Kaid Benfield Archive


Parks for revitalization - Dr. King would approve, I think

Kaid Benfield

Posted January 19, 2009 at 1:42PM

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The image just below, which photographer Bill Lim has made available to us through the wonder of the Creative Commons, is of the beautiful Martin Luther King, Jr., memorial water sculpture in San Francisco's Yerba Buena Gardens.  As we reflect on Dr. King's legacy today, Yerba Buena is not a bad place to start.  MLK memorial, Yerba Buena Gardens (by: Bill Lim, creative commons license)This welcome respite from the highly urban SoMa district didn't happen by accident.  It was created over a 30-year period by the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency in what was once "a moribund swath of half-empty office buildings, run-down warehouses, and shoddy housing near the Tenderloin," according to a new article in the journal Housing and Community Development.

Written by my friend Peter Harnik and his Trust for Public Land (TPL) colleagues Ben Welle and Albert Pingree, the article "When There's Nothing to Conserve - Create!" highlights a number of successes where redevelopment authorities have invested in city parks as a path to revitalization.  Although the discourse around cities and neighborhoods was very different and not nearly as robust in Dr. King's time, I like to think that he would approve of these efforts to bring our cities back to life in an inclusive, public way.  As the authors point out:

"In new or expanding cities, parks are formed through conservation: saving virgin lands like farms, forests, and ranches. In built-out cities, it's just the opposite: parks themselves are a type of development-and they often serve as the anchor for the old and new buildings around them. From Boston to San Francisco, successful parks have been created out of former factories, home sites, office buildings, railyards, parking lots, landfills, and even highways.   As a result, many city parks aren't being created by park and recreation departments but rather by redevelopment authorities."

        Yerba Buena Gardens (by: Marisa Arrona, creative commons license)   Yerba Buena Gardens (by: Justin Baugh, creative commons license)

Yerba Buena, not far from NRDC's San Francisco office and pictured again just above, is certainly a shining example.  TPL conducted a survey and found 75 such "redeveloparks" in big cities around the country, including Portland, San Jose, San Diego, Seattle, Denver, Albuquerque, Memphis, and Pittsburgh, whose lovely Frick Park (immediately below) was expanded with redevelopment investment.  Frick Park (by: EasyPickle/Greg, creative commons license)The emphasis, say the authors, is on parks for ordinary people to use and enjoy:  "The best of the designs concentrate on walk­ability, mixed uses, economic development, environmental benefits, and contributions to quality of life."

Seattle's High Point, which I have highlighted here before as a terrific model of community development, is cited as an example of integrating salmon-protecting stormwater control features into a four-acre park with a quarter-mile path, a boulder-filled stream, benches, a lawn, a playground, and gardens.  The authors write that "today [High Point's] Viewpoint Park is full of dog walkers, stroller pushers, kids, and families-and it is a real feather in the cap of the authority."

I recommend the article, which goes on to describe funding mechanisms and other details.  At NRDC, our smart growth program has begun working with our clean water staff on ways to bring more greenery into our urban neighborhoods, not instead of the density we need but in support of it.  My colleague Nancy Stoner suggested the joint activity and I think she's exactly right.

To return to Dr. King's legacy during this historic week (I heard Sam Cooke's wonderful song "A Change Is Gonna Come" as I began writing this piece on Sunday morning, and it has never sounded more appropriate*), I love it that his life is celebrated not just in the heart of our biggest cities such as San Francisco, Pittsburgh and Seattle, but also in our smaller towns and neighborhoods.  I leave you with two community parks named in his honor in Junction City, Kansas, and Hammond, Indiana, respectively:

  MLK Jr. Park (by: City of Junction City, KS)  MLK Jr. Park, Hammond, IN (by: Lobstar28/Liza, creative commons license) 

*(Later in the day, I remembered that the song was invoked by the president-elect on the night of his election, and watched it performed by Bettye Lavette and Jon Bon Jovi at the "We Are One" inaugural concert at the Lincoln Memorial.)