A renaissance among America's urban parks

Green spaces get boost from big city budgets and local activists.

Not long ago, a walk in most of the nation's urban parks was, in fact, no walk in the park.

The west end of San Francisco's Golden Gate Park was known as much for its homeless encampment as its rows of eucalyptus trees. Nearly one-quarter of Houston's Hermann Park was so dangerous it was a "no go" area for elders and families. And St. Louis's Forest Park was best known for potholes, crumbled curbs, and flooding.

But this summer, say experts, America's urban parks are in the middle of their most significant turnaround in a half century.

Helped by healthy city budgets and neighborhood activists who raise the political risk for elected officials who ignore parks, urban patches of pine and green space are becoming healthier and safer. Indeed, the throngs planning to picnic or jog in city parks this summer are apt to be inconvenienced by only one thing: construction signs.

"We're seeing a renaissance," says Kathy Madden, vice president for the Project for Public Spaces in New York. "You can see it on the ground."

In San Francisco, for instance, the number of neighborhood groups working for local parks has mushroomed from eight a few years ago to 80.

"We're on a roll," says Isabel Wade, executive director of San Francisco's Neighborhood Parks Council. "Nobody is going to make it to the board of supervisors if they ignore parks."

The story is similar in a number of cities around the country, with another factor - private donations - adding to city coffers.

"It's become socially 'cool' to give money to parks," says Tupper Thomas, administrator for Prospect Park in New York's borough of Brooklyn. In fact, Prospect Park, with the meandering run of Ambergill Stream and the only woodlands remaining in Brooklyn, is considered a model of how private and city dollars can work in tandem.

Ms. Thomas acts as both the city administrator of Prospect Park and the president of a nonprofit alliance. The alliance is now responsible for about 35 percent of the park's funds.

New York's Central Park Conservancy, begun 20 years ago, set the precedent for a major infusion of private dollars to parks. It has raised more than $200 million and transformed Central Park from a near dust bowl to what many consider the crown jewel of the nation's urban parks, despite the recent attacks on women there.

But while Central Park was a pioneer in expanding the role of private funds for public parks, it is also seen as anomalous because of the extraordinary wealth it was able to draw upon, much of it from the residents living along the park's perimeter.

Moreover, park advocates are wary of becoming too reliant on private money for fear it gives cities an excuse to lessen their commitment.

"We're very aware of that danger, and we're constantly reminding our public partners that we're not there to replace them," says Roksan Okan-Vick, executive director of the Friends of Hermann Park in Houston.

Nonetheless, Ms. Okan-Vick's organization and its private donors have been indispensable to Hermann Park's revitalization into a park that is now family friendly. The Friends of Hermann Park are in the final stages of a drive to raise $31 million for the park, which includes a zoological garden, aquarium, and imposing statue of pioneer Sam Houston. Half will come from private sources and half from the city.

Beyond dollars, private funds are seen by many park experts as forcing often-rigid city bureaucracies to open up to outside ideas and influences.

"Partnerships are what are turning these parks around," says Helen Doria, a veteran Chicago Park District official currently on a fellowship to study "best practices" by urban parks around the country.

While the lawns are getting mowed, the gardens mulched, and the walkways kept clean, parks are undergoing another transformation that extends beyond cosmetics and infrastructure improvements.

"There is a strong and growing feeling in the country that parks are the best places to build healthy communities," says Donna Ernston, executive director of the Friends of Recreation and Parks in San Francisco.

In Detroit, for example, Campus Martius Square is becoming a central part of the city's downtown revival.

Partnerships with private donors, as well as schools and museums, have led to park-sponsored activities ranging from lectures on landscape gardening to soccer camps. In effect, the partnerships knit communities and their parks closer together, creating a bond that many experts predict will last when urban economies slow.

Beyond the local level, there is also hope of new help from the federal government. The US Conference of Mayors has made parks, and specifically passage this year of the Conservation and Reinvestment Act, a top priority. That legislation, which has been approved by the House, would dedicate $125 million annually to urban parks.

The revival has led many cities to expand their parks. Since 1970, the percent of city space devoted to parks has grown by 17 percent in Chicago, 46 percent in Dallas, and nearly 300 percent in San Diego.

Here in San Francisco, Golden Gate Park hasn't gotten any bigger, but the appearance has certainly changed. With the city's parks budget up 28 percent compared with four years ago, the improvements are visible.

The park's western entrance, which once looked like a campground for the homeless, has been relandscaped and is abloom with red salvia and white impatiens.

Says Peter Harnik, author of "Inside City Parks": "It definitely feels like city parks are moving back into a position of honor."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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