When you picture Detroit, you may not envision its 252 miles of bike lanes and trails. That’s a huge jump from the roughly 13 miles in place in 2007, when the nonprofit Detroit Greenways Coalition began advocating for more greenways, complete streets, and biking trails throughout the city.
Detroit has one of the largest protected bike lane networks in the United States.
“Detroit has one of the largest protected bike lane networks in the United States now,” says Todd Scott, the group’s executive director. “The city has made a lot of investments in building complete streets that are safe for biking and walking.”
Detroit is far from done adding green spaces. This spring, phase one construction is scheduled for the Joe Lewis Greenway, a 30-mile green path that will encircle the city and connect it to the suburbs, including Dearborn, Hamtramck, Highland Park, and Ferndale. It features two trails, one for biking and one for walking and is expected to take a decade to be completed.
The Motor City is onto something. In a time when there are few things most people seem to agree on, 83 percent of Americans reported that they personally benefit from local parks, according to “The Case for Open Spaces”, a 2018 Urban Land Institute (ULI) publication.
The neighborhoods where residents are most content are those in which they can quickly and easily get to their happy place, whether it’s a park, a bike trail, an open space with a public art installation, or some other haven.
“I think everybody is aligned around the importance of high-quality parks and public spaces, especially now, where we’re gathering outside, and exercising inside is so challenging,” says Rachel MacCleery, senior vice president of Building Healthy Places at the Urban Land Institute in Washington, D.C.
However, there’s still work to be done in ensuring that all neighborhoods have parks and open spaces within easy walking or biking distance.
An Unparalleled Value
Considering Americans’ unparalleled support for parks and open spaces, it may be surprising that advocates often have to push to have such spaces readily accessible to all neighborhoods. But they do, though that’s changing.
“The idea of the 15-minute neighborhood means that people have the option to get everything they need on a daily basis within 15 minutes of home,” explains Jay Renkens, principal of MIG, a Denver planning and design firm rooted in environmental psychology and social science. “That also includes a 10-minute park approach. Normally, that means parks should be within a half mile of a neighborhood.”
Renkens says recreational options are integral to that navigable neighborhood. “Most people identify parks and recreation and trails as key assets that people should have within the 15-minute neighborhood,” he says. “But the true benefits aren’t necessarily widely understood.
“I think people generally say it’s great to have a place to recreate,” explains Renkens. “Or maybe people understand the nuance of active and passive recreation, like the urban respite, a term used in planning to mean a place to breathe, to get away from the buildings and development.
“But trails in particular also provide transportation, so they can enhance the 15-minute neighborhood,” he notes. “On the park side, there are other benefits beyond physical and psychological wellbeing. Studies show there are economic benefits for nearby residential, commercial, and mixed-use properties. They benefit in terms of the value of that land, and sales tend to increase.”
Public art that serves as a place for community members to gather is also part of the equation, a fact that leaders at the Chicago Association of REALTORS® recognize. “CAR has completed placemaking projects that make the community a better place to live and work, and more are in process,” says Nykea Pippion McGriff, ABR®, BPOR, CIPS, GRI, PSA, SFR®, vice president of strategic growth at Coldwell Banker Realty and CAR president.
CAR partnered with other organizations to highlight an up-and-coming retail corridor with a mural of longtime Chatham resident and poet Gwendolyn Brooks, which McGriff says spurred community stakeholders to create an adjacent seating area. It’s also contributing to the Lakeview Low-Line project in support of efforts to create an art walk in a space beneath the Brown Line el tracks.
“Art is an extension of the beauty that surrounds us and we’ve forgotten that as we’ve been stuck in our houses,” says McGriff. “It’s time for us to focus not on what’s on our phone and look up and look around. For me, these efforts are personally a reminder of the beauty around us.”
So Why Isn’t There More?
Yet not all urban planners and municipal leaders prioritize these spaces. Broadly, planners understand how vital these spaces are in creating or updating their communities, notes Rachel Banner, Seattle-based director of park access at the National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA).
“But when it comes down to making choices and decisions related to planning, sometimes those don’t reflect the values stated,” she says. “Things are getting better. For instance, ULI has published case studies of how we capture the value of parks in development and ensure they’re in the fabric of communities.”
What challenges arise? First, these spaces cost money. However, as Renkens notes, there’s a strong argument they bring huge value in return. “People think you’re taking this 10 acres ‘off the tax rolls,’” he explains. “They then quickly or incorrectly prioritize development over an open space. The bigger picture is that you’re creating direct and indirect value for the community by including open space.
“It’s the right thing to do, but if you dig deeper, the financial bottom line is that you tend to come out ahead even from a tax-roll perspective if you include these features,” he states. “Maybe there are 10 fewer lots, but the value of that neighborhood will be higher and should exceed the loss of the direct math of taking those lots ‘off the tax rolls.’”
Also, some open spaces achieve their mission better than others. Hodgepodge spaces, for example, can be less than ideal. “Maybe during the planning process, a certain amount of green space is required, but the type of space isn’t always specified,” states Banner. “What can happen is that you end up with these tiny little spaces as opposed to one larger green space that’s part of the fabric of the community.
“Maybe a private building has a private courtyard,” she explains. “So, spaces aren’t always public. And if they are, they may not feel like public spaces. That maybe does have an environmental impact, but research on parks and health tends to find that oblong or odd-shaped but continuous parks that flow through a community encourage more physical activity.”
Parks should be within a half mile of a neighborhood.
In addition, some spaces are higher-quality for other reasons. “One question is whether you can get to a space by walking,” notes MacCleery. “What kind of barriers exist? Barriers might be physical, such as the park being close but not walkable because it’s separated by a big highway, a transportation barrier, or other kinds of access barriers. Maybe there’s not good visibility into the park. Maybe it doesn’t feel safe or accessible for someone in a wheelchair or someone who has a visual impairment.
“It’s not just whether there physically is a green space, but how well-loved and used that space is by the community — that’s also super key,” she states. “We have a publication coming out soon looking at what it really means to have a high-quality park. It’s an elusive concept, but it includes how well maintained it is, how adequate its facilities are, and how well it meets the needs of the community.”
Parks Face Reckoning
The question of the quality of parks and open spaces has become even more complicated as leaders in the parks and recreation movement have begun to address racial injustice in the nation’s park systems.
“Professionals have been more open to acknowledging and recognizing the harm they’ve done in the past to Black people and indigenous peoples,” says Banner. “If Black people went to a park, they had separate facilities where they were allowed to go — that was only a generation ago.”
The NPRA is currently working on a history of parks from an equity perspective, she says. And part of that discussion includes recognizing that a one-size-fits-all approach for parks leaves some neighborhoods behind.
“If we want people to use places and be healthy, we have to meet them where they’re at, understand why they’re not engaging in that place, and be supportive of them in that process,” Banner states. “That’s where we have to acknowledge the mistakes we’ve made before we can go forward.”
Continuous parks that flow through a community encourage more physical activity.
Renkens says inequities generally fall into three areas. First, there can be less park acreage in lower-income areas, which he says is relatively common because such communities often have smaller or fewer parks. “Then there are cases in which areas have parks that were originally included, probably in older communities with a lot of migration of different demographics, but those parks haven’t been invested in,” he adds. “The parks don’t meet current standards. They’re falling apart or have areas that are literally taped or coned off. Do those serve the purpose they were supposed to serve?”
Detroit is making an effort to counteract this phenomenon. “It’s intentionally building the first section of the Joe Lewis Greenway in the Midwest neighborhood, which has seen the least attention and investment by the city,” reports Todd. “They could have started in another area but purposely went into this neighborhood, which hasn’t seen that much investment at all, to counteract the narrative that green spaces should be prioritized in the better sections of town.”
Another inequity Renkens notes is when parks simply don’t meet the needs of the community. “We’re working in Amarillo, Texas, and what we’re finding there isn’t uncommon,” says Renkens. “They have standards for neighborhood parks — a playground, a picnic shelter, a bathroom — and you can list them off. But those standards don’t necessarily serve the cultural needs of the neighborhoods around them.
“Recreational preferences change,” he explains. “Amarillo has a large Hispanic population, and they’re clamoring for soccer fields and courts for futsal, which is a variation on soccer. They also want gathering places and picnic areas that you don’t necessarily have to rent.”
The key is finding what’s needed in each community. “We’re grappling with equity, but it doesn’t mean the same thing everywhere,” says Renkens. “It means giving communities what they need — and that could be different based on different factors.”
Open Spaces Get Pandemic Love
And then there’s the pandemic. On that front, there’s a silver lining. Americans have rediscovered their local parks and outdoor spaces. But when the pandemic ends, will Americans’ love affair with such spaces end, too?
“There’s been a 100-percent increase in people’s awareness of the value of parks and open space due to the pandemic,” asserts Banner. “Also, one of the things NRPA strives to achieve is to help people understand what it takes to have, and who’s responsible for maintaining, those spaces. Today, not only do people value parks and open spaces, but they also value the people who make them happen.
“Parks have been among the places where vaccines have been distributed,” she explains. “They’ve housed unhoused populations who couldn’t stay in temporary shelters. They’ve set up distance learning and places for kids who don’t have parents at home. I think the public is only starting to understand the value of parks.”
At the same time, where have advocates for racial justice gathered in the past year? “Parks were the center of a lot of protests, where people could go to actively participate in democracy,” says Banner. “Those places need to be there for people to exercise their First Amendment rights.”
Another silver lining is that many communities got creative with open spaces to allow socially distanced outdoor activities during the pandemic, a movement that has impressed Renkens. “We’ve seen the creation of new recreational opportunities and outdoor gathering spaces,” he says. “Most people have seen the closing of a main street or something like that, which does serve that parks-and-recreation-outdoor-gathering need.
“But the closure of a street can be full or partial,” he adds. “You could close the street going one way and keep the other half for parking. We’re seeing streets close for outdoor dining, for walking and dining, and for urban trails. We’ve seen direct recreational amenities added, like fitness things you can do, such as pull ups. And there are probably places where the partial closure of a street could help an underserved community, too, such as where residents don’t have access to a trail.”
People today recognize the value of parks.
MacCleery says her organization is working on a report highlighting the innovative solutions implemented by governments around the world during the pandemic. “Many have adapted existing open spaces and made them public spaces, such as converting a parking lot to a publicly accessible park space,” she says. “They’ve closed streets and slowed down cars, and they’re taking a new look at existing infrastructure to better meet the needs of the community. There’s been a lot of experimentation, and it’ll be interesting to see how long those experiments stay in place.”
The NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS® Placemaking Grant program, which provides funding to state and local REALTOR® associations to support their efforts to create public gathering places, including community gardens, dog parks, and trails, saw steady interest in the grants through 2020. It turns out that building community gardens is a viable activity even when social distancing is required. Examples of the projects can be found at: https://www.nar.realtor/blogs/spaces-to-places.
But will Americans continue to seek outdoor spaces when they can safely gather indoors again? That’s hard to say, but the advocates believe so.
“That’s the question we talk about a lot here,” says Banner. “Unfortunately, in 2008, after the economic crisis, parks and recreation were the most-hit government entities budget-wise and the slowest to recover. There’s a large fear the same thing is going to happen today — except that one difference is that people today do recognize the value of parks more than they did during the recession.”
MacCleery also can’t answer with certainty, but she too is optimistic. “I’d like to believe that a deepened appreciation for the value of parks will continue to spur private investment from the public and private sector in both parks and open spaces,” she says. “What’s going to happen with workplaces, downtowns, housing development — that’s so very much an unfolding question. But I’m overall optimistic of the future of cities. I think we’ve learned that people need to be together.”