New York to San Francisco are now wrestling with how to manage all these competing interests.
In Houston, for instance, city officials recently unveiled a plan to balance the needs of recreational users with the need to protect plants and wildlife in Memorial Park, an 1,500-acre expanse nearly twice the size of New York's Central Park.
The proposal calls for moving sports fields to create a sprawling "picnic meadow," building a canoe launch, establishing a tree nursery to help reforest the park, and shifting trails for bicyclists, pedestrians, and equestrians to less environmentally sensitive areas. The city council may vote on the plan this summer.
Other cities, too, are facing a surfeit of enthusiasm. In San Francisco, revitalized parks are being "loved to death," as one park advocate put it, with competing interest groups straining toward cooperation. Last year, the city-council finally passed a new dog-walking ordinance, but skate boarders' and Frisbee golfers' requests for space have been turned away - to the dismay of many teenage boys.
"Everyone feels their use should be the primary use," says Isabel Wade, director of the Neighborhood Parks Council in San Francisco. "But all these problems could be surmounted if we all learn to be a little more respectful of each other."
Brooklyn is facing a similar quandary: 15 years ago, its Prospect Park had fallen into disrepair and few people used it. Now, with 7 million visitors a year, its wide meadows have become a thicket of conflicts, especially over how many employees are needed to clean and patrol it.
IN some sense, these are exactly the problems urban areas want. Cities "have come to understand that a well-maintained and well-operated park leads to many benefits, including increased property values and lower crime rates," says Dick Dadey, director of the City Parks Alliance, a new national advocacy group for urban parks.
Mr. Dadey calls park restoration the "green engine" that drove the country's recent downtown- revitalization movement.
Such is the case in St. Louis, where the $92 million restoration of Forest Park is considered the centerpiece of downtown economic development, stimulating more than $1 billion worth of capital improvements in and around the park since 1986.
The city has adopted its own master plan to manage Forest Park's 12 million visitors a year - and their competing desires to jog, fish, roller blade, ice skate, bike, golf, and play team sports.
These growing conflicts are actually a "sign of success," says Philip Myrick, associate vice president at Project for Public Spaces in New York. Cities that reclaimed parks in the past decade are simply having to switch into a management phase.
The number of park users alone can make management challenging. On a typical day in Houston's Memorial Park, for example, more than 10,000 runners jog around the 2.9-mile crushed-granite perimeter loop - causing major congestion at peak hours.
"You've got to know when to come," says Michael Schramm, sporting Texas flag shorts and stopping for a quick sip of water along the path. "I think it's clear this city needs more green space."
As municipal budgets shrink, however, it's tough even to maintain what's there. In Houston, the plan to restructure park use comes in a year of a $2 million budget trim. City leaders are moving ahead with the project because the funds were already approved in a bond election.
Nationwide, this round of cuts in park budgets hasn't been as severe as in prior economic downturns - a recognition, perhaps, that clean, safe parks aren't something cities are willing to do without. In addition, public-private partnerships, such as park conservancies and volunteer and stewardship programs, are flourishing - helping to take the burden off city budgets.
Back in Brooklyn, the Prospect Park Alliance is a model for innovative partnerships. At ComCom, for instance, representatives from different interest groups meet each month. A total of 85 organizations - from fishermen to joggers to civic groups - come together to hash out issues like trail closures and how to increase teen involvement.
When the woodlands became overrun with dogs whose owners were allowing them off-leash, for instance, bird watchers brought the issue to the committee. They then took dog walkers on a birding expedition. Today, the dog walkers are some of the biggest advocates for keeping the woodlands pristine.
Other cities with shrinking budgets are trying more radical approaches. An important aspect of Houston's master plan, for instance, is returning Memorial Park to a more natural state. That means less mowing and reforesting areas that were once heavily wooded. This more ecological, less-upkeep model is springing up in city parks across the US, from Buffalo, N.Y., to Louisville, Ky., - and it may be the wave of the future, experts say.
"Houston is trying to lower the maintenance cost and sustain Memorial Park's ecology," says Galen Cranz, a professor of architecture at the University of California at Berkeley. "That's right on track with the rest of the country."