By CATHERINE A. CARDNO, PH.D.
It is hard to deny the importance of public parks as crucial infrastructure. From a neighborhood playground to a national wilderness, public parks offer people space to exercise, relax, and learn as a community. And as the world grapples with the work-from-home and social distancing rules necessary to stop the spread of COVID-19, parks have come to be seen as even more valuable—one of the few places people can go to get outdoors and find some respite from the four walls of their homes.
Local and state governments fund the bulk of the park and recreation facilities that 7 out of 10 Americans use on a regular basis, according to ASCE's
2017 Infrastructure Report Card
. The National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA), based in Ashburn, Virginia, says there are more than 10,000 local park and recreation agencies that manage approximately 11 million acres of land in the United States. Additionally, there are more than 6,600 state parks in the country encompassing 14 million acres of land, according to Margaret Walls, Ph.D., a senior fellow at Resources for the Future (RFF), a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit independent research organization.
At the national level, the federal government provides 419 parks encompassing 85 million acres through the well-known National Park Service (NPS) as well as 12 million acres of land and water managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and 193 million acres managed by the U.S. Forest Service.
In addition to the infrastructure built on parklands, these sites also capture and filter drinking water for 180 million people. Parks also support a variety of industries that serve visitors, including lodging, restaurants and bars, grocery and convenience stores, and gas stations, according to the report card.
Despite their importance to the public, U.S. parks face significant challenges, particularly when it comes to funding, capital improvements, and maintenance of existing facilities and infrastructure. In the most recent report card, parks received a D+ because of "chronic underfunding" and deferred maintenance. Changing climate patterns are causing issues as well; for example, more than half of the U.S. Forest Service's budget is now spent on suppressing wildfires, according to the report card.
Yet there are parks at the local, state, and national levels that are revolutionizing their offerings to improve their capacity, better serve their visitors, and create a better balance between the natural world and the built environment.
While they may not offer the expanse of wilderness that larger park systems offer, local, urban parks are extremely valuable to their users and are undergoing their own shift. "City parks today come in all shapes and sizes with multiple functions," explains Catherine Nagel, the executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based City Parks Alliance. "Parks are being designed, … created, and managed in many ways that go beyond a traditional notion of what a park is as a contained space. So we're [now] seeing parks designed as, and on, repurposed infrastructure. We're seeing parks more integrated with the public realm. We're seeing parks designed to support natural systems more deliberately."
Waterfronts, brownfields, and landfill sites are also being repurposed for recreational use and turned into assets for their communities, she says.
"Cities are being incredibly creative and innovative in [their] thinking about how they use whatever precious land they have left over to provide a better quality of life for their residents," Nagel says.
A daunting challenge across all levels of public parks is funding, particularly when it comes to the sustained funding needed for operations and maintenance.
As the amount of funding they receive from states' general funds has decreased over time, state parks are relying more on dedicated fees, such as from lottery revenue, real estate taxes, or a small dedicated sales tax, according to Walls. User fees are also increasing, she says. One approach that has worked well in Michigan is building an endowment fund from natural resource leasing revenues. The annual interest from the fund is used to fund the state park system, according to Walls.
"It's a very strong annual funding stream that they get for their parks," Walls notes. "On top of that they have an annual park pass paid for through drivers' license renewals. That provides them extra funds every year.
"I'm a big fan of the endowment approach because it provides a reliable funding stream. It's protected by constitutional amendment, so it can't be tapped by the legislature."
As parks are redefined and new designs implemented, they can also seek funding from other budgets, such as those devoted to transportation, according to Kevin Roth, Ph.D., the vice president of research for the NRPA. "We're seeing … parks being more greatly utilized to be solutions for other parts of infrastructure," he notes. "Why? Well, because Monday through Friday that trail may be actually moving commuters back and forth on their bicycles. But on a weekend that same trail is perhaps being used for recreational purposes."
Methods for finding money for green infrastructure projects—such as trails bounded by natural growth (greenways) and open public spaces—are also improving, according to Beth Poovey, the director of greenways, parks, and open spaces at LandDesign, an urban design, planning, civil engineering, and landscape architecture firm based in Charlotte, North Carolina. "One of the trends that I see is that more and more public open space is able to compete for some of the funding that was typically given over to gray infrastructure," Poovey says. This includes roadways, asphalt, and utilities, she explains. "Now with a better understanding that we are talking about a crisis not only in health but [also] in the environment, there is a bigger public appreciation for the value of public open space and the benefits that it brings to our community. Therefore, there seems to be more of a groundswell of support to push our political leaders to better fund parks, … greenways, and open space."
One example that LandDesign created involved demolishing a series of parking lots and buildings that had been built atop a section of an urban creek in Charlotte. The creek bed and its surrounding wetlands were restored and 1.2 mi paved multiuse trail was built within the creek's flood channel as part of a larger project called the Little Sugar Creek Greenway.
This section of the project serves multiple functions, including recreation, nonvehicular commuting, and flood protection. In a storm, water first fills the stream channel and then the extended wetlands that border it. During larger events, the stormwater can overflow onto the bike and pedestrian trail as well as adjacent plazas built as part of the project. A large fountain that graces the greenway is located above the 500-year flood level. "All of this is modeled to ensure that nothing is creating damming and [everything] can withstand the [water] velocity," Poovey says.
When it comes to spending money on a park system, innovations might be different, depending on whether the park is part of a wilderness area or an urban development. Either way, the focus is often on improving the user experience without compromising environmental considerations.
This balance is particularly important for Yosemite National Park in California's Sierra Nevada mountain range. The park might be best known for its Yosemite Valley, home to the Half Dome and El Capitan granite rock formations as well as the more than 2,425 ft tall Yosemite Falls. The valley covers only 5 percent of the park's acreage, but that small space hosts 90 percent of the park's visitors, according to Scott Gediman, the chief media and external relations public affairs officer for the park. Most of the park's infrastructure is within the valley to support those visitors' needs.
Maintaining and upgrading the park's infrastructure to handle that many visitors is a full-time business, and the park has a dedicated Strategic Planning and Project Management division that is staffed with civil and structural engineers as well as landscape architects. "In any project, you run into things that you don't expect, and so for us to be able to have these engineers [who] are National Park Service employees is really beneficial for us to be able to design and build these projects," Gediman says. "A lot of the challenges facing infrastructure, here in Yosemite and in parks across the country, is the aging infrastructure," Gediman says. But an added difficulty that Yosemite faces is the growing numbers of visitors who are taxing these aging systems. There have been 4 to 5 million people visiting Yosemite each year for almost a decade, according to Gediman. This causes the infrastructure to endure enormous strain, ranging from parking lots that aren't big enough to visitor centers that can't accommodate such a large number of people to a wastewater treatment plant that can't accommodate the volume of waste, he says. And then there is the problem of all the trash and recycling that visitors bring into the park and leave behind.
Yosemite is served by the El Portal Wastewater Treatment Plant, which was constructed in the mid-1970s, according to Sally Mayberry, a public affairs specialist for the NPS who is based in the agency's Lakewood, Colorado, office. Mayberry wrote in response to questions posed by
. A phased project was recently completed to repair the upstream El Portal wastewater collection system, originally built in the 1950s and 1960s. The project will help protect water quality in the nearby Merced River by limiting sewage leaks.
Phase one replaced 1,770 linear ft of 15 in. sewer main, which carries all the Yosemite Valley flows, and 545 linear ft of 6 in. gravity pipe as well as service laterals and manholes, she explained. Spot repairs and a closed-circuit video inspection of the trunk main were also conducted. Phase two addressed the remaining deficient segments in the system's service area. The design of a complete rehabilitation of the treatment plant is just beginning, Mayberry noted.
Infrastructure projects at Yosemite seek to consider the needs of visitors and the preservation of the park as a healthy, natural ecosystem. This was particularly important at the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias, situated in the southern portion of Yosemite. Giant sequoias can reach 3,200 years in age, according to the NPS, and the grove is a collection of more than 500 mature giant sequoias. Congress set aside the grove along with Yosemite Valley in the Act of June 30, 1864 (13 Stat., 325) for "public use, resort, and recreation," according to information on the NPS website. (Yosemite National Park was officially created in 1890 and was expanded to include the Mariposa Grove and Yosemite Valley in 1906.)
Unfortunately, the trees' best interests were not taken into consideration when visitor access to the grove was planned in the mid-20th century. A gift store, diesel tram, and parking lot were built at the grove without regard for the trees. "We literally paved around the giant sequoias and put up a parking lot," Gediman says. This had a detrimental effect on individual trees and the grove as a whole. Because giant sequoia tree roots grow horizontally, the parking lot was impacting the roots. In addition, "we had impeded drainages [and] changed flows to the river, so we weren't getting propagation of the giant sequoia trees," he says. "We [also] had diesel trams that would go through the [grove] that were literally hitting the trees."
The parking lot was also far too small for the number of visitors to the grove, fitting only 110 cars while between 1,000 and 2,000 people were visiting daily, mostly via shuttle buses from other areas of the park. With so many visitors already taking shuttle buses, park officials made the decision to remove the existing visitor infrastructure at the grove and relocate everything to south.
"We stopped the trams. We removed the gift shop. We took all commercial stuff out of the Mariposa Grove," Gediman says. "We built a 300-space parking lot at the south entrance to the park, [and now] there is a dedicated shuttle back and forth to the grove."
Streambed drainage on the site was also reconfigured so that it replicated the grove's natural conditions and water flows, and generously sized elevated walkways were built amidst the trees to improve access for all visitors—regardless of their mobility levels—and further protect the trees, their ground cover, and the natural drainage of the site.
The $40-million capital project was funded as a public-private partnership (P3) with the Yosemite Conservancy, a nonprofit philanthropic partner, splitting the costs evenly with the park. "With the public-private partnership and with the match, we were able to do all kinds of things," Gediman says. This included building out the sewer lines so that flush toilets could be installed at the new parking lot instead of rebuilding the existing vault toilets. It also meant that better-quality trails and signage could be installed, he says.
"Mariposa Grove, to us, is a win on so many different levels because you've got a better visitor experience and you've got a more natural experience," Gediman says. "The visitors have received it really well."
Parking, public toilets, and trails are also being updated at Yosemite's Bridalveil Fall. This $15-million P3 project with the Yosemite Conservancy will reconfigure the parking lot, build a well so that flush toilets can be installed, and increase the number of trails at the site to better disperse the number of visitors, according to Gediman.
The partnerships between the park and the conservancy are also evolving as federal funding and resources decline, according to Gediman. While previously the philanthropic organization typically just provided money for capital projects, it is now becoming more involved with operations, Gediman says. "So much of what we are doing now, big-project-wise, we just simply couldn't do [otherwise] because there is not government money," Gediman says. "There are a lot of people who love Yosemite … and Yosemite Conservancy does a really great job and we're very thankful for them."
Yosemite is also a good model for collaboration between a park system and a local government. The Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, located at 3,900 ft in a valley of the same name, provides the majority of the water for the City and County of San Francisco, but it is located entirely within the boundary of Yosemite National Park. The O'Shaughnessy Dam was completed in 1938 across the Tuolumne River and impounds 117 billion gal. of drinking water that supplies 2.4 million Bay Area residents, according to the NPS website. Two hydroelectric plants generate power for those residents as well.
The city's desire to protect the reservoir's watershed and ensure that it is not used for recreational purposes and polluted in any manner dovetails with the park's goal of protecting the natural environment of the parkland surrounding it, Gediman says. "We have this mutual goal, so everything we do is within that," he notes. "If you find that common ground and work together, then you can have great results."
Large transportation projects can also fall under the umbrella of park systems, as is the case at the NPS's Arlington Memorial Bridge, which was originally built as a monument to the nation's military personnel. The bridge crosses the Potomac River to connect Washington, D.C., at the Lincoln Memorial to Virginia at Arlington National Cemetery. Approximately 68,000 vehicles, many of them carrying local commuters, cross the bridge daily. The NPS and the Federal Highway Administration are rehabilitating the nearly 90-year-old bridge so that it can continue to function for the next 75 years. With a budget of $227 million, it is one of the largest transportation projects in NPS history, according to Mayberry.
Built as a bascule bridge in 1932, the span has not been opened since 1961, according to the NPS. After the current repairs, the aesthetics and machinery of the bascule bridge will be maintained, but the bascule mechanism itself will be replaced with a fixed steel span. The bridge's historic stone and metal cladding will be restored and reinstalled on the new span, and its concrete approach spans rehabilitated. In addition, a new precast-panel concrete deck and new road surface and sidewalks will be placed. The project, which is using ultra-high-performance concrete connections and precast elements to reduce on-site construction impacts on pedestrians and vehicles, is expected to be done in early 2021. This "will significantly extend the useful life of the bridge while significantly reducing maintenance costs," said Mayberry.
Weighing the limitations of a tight urban space against environmental and historic protections is a task that is undertaken by local parks, exemplified by the Josiah Henson Museum & Park, a 4-acre historic property located immediately adjacent to a busy six-lane divided highway in North Bethesda, Maryland. The site contains a portion of the original plantation where Henson—an escaped slave and author of the autobiography that inspired Harriet Beecher Stowe's internationally renowned novel,
Uncle Tom's Cabin—
lived and was enslaved from 1795 to 1830.
The site is owned by Montgomery Parks, a division of the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, a regional bicounty agency. Montgomery Parks includes 36,991 acres of parkland, including 4 lakes, 490 mi of streams, 111 historic structures, and 28 park activity buildings, among other amenities.
The main portion of the plantation's historic house-also known as the Riley-Bolten House-was built between 1800 and 1815 and is on the National Register of Historic Places, according to Samantha Shron, a project manager for Montgomery Parks. Shron responded in writing to questions posed by
. A log kitchen was added in 1850, and an addition was built in the late 1930s.
The Riley-Bolten House, above, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, will form the centerpiece of the Josiah Henson Museum & Park in North Bethesda, Maryland. The site contains a portion of the original plantation where Henson, right, an escaped slave whose autobiography inspired Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel Uncle Tom's Cabin, lived and was enslaved. The park system is undertaking an approximately $8.8-million project that will convert the historic house into a museum and build a new 3,000 sq ft visitor building on the property with a vehicular drop-off loop, parking, and paths. The site is expected to open in December.
Challenges included designing and installing water infrastructure on the tight site as well as preserving natural elements of the property. "Because the [visitor center] property is surrounded by a major state highway, a residential neighborhood, and a sensitive historic property, a major site challenge was providing adequate utilities to the [new] visitors' center," said Joshua Arnett, P.E., a review engineer for Montgomery Parks, who wrote in response to questions posed by
. "The visitors' center … carried a fire-flow requirement that could not be [provided] by nearby water mains. The solution was the design and installation of a fire-suppression water tank buried at the edge of the property beneath the drop-off roadway," he explained. This tank holds 30,000 gal. of water for use in the event of a fire on the site.
The site also contains the Maryland Tri-State Champion flowering dogwood tree, according to Shron. "It has a 72 in. circumference and is 36 ft tall," Shron said. "Preservation of this tree impacted how we configured the parking area and designed the site work to the south of the visitor center. We had to take special precautions during demolition and construction to limit disturbance around the tree and ensure no roots were damaged in the process." (The championship designation was granted by the Maryland Big Tree Program, which is managed by a volunteer program with support from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources' Forest Service division.)
"Parks, especially local parks, are what make a community vibrant, according to Roth. "A park is a resource in a community that everyone can use. … It's not meant to be only for some people," he says. One of the important aspects of park design is being able to identify the best type of park for a specific community or area, Roth says.
The denser the population, the more difficult it can be to adequately meet the needs of everyone, especially young people. The Chicago Park District, which serves nearly 3 million city residents in 77 community areas, is enormous. It has more than 8,800 acres of parkland, more than 600 parks, 26 mi of lakefront, 12 museums, 2 world-class botanical conservatories, 16 lagoons, and 50 nature areas, according to Michael Kelly, the general superintendent and chief executive officer of the district, who responded to written queries from
In a city—and within a program—of this size, hyper-specialization is possible. The district is in the process of finalizing a new $53.7-million track and field center in the Pullman neighborhood of Chicago's South Side. It will include a banked 200 m track, an 8-lane sprint track, seating for 3,500 spectators, and space for track and field events such as hurdles, shot put, and long jump. "Kids in Chicago deserve a diverse array of traditional and nontraditional program offerings," Kelly said. "The Track and Field Center in Gately Park is part of our response to that challenge; it is about delivering on those needs. It is all about engaging our youth with programs and competition in their own community."
Creating community gathering and family-focused recreational spaces in urban neighborhoods is what local parks are known for, and it can be accomplished while carefully balancing the available maintenance and operation funds within a system. In small systems, even adding sidewalks to a community green space that was previously just a grassy field adds significant costs. Instead of one person on a zero-turn mower, the budget has to reflect the use of a two-person landscape team with one person to mow and another to edge the sidewalks, explains Shonnda Smith, the senior director of parks and recreation for the city of Mobile, Alabama.
As a result, Mobile is working to balance its maintenance costs and available amenities by, in part, establishing more natural areas where possible. By creating no-mow zones, for example, where wildflowers and insects such as butter-flies and bees can flourish, those mowing funds can be transferred for use in more developed areas, such as those parks with playgrounds, fields, and courts. Getting buy-in from communities so that they understand the benefits of more natural areas-for the flora and fauna as well as the park system's maintenance budget—is a crucial step in that process, Smith says.
If there has been any silver lining around the COVID-19 pandemic, it has been that more people have rediscovered the parks, trails, and other natural areas near their homes and have taken advantage of all the physical and mental health benefits associated with spending time in nature. As Nagel put it in a statement released on April 3 (shortly after interviews for this feature had been completed): "Parks and green space are more essential now than ever, providing much needed solace and helping people cope with the uncertainty of the health crisis. When we emerge from this health crisis, parks and public spaces will help us heal together, just as they have following other national and local tragedies."
Catherine A. Cardno, Ph.D., is the senior editor of
, May/June 2020, © American Society Of Civil Engineers. All Rights Reserved