Urban parks are dynamic institutions that play a vital role in the social, economic and physical well-being of America's cities and their residents.
Since the mid-19th century, with the introduction of large-scale park landscapes in cities like New York, Boston, Louisville, Chicago, Minneapolis, Washington, D.C., and San Francisco, America's city parks have provided a respite from the stress of urban life for millions of people. They have also advanced democratic life, bringing people together across social, economic, and racial divides.
City parks suffered from disinvestment following World War II, when people moved away from urban areas, and many became places to avoid. But an urban renaissance in the past few decades has refocused attention on parks and their potential to help address nearly every critical contemporary urban need — from health to housing, from education to environmental justice, from spurring local economies to combating crime.
Parks are now recognized as a powerful tool to improve urban life:
Public Health Value
Research shows that routine physical activity contributes to well-being and longevity, helping prevent multiple chronic diseases, including diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, depression, and cancer. But most Americans — adults and children — don't meet the recommended daily guidelines. Parks are an ideal place for movement, providing the room needed for running, walking, sports, and other active pursuits.
A network of parks and open spaces that include protected natural lands, ecological reserves, wetlands, and other green areas is critical to providing healthy habitats for humans, wildlife, and plants in dense urban areas. Every tree helps improve the air quality by absorbing carbon dioxide and pollutants. And a park's green infrastructure — not only trees, but garden vegetation and grassy areas — helps clean our water by capturing and filtering stormwater runoff.
Cities and metropolitan regions are economic engines and critical to a nation's ability to compete globally. Knowledge workers, workers in creative industries, families and young people are increasingly choosing urban areas that offer amenities that contribute to an excellent quality of life. A well-designed, programmed, and maintained system of city parks is an essential component of any city's strategy for attracting and retaining a strong workforce and spurring local investment.
Neighborhood parks can draw in and connect individuals of all ages and backgrounds who share a vision for the betterment of their surroundings and take pride in where they live. But most of today's youth spend more time indoors than out and in many communities children simply do not have access to parks that are clean and safe. Parks are vital community assets where young people can grow and learn — through recreation and interaction with nature — and where people of all ages can get involved in civic life.
Yet while city parks and green spaces offer multiple benefits, public funding for their creation and long term stewardship continues to decline. For 15 years, City Parks Alliance has worked to promote an expanded role for urban parks by engaging, educating, and nurturing a growing network of urban leaders — from neighborhood groups to government agencies — championing high quality urban parks throughout the nation and making the case for greater park investment from both the public and private sectors to achieve multiple benefits for our cities.
Our vision is that everyone in urban America will have access to parks and green spaces that are clean, safe and vibrant.
About the Author
Catherine Nagel is executive director of the City Parks Alliance, a strong partner with APA in advocating for increased investment in urban parks nationwide.
Top image: Gas Works Park in Seattle with downtown in the background. Photo by Flickr user sea turtle (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).