Cities Bringing a Piece of Nature into Urban Neighborhoods

City dwellers certainly crave the bustle of activities and access to entertainment, but they also dream of quiet, rejuvenating places where they can connect with nature. More and more cities are turning that dream into reality by transforming outdated eyesores into natural spaces filled with shady trees, native plants and grass-lined paths. From Chicago to Dallas obsolete transportation structures are being recreated into natural retreats and urban oases.

Chicago graphic designer Kevin Walsh frequently satisfies his craving for nature along the Bloomingdale Trail in Chicago's Wicker Park neighborhood. But generations ago, the Bloomingdale Trail wasn't a link to nature. In fact if Kevin had strolled along the trail 25 years ago, he might have been run over by a train. That's because the nearly three-mile-long Bloomingdale Trail runs on an elevated stretch of Chicago & Pacific Rail Line that bustled with freight for roughly 120 years, but was all but abandoned two decades ago. It left behind blot on the landscape, until it was converted into Chicago's newest park.

"This trail is a great addition to my part of town," said Walsh. "I can commute on it to work downtown, walk my dog, jog or just go for a stroll and enjoy nature and the landscaping while I think about what's going on in the world and my life. It's really cool, too, that they put curves and dips in the path, overlooks and side loops."

The Bloomingdale Trail covers 24 acres and is the biggest piece of what locals call "The 606" — a moniker taken from the first three digits of Chicago's zip code — that includes a pair of existing parks and several new ones, plus a solar observatory at the western end of the path. It opened in June and has two dozen bridges with new trees and landscaping that pass over city streets and 17 wheelchair-accessible ramps to reach the trail. More parks, lush green spaces and public artworks are planned along the route, too, which also runs through the Logan Square, Bucktown and Humboldt Park neighborhoods on the northwest side of the city.

But the 606 is just one of the many new parks that have been built — or are in the works — around the country. According to Beth White of the Trust for Public Land, which coordinated the project with the Chicago Parks Department, urban areas around the country are playing catch-up as downtowns and other neighborhoods grow and residents clamor for nearby places to play, relax and enjoy nature.

The Trust for Public Land partners with communities so people can go out their front door and within a 10-minute walk have access to nature, parks, gardens, playgrounds, trails and other calming places. In Dallas, the city put a deck over a stretch of the Woodall Rodgers Freeway to create a 5.7-acre park called Klyde Warren Park that connects a gentrified neighborhood with the city's downtown arts district. In Savannah, Ga., a parking garage was buried to recreate one of the city's historic town squares that was laid out in the 1700s.

New Yorkers boast of the High Line, another stretch of converted elevated railroad. In Florida, the New Tampa Nature Park features access to wetland habitats via an elevated boardwalk. And Madison, Wis., is in the early stages of planning a one-acre park near the University of Wisconsin that will require the demolition of four old student rental houses. The park is needed, city officials say, because more than half a dozen apartment buildings have gone up in the city center in recent years, adding thousands of new residents to the downtown area.

White, the regional Trust for Public Land director, said the 606 will cost $90 million when completed, with $50 million coming from federal funding, $5 million from the city and county, and the rest being raised in a private campaign.

"This is in an area that didn't have many parks," she said. "We've inherently known that parks add to the quality of life for the last 100 years. But what's interesting to me is that in the last five to 10 years, research that shows the benefit of parks has really blossomed. So you're seeing a second wave of great park building. Planners are looking at communities in a much more holistic way."

She said urban planners include green spaces — in addition to schools, libraries, transportation and jobs — when they talk about healthy communities. In Chicago, she said roughly 80,000 people live within a 10-minute walk of the trail. More than 20,000 children attend dozens of schools close to the 606 and she hopes educators will create lessons that will link students to nature via the Bloomingdale Trail. She said more than 50,000 people attended the opening celebration and thousands now use it on a daily basis.

"Parks are now one of the building blocks for communities because they give people a place to be outside for both physical and psychological benefits, which are enormous," she said. "There are economic benefits, too, because people like to live near parks. That's why public spaces are being inserted into communities all over the country. They range from little pocket parks to what we are doing in Seattle, which is a 26-mile-long trail system that goes through three counties."

In Dallas, the transformation of a former freeway into an innovative green space has been described as creating a "natural landscape that heals the urban fabric of the city." It's a conversion that has been years in the making. Planning for the Klyde Warren Park began more than a decade ago, said Peter Bratt, a manager in the Dallas Parks Department.

"Fortunately, when the freeway was built in the 1970s, they put it below grade, so capping seemed like something we could do," he said. "A group called the Real Estate Council got things going with a grant of $1 million to see if a deck park was possible and then other folks chipped in, including Texas Capital Bank with another $1 million"

He said the total budget for the park was $110 million. The city and the state Department of Transportation both put in $10 million, another $16.7 came from the federal Stimulus Program and the remainder came from the private donors. Oil magnate and Dallas resident Kelcy Warren, a park aficionado, reportedly chipped in another $10 million in 2012 and got to name the park after his then 9-year-old son.

"All in all, this effort — a great, public-private partnership model — produced a wonderful green space," said Bratt.

The result is a 5.7-acre park in downtown Dallas with more than 300 trees and dozens of native plant species that seamlessly bridges an urban residential neighborhood that was seriously lacking in open space with an arts district with seven or eight museums and regional attractions. According to a downtown master plan updated in 2013, Dallas lags far behind peer cities such as Phoenix, Seattle and Minneapolis in terms of city center parks.

The park opened in the fall of 2012 and was immediately popular. It has a large lawn and a crescent sort of walkway in the park, he said, and trees and plantings interspersed with playgrounds, a splash park and a jungle gym, as well as seating on the south side where food trucks serve customers. The park features sustainable landscaping and unique design aspects such as trenches that act as planters and allow trees to grow to desired sizes and a combination of Geofoam and specially designed soil that is light weight and encourages growth.

There's also a facility where music acts can perform, and a restaurant, too, he noted. The park itself is run by the Woodall Rogers Foundation, which maintains it, brings in programming and does fundraising.

"I'm not sure of the numbers, but it gets a lot of office workers during the week who come here to have lunch or just take a break," Bratt said. "And then on weekends, it gets families with kids, people visiting the city and a mishmash of everyone else. The park has also sparked apartment and residential unit development. In addition, because the area has become more attractive, rental rates have gone up because people want to live near the park.

In Seattle, University of Washington urban forestry professor Kath Wolf said that desire to be near trees and open, green spaces may be part of our genetic makeup — dating back to the thousands of years humans spent their time as hunters and gatherers.

She said the "biophilia hypothesis" — first espoused by former Harvard professor Ed Wilson — argued that our evolutionary background left us with an affinity for nature.

"Being in tune with the natural world was — and still is — essential for our well-being," she said. "We are hardwired to be outdoors because that is where we lived for so long before we became urbanized. For millennia, we had a direct reliance on nature in terms of shelter materials, water, food, being safe vs. being at risk. Those are probably part of the mechanisms that we respond to positively in nature — and parks — today."

Urban planners have for centuries recognized the beauty of trees, and many communities still have quaintly described "beautification committees" that have planting trees and getting people enthused about Arbor Day as part of their duties.

"Aesthetics are certainly important," Wolf said. "But we now know from extensive research is that trees are also the lungs of our city and do a lot to improve air and water quality and have other environmental benefits. Though there are some issues with pollen for certain folks, they also capture harmful particulates and pollutants that are swirling around in the air."

But newer studies have shown the positive effects that trees and green spaces have on our mental health.

"We didn't know that was going on," she said. "Research, however, shows that just seeing green and trees lowers our stress response. People are also less depressed when they have consistent access to nature and trees in the city. In summary, what we have learned is that there are health benefits on many levels — some of it we are aware of and a lot we're not."

Wolf said her team at the University of Washington has also looked extensively at the economic impact of parks and trees. One study from Portland, Ore., showed that well-maintained trees had a positive impact on property values and that homes with attractive landscaping sold quicker.

"But just looking pretty doesn't get you terribly far in debates about spending public money on parks," she said. "When you can show that trees are good for our health, you'll get a little farther with your argument. Though there are not as many studies about trees and productivity, some of the literature suggests that when workers can see trees, they have less sick days.

"In addition, having trees and quality landscaping in our everyday living environments is what appears to produce these results. This research indicates work productivity is higher, and that students in elementary and high schools and on college campuses have better attention to tasks and assignments on nicely landscaped campuses. So there is a whole range of these positives worth discussing."

Wolf said she and her colleagues believe there are tree- and greenspace-linked "cradle to grave" benefits emerging from research.

"It started out as a bullet point here and a bullet point there," she said. "But we now have so much research that we've summarized it on a website called Green Cities: Good Health (greenhealth.washington.edu).

"It's much bigger than bullet points. From the moment we are born, it affects us. Studies show that trees and nature are connected to healthier infant birth weight to our last days when elders have better cognitive function if they have nature in their surroundings, including trees."

Wolf said some cities — such as Portland, Ore.; Austin, Texas; New York; Chicago; Minneapolis; and St. Paul, Minn. — are making strides to add trees and become greener.

"They understand the health and environmental benefits," she said. "So the first step to improving things is to understand what cities have. They can do this by using a tool called i-Tree for an urban tree canopy assessment. You can also do sampling by having people go out and do direct measurements or even by using aerial photos of satellite imagery or a radar-based sensor. Once you know that, you can begin to make informed management decisions to help plan where you want to go."

She said the next question city leaders must ask is "how do we get there as a community?" While parks and open spaces are a key part of the puzzle, she said private property owners must be included in the discussions because they control the largest amount of land in cities.

But parks are important, she said, lauding Chicago's new Bloomingdale Trail. "Other cities are using old railyards, riverfronts or areas cut off by freeways to turn into parks," she said. "After the Bay Area earthquake knocked down San Francisco's Embarcadero Freeway, the city chose not to rebuild it and instead turned that wharf area into a great civic space with squares and plazas and a palm-lined boulevard."

Wolf said she has high hopes that civic leaders will seek to add more trees and parks to their communities.

"In a general sense, I'm positive because most people have a good, even emotional feeling about trees," she said. "But there are still a lot of cities that don't see an investment in trees as essential. Nice but not essential.

"Unfortunately, too many people still think of nature as something outside cities in national parks or big forests. They think you have to get away from it all to experience these benefits — even though research shows that just a few minutes of just looking out your window or a short walk out the door away from your office in a quality green space is good for your physical and mental health."

That means there is still work to be done, Wolf said.

"There is a gap, a ‘swamp' where messages and perceptions don't connect," she said. "Some leaders don't recognize that even ordinary single trees, small parks and trees along the street are worth the investment. So we need to keep the discussion going."

Brian E. Clark is a Wisconsin-based journalist and a former staff writer on the business desk of The San Diego Union-Tribune. He is a contributor to the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Sun-Times, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Dallas Morning News and other publications.

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