As crowds of people slowly began filing into the Lighthouse at Chelsea Pier in New York City for the kick-off of the Greater & Greener International Urban Parks Conference, Peter J. Madonia of the Rockefeller Foundation remarked, “It’s like Woodstock for parkies.” A rumble of laughter filled the room and the largest urban parks conference in history was underway. Looking around the crowd, it was obvious this was more than just a few environmentally and community-minded folks getting together to gab about green spaces. The City Parks Alliance brought together over 850 people from 210 cities and 20 countries to participate in more than 100 workshops focusing on topics including environmental advocacy, development, and management. Experts in their fields from major organizations, foundations and government intermingled with people and small organizations committed to promoting the influence parks have on our communities.
Staff from the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, City of Pittsburgh, Mount Washington Community Development Corporation, Riverlife and many other organizations attended the conference. Determined to not only gain new ideas, but to share success stories and strategies of how our urban parks have contributed to Pittsburgh being consistently named “most livable city” year after year. Keynote speaker, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, got the first full day of workshops started by discussing how parks have become a “powerful catalyst for community development.” This became one of the three overlying themes of the conference: community development, public health and future technological advancements. The conference slowly unveiled a more enlightened and deeper value for urban green spaces other than their beauty.
The Parks Conservancy supports and promotes the environmental benefits of parks, but also focuses on the tremendous community and economic development that comes from urban green spaces. When an urban park is designed or restored, it creates a chain reaction in community development and overall quality of life. It creates jobs both in the implementation and maintenance process. Home values around the park increase while access to trails and open spaces for recreational activities enhance public health. All of these factors combine to increase economic growth for the community. It can be difficult to show citizens not living directly within city limits the advantages to urban development when they can feel so far removed from it. Mick Cornett, Mayor of Oklahoma City, is responsible for leading his city towards an undeniable rebirth and discussed the need to put money and effort into the city infrastructure to benefit the entire metro area. He stated, “ The quality of life in urban areas is directly connected to the quality of life in the suburbs. You can’t be a suburb of nothing.”
A visit to The High Line in New York City revealed another unexpected perk to urban parks and community development. Strolling down the restored elevated freight line that has been repurposed into a modern public green space on Manhattan’s West Side, you’ll be greeted by a gorilla, an amorous sailor and a portrait of a young Native American child to name a few. A menagerie of public art has popped-up along the buildings and open spaces lining The High Line, intertwining the worlds of nature and art into one harmonious story of city culture.
Park and nature prescriptions were buzzwords used throughout the conference. Daphne Miller, M.D. discussed the “disease of the indoors” and the Health Care Provider Initiative being implemented through the National Environmental Education Foundation (NEEF). The initiative educates health care providers on the importance of outdoor activity in the prevention of childhood obesity and diabetes, encouraging them to provide nature prescriptions in addition to traditional healthcare. “I think of parks as part of our healthcare system”, Dr. Miller said. United States Secretary of State Ken Salazar, who closed the conference, informed us that children only spend an average of four minutes outside a day. Access to parks and green space is an issue for children in some communities. Many have to walk through dangerous areas or cross highways to get to a park. Dr. Miller discussed the idea of creating green corridors to connect parks throughout the community and provide “veins of access to green space” for children and others to safely enjoy the parks. The healthier we make our parks, the healthier the people of our community will become.
With the role parks play in the health of a society and way to get people outdoors, the topic of technology and the future of parks can often be a tricky subject to tackle. There’s no doubt that we are currently in the era of technology; however, there is still resistance to how technology can contribute to the park system and whether it belongs there at all. Many view the demons of video games, television, Internet, social media and smartphones as the antithesis to the mission of parks and the exact cause of what is keeping people holed up indoors. Garry Golden, Futurist and Founder of Forward Elements, Inc. spoke about the purpose of technology in the future of environmental infrastructure. “Technology doesn’t have to be at odds with simple design”, he explains. Workshop presenter Erin Barnes and her organization, ioby (In Our Back Yard), is a perfect example of how to incorporate technology with environmental advocacy. Ioby is an organization committed to bringing green initiatives to the local level by connecting people to fundraising resources via their website. It’s great to hear about organizations raising millions of dollars to fund environmental causes in the community, but this can at times seem inaccessible for smaller causes. Ioby uses “crowd-resourcing” and “DIY activism” to empower the community to form their own small fundraising projects through their website. On the ioby website you can search for projects using filters to discover the needs of a group and how you can get involved. Currently, there is an open project listed on the ioby website in the Pittsburgh community called the Homewood Agricultural Project. They are looking for both donations and volunteers for the project and it’s a great way to help out concerned citizens trying to better our community. Technology isn’t going anywhere, so many of us are embracing it to inform the public about parks and get people active. The Parks Conservancy has welcomed technological advancements. We are currently developing a mobile app funded through a grant from UPMC Health Plan and the “Parks Are Free” campaign promoting use of the parks and public health within our own community.
Pittsburgh was well represented at the conference as presenters shared expertise in the field and highlighted successful restorations of our beautiful parks to their intended splendor. The Parks Conservancy Founder and CEO, Meg Cheever, served as a moderator for a workshop discussing the importance of public-private partnerships when developing and maintaining urban parks. Parks Curator, Susan Rademacher, sat on a workshop panel called, “People Over Cars” to discuss the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy campaign to restore a parking lot to its original purpose in the development of Schenley Plaza. Ilyssa Manspeizer, Ph.D., Director, Park Development & Conservation for the Mount Washington Community Development Corporation filled the crowd in on the “scrappy do-it-yourself ethos” that has helped transform a steep hillside in Mount Washington to the beautiful 280 acre Emerald View Park overlooking the Pittsburgh skyline.
As speaker after speaker discussed the role parks play in the development of a community, it was National Park Service Deputy Director of Communication and Community Assistance, Mickey Fearn that hit closest to home. He spoke of the “central fire where people used to come together to get warm, share stories and inspire and further community.” This immediately evoked images of our own Pittsburgh parks. Swirls of children sprinting to the playground on Schenley Overlook while families reunite at picnic tables. International students fresh off the plane meeting each other for the first time at the University of Pittsburgh international welcome picnic in Schenley Park. Neighbors who have never met swapping stories while their pooches splash mud at the off-leash dog area deep within Frick Park. High schoolers blushing as their parents embarrassingly take pictures of them at the Highland Park Entry Garden before they head-off to their Senior Prom. Our community coming together in our parks to share life and love, this is the central fire that has been burning in Pittsburgh for the past decade.
Holly Stayton is the eCommerce Development Officer for the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy. Learn more about how you can get involved with Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy on our website. Also, keep up-to-date on how the Pittsburgh Greenspace Alliance has joined together to promote and improve Pittsburgh’s green spaces.