A few weeks ago, I was in Seattle for the American Planning Association (APA)’s National Planning Conference. In addition to learning with and from other planners, I also had the opportunity to present in a session entitled “Collaboration for Healthy Communities in LA County” that focused on the creation and accomplishments of Los Angeles County’s Healthy Design Workgroup (which I shared about previously in Coordination: Can’t Plan Without It). Like the conferences I attended in recent years, this one offered a wide variety of informative and useful sessions and mobile workshops. As a park planner, I naturally gravitated towards those related to parks and recreation. Summarized below are the sessions that I found most interesting and want to highlight in this article:
Measuring Value in Multi-functional Urban Parks
In this session, I learned about the Landscape Performance Series which provides tools and resources to evaluate and make the case for exemplary urban parks. According to the Landscape Architecture Foundation which developed the online portal, landscape performance can be defined as a measure of the effectiveness with which landscape solutions fulfill their intended purpose and contribute to sustainability. I encourage all planners, especially those involved in parks and recreation, to check out this resource which makes it easier for us to find precedents, show value, and make the case for sustainable landscape solutions, and explore metrics and methods to quantify environmental, social, and economic benefits. In particular, it was great to hear about the “Benefits Toolkit” which is a searchable collection of online tools and calculators to estimate landscape performance. The tools can be used to estimate specific landscape benefits for completed projects when actual measurements are not available, or they can be used in the design phase to compare projected benefits among various options. Many tools also allow the user to compare life-cycle costs for conventional and sustainable design features. In addition, it was very fascinating to see the findings of a yearlong study of social performance in Washington, D.C.’s Canal Park.
What’s New in Environmental Planning?
This session is based upon a new book entitled The Environmental Planning Handbook for Sustainable Communities and Regions by Tom Daniels. Specifically, the session addressed the following: recent innovations in environmental planning at the state and local levels; stormwater management as well as plans for climate action, sustainability, green infrastructure, and hazard mitigation; and inclusion of environmental issues in the comprehensive planning process. The handbook sounds like a good resource for all environmental planners to have as it covers a wide variety of hot issues, including (but not limited to) planning for climate change, planning for sustainable water supply, protecting the nation’s landscape treasures, managing the coastal zone, and planning for natural hazards and natural disasters. During the session, Daniels also mentioned New York City’s PlaNYC as an exemplary plan. Originally released in 2007, PlaNYC is a groundbreaking effort to address the city’s long-term challenges including the forecast of 9.1 million residents by 2030, changing climate conditions, an evolving economy, and aging infrastructure. More than 25 City agencies and many outside partners in academic, business, civic, and community roles convened to develop specific goals (like 30 percent carbon reduction by 2030), initiatives, and milestones that address these challenges and ensure quality of life for New Yorkers in the years to come.
Great Parks and Successful Cities
I found this session particularly interesting and relevant to my work as a park planner. We were reminded that urban parks provide triple-bottom-line returns on investment for cities, including economic, social, and environmental benefits. It was great to hear how the cities of Los Angeles and Seattle are using innovative approaches to urban parks and public spaces to generate these benefits. In particular, I was encouraged by the success of L.A.’s 50 Parks Initiative which seeks to increase the number of parks and facilities available across the city, with a specific focus on densely populated neighborhoods and communities that lack sufficient open space and recreational services. The keys to the successful implementation of this initiative are: 1) the establishment of local partnerships; 2) the use of a community driven design process; and 3) the strict use of low maintenance design standards. Each new park created through this initiative is developed through an incremental process as resources and funding are identified and secured. Seattle also has a success story to tell. In August 2014, Seattle voters approved the Seattle Park District, a metropolitan park district. The District has the same boundaries as the City of Seattle and the Seattle City Council members serve as the Park District’s Governing Board. Property taxes collected by the District will provide more stable funding for City parks and recreation including maintaining parklands and facilities, operating community centers and recreation programs, and developing new neighborhood parks on previously acquired sites. The fact that Seattle voters are willing to tax themselves to establish the District reveals to me how parks are highly valued in the city and is a testimony to the great work of the Seattle Parks and Recreation Department.
Open Spaces for an Aging Population
What do seniors need and want in parks and open space? This session addressed this important question by discussing research and case studies from urban design, gerontology, and physical-activity literature. Specifically, researchers from UCLA worked with elderly persons at a senior center to learn about and record their open space preferences and desires for a future park in their area. This project culminated in a user-friendly and richly illustrated document that documents findings from the literature review, interviews, and focus groups, as well as a presentation of particular open spaces in the U.S. and/or overseas that have been designed specifically for seniors. As part of this project, UCLA published a document called Placemaking for an Aging Population: Guidelines for Senior Friendly Parks which should be of interest to all park planners and landscape architects. Also discussed in this session were healing gardens and other projects that meet the guidelines of the American Horticultural Therapy Association (AHTA). An example of such a project is the Portland Memory Garden which was designed to meet the special needs of those with memory disorders (such as Alzheimer’s disease) and to provide respite for their caregivers. Dedicated in May 2002, the garden is one of eight memory gardens in the U.S., and one of only two built on public land.
Recreation in the Right-of-way
This was one of my favorite sessions at the conference as it discussed a topic of particular interest to me: using streets for recreational purposes. (I wrote about this in my doctoral project and in the article It’s OK to Play in the Streets.) I fully agree with the presenters that street rights-of-way should also be considered as potential recreational space to meet the increasing demands for parkland in highly urbanized cities (read this article). After all, the street should be the quintessential social public space of the city, as author Vikas Mehta explains in his book. Streets should be designed with recreation in mind and should not just be used for vehicular circulation. I thought it was very clever and thought-provoking when one of the presenters asked this question: what if we started to think of the street right-of-way as parkland that happens to have a path for vehicles? I was glad to learn that a growing number of cities are hosting events like “Play Streets,” “Festival Streets,” “Open Streets,” or “Summer Streets” which close streets off to vehicles and open them up for people to play and recreate. It was also fascinating and encouraging to learn that the idea of “Play Streets” is actually formalized in Iowa’s Transportation Code.
Public-Private Partnerships and Park Development
As public dollars for parks have decreased, public-private partnerships (P3s) have emerged to fill the gap. This session explored the P3 role in park funding and policy, the impact of P3s on equitable park planning and development, and the issues of privatization and commercialization. Specifically, lessons from Brooklyn, San Francisco, and Seattle were shared. Brooklyn Bridge Park was created by an agreement that transferred land from New York State to New York City with a requirement that the park’s operation must be entirely financially self-sustaining. This principle guided creation of the park’s General Project Plan, which outlines a strategy to generate the majority of funds for annual operations and maintenance through ground lease and related revenues generated by development of a small portion of the land. This development program included five residential buildings, a mixed hotel/residential building, a mixed commercial/retail building, and associated parking. Another project discussed was the Blue Greenway in San Francisco which is spearheaded by the San Francisco Parks Alliance, an independent nonprofit organization. The Blue Greenway is intended to: link established open spaces; create new recreational opportunities and green infrastructure; provide public access through the implementation of the San Francisco Bay Trail, the San Francisco Bay Water Trail, and green corridors to surrounding neighborhoods; and include public art and interpretive elements. The last project I learned about in this session was Waterfront Seattle, which is an exciting civic project that will transform the two-mile stretch from Pioneer Square to Belltown into a 20-acre park. Friends of Waterfront Seattle is the nonprofit organization created to work with the City of Seattle in ensuring the project’s long-term success as a beautiful, safe, and lively public destination.
Generational Insights for Local Planning
This was by far the most entertaining and interactive session I attended. Instead of just focusing on how different generations have different needs that planners need to be aware of, the panelists spoke at length about how the work environment is changing due to the presence of four generations of planners in the same office. The generation groups are the silent generation/traditionalists (born 1928 to 1945), baby boomers (1946-1964), gen Xers (1965-1980), and millenials (after 1980). The discussion was very helpful and insightful as I also work in an office with planners/architects/landscape architects from all four generations. It makes sense that we work, think, and interact differently due to differences in the influences in our lives (like wars, technologies etc.), our life characteristics (like personality, education, communication/media preferences etc.), our work expectations, and our attitudes about work. One of the issues discussed was how one’s perception of the ideal work environment varies by age. While a combination of individual offices and cubicles is viewed by most as the norm these days, younger planners may actually prefer more open and casual work environments (like the one I shared about in Office of the Future); some may even prefer to work from home or alternative locations like coffee shops. It was also pointed out that planning commissioners and others in power are typically older, and may not be reflective of the communities they are supposed to represent.
As a planner, it was very exciting to be in a place like Seattle which is considered by many to be one of the most sustainable and livable cities in the country. I was also amazed to be in the midst of over 6,400 planners from around the U.S. as well as dozens of countries. I agree with keynote speaker Ron Simms, former secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), when he gave us this reminder: “Do not tell me you are in a profession that is indifferent to consequence. There is no such thing as an innocent plan.” This year’s conference has both energized me and challenged me to carefully consider how I plan with the communities served by my department. I look forward to applying what I learned in Seattle.
Note: All photos and screenshots by author.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author alone, and do not reflect the official views or positions of the Los Angeles County Department of Parks and Recreation.