Urban Parks Transcend National Politics

The benefits of public green spaces within, or accessible to, urban areas are much greater than are often immediately understood. Here’s how cities stand to gain from increasing access to parks.

The High Line is a public park built on an historic freight rail line elevated above the streets on Manhattan’s West Side. (Getty Images)

The High Line is a public park built on an historic freight rail line elevated above the streets on Manhattan’s West Side. (ferrantraite/Getty Images)

This is a guest post by Jaime B. Matyas.

As the nation seeks to unite after a contentious presidential election, areas of shared commitment should be prized and pursued. One of those areas is the increasingly important role of public lands in or near urban areas. President Donald Trump previously donated land in the New York City metropolitan area for a state park, and Hillary Clinton had called for the revitalization of more than 3,000 city parks within 10 years. Their actions highlight the value of public land and its growing importance in proximity to urban areas, and they could form the foundation for productive community engagement.

The benefits of public green spaces within, or accessible to, urban areas are much greater than are often immediately understood. They include, of course, the spiritual renewal that comes from experiencing the beauty of natural habitats, the joy of recreation, and the opportunity for relief from the daily stresses of life – but other benefits are even more profound.

Public parks have an extraordinary capacity to reveal individual passions for discovery and open up career opportunities. Monique Dailey, Youth Programs Manager for the Washington, D.C. Area at the Student Conservation Association (SCA), was 10 years old before she saw her first “real park” and says that she didn’t realize at the time that “it would be my salvation from the drugs and violence that were ravaging my community.” She became a Junior Ranger in the National Park Service, then a volunteer at the Rock Creek Park Nature Center, and finally an SCA crew member in Rock Creek Park before volunteering on a national crew at Salmon Challis National Forest in Idaho and interning for a summer. When it came time to apply for college, she had 750 volunteer service hours with SCA and a glowing recommendation to the Admissions Director.

AmaRece Davis had a similar experience in Homewood, one of Pittsburgh’s poorest neighborhoods. When two of his older brothers went to prison for murder, he saw himself “heading down that same dark path.” Then he got a break. He started working with the SCA, building trails, clearing brush and planting trees around Pittsburgh. That enabled him to join an SCA crew at Sequoia National Park in California, surrounded by giant sequoia trees.

“I sat at the base of one of these giants on my 18th birthday,” he writes, “and thought about all of my friends and relatives who had never been out of Pittsburgh and of others who hadn’t even survived to be 18. I came home a different person. I had found something larger than myself, figuratively and literally. I never used to care about litter, for example, and based on all the trash on the streets where I lived, neither did anyone else. When I got back from the West, I immediately organized a recycling program at Westinghouse High School and became known as Recycling Rece.” He has gone on to attend community college and complete several SCA internships, and recently became a Pittsburgh city park ranger.

The conservation of parks also provides skills that can enhance job and career opportunities. Research conducted by the renowned Search Institute revealed that SCA participants develop such valuable traits as “expressing ideas, engaging others to reach a goal, responsibility for the greater good, sense of purpose, openness to challenge, perseverance, awareness of their strengths and weaknesses, and more.” These skills all enhance one’s ability to succeed in life and in careers. That’s why it’s so important that urban residents as well as rural ones reap the benefits of America’s public lands.

At present, visitors to our national parks are, in the words of former Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, “older and whiter.” And a 2015 report by the Outdoor Foundation revealed that 73 percent of outdoor participants generally are Caucasian. But public parks can benefit all Americans – and a broadly diverse population can relate effectively to parks, which leads to more public support. Some methods that are valuable in broadening outreach in urban areas include the following:

  • Overnight Camp-Outs, which have been conducted by The White House and many governors in association with Great Outdoors Month with much success
  • Day Camps, which can provide single-day or week-long environmental education programs that introduce youth to nature-in-the-neighborhood as well as ways to be more ecologically friendly
  • Afterschool Programs, which can provide environmental education for younger children while engaging older youth in assisting with the program and with park restoration

When public parks and their conservation contribute so much to people and their communities, they are worthy of broader engagement and support – especially when so many young people need the work experience and career-enhancing opportunities that the conservation of parks can provide. In September, the unemployment rate for teenage youth (16 to 19 years old) was 15.8 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. At the same time, our national parks alone have a maintenance backlog of nearly $12 Billion.

Enhancing our nation’s parks and ensuring that their upkeep benefits everyone can become a point of community and national unification.

jaime_matyas_125x150About the author: Jaime B. Matyas is the president and CEO of the Student Conservation Association, the national leader in youth service and stewardship.

Top 5 Most Popular NLC Blog Posts of 2016

This year saw a number of posts that reached thousands of readers and were shared widely on social media. Here are the top five, in no particular order.

7 Ways City Leaders Can Address Racial Inequities
City leaders must step up to take the lead with their police departments and community members to address racial inequities in their respective cities and towns.

10 Innovative Ways to Attract Millennials to Your City
Philadelphia is a city that has implemented a set of successful policies aimed at attracting and retaining talent in the last decade. During that same period, the city’s population grew by 100,000.

Four Bad Habits to Avoid at City Council Meetings
Learning these principles and avoiding these bad habits will improve your meetings — and your decision-making.

5 Ways Parks Provide a Return on Investment
Parks and public spaces are an integral part of the atmosphere and culture of a city or town. More than that, though, they have a massive positive financial impact – one that is generally overlooked.

5 Things Mayors Can Do to Create Healthier Communities
NLC’s new report, Addressing Health Disparities in Cities: Lessons from the Field, provides lessons learned and examples of actions that mayors and other city leaders are taking to intentionally address childhood obesity-related health disparities.

Paul Konz headshotAbout the author: Paul Konz is the Senior Editor at the National League of Cities.

National Park Service Launches NPS Urban Agenda

This is a guest post by Jonathan B. Jarvis, Director of the U.S. National Park Service.

Jefferson National Expansion MemorialThe Jefferson National Expansion Memorial in St. Louis, Mo., exemplifies the innovative ways city leaders, businesses and NGOs are investing in new parks, new park designs, and new ways to engage communities in creating healthy and livable cities. (National Park Service)

One hundred years ago, lawmakers were considering a radical idea to preserve some of our nation’s most iconic landscapes “for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.”

Indeed, what the founders of the national park idea had in mind nearly 100 years ago was incredibly innovative – but today, we live in a different time and a different era that requires new ways of thinking and a renewed relationship between parks and the American people. Since 1916, the American public has diversified and evolved; so, too, has our need to diversify National Park Service parks and programs to answer the call of the next century.

As we prepare to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service’s establishment in 2016, we have spent a great deal of time thinking about how we can make national parks relevant to a new generation of Americans. One constant in those discussions is the importance of urban parks and National Park Service programs in urban areas.

People are often surprised to hear how urban the National Park Service is. For instance:

  • Forty of the country’s 50 most populated urban areas have national parks located within them;
  • One-third of all NPS sites are located in urban areas;
  • Thirty-six percent of all NPS visitation occurs at our urban sites – Golden Gate being the most visited;
  • NPS historic preservation tax credits have contributed significantly to preserving the character of our cities, generating more than $66 billion in private investment in historic rehabilitations; and
  • Some 30 NPS programs serve urban communities, providing funds and technical assistance for recreational facilities, environmental restoration, historic architecture, historic research, trail building, and youth engagement.

Recognizing this strong base of urban engagement and its potential to connect new audiences to national parks, last week, the National Park Service announced the Urban Agenda for the National Park Service. The Urban Agenda establishes a framework for an unprecedented strategic alignment of parks, programs and partnerships that will better serve communities.

A key component of the Urban Agenda will be realizing the core principles that call for being relevant to all Americans and creating a culture of collaboration. We have identified 10 model cities where we will develop our capacity to act as “One National Park Service” to better serve communities. To assist in activating the Agenda, we have developed a fellowship program that will deploy Urban Fellows in each model city and ultimately serve as a pipeline for growing NPS urban leaders.

The model cities were selected to provide opportunities to address a variety of challenges in spaces where we already have a national park located within the city, places that have national parks nearby, and locations that have no physical national park units, but strong ties to NPS programs. They include:

  1. Boston
  2. New York City
  3. Philadelphia
  4. Richmond, Virginia
  5. Washington
  6. Jacksonville, Florida
  7. St. Louis
  8. Detroit
  9. Tucson, Arizona
  10. Richmond, California

Importantly, the NPS Urban Agenda is supported by the President’s 21st Century Conservation agenda that calls for full funding of the Land and Water Conservation Fund and a $326 million NPS Centennial Fund. If enacted by Congress, this would provide an additional $107 million for federal land acquisition, $47 million for state grants and $25 million for the Urban Parks and Recreation Fund, which assists economically distressed urban communities with the revitalization and improvement of recreation opportunities.

My boss, Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell, has launched an ambitious youth initiative that will engage the next generation of leaders and stewards through recreation, education, volunteerism, and employment. Specifically, by 2017, the Department will convene coalitions in 50 cities across the country to create more opportunities for young people to play, learn, serve, and work outdoors. The 10 NPS model cities are part of this movement, and over the next year and half, her initiative will result in investments in and support for 50 coalitions in many of our largest and most densely populated cities in the country. The Department of the Interior’s youth initiative goals include engaging 10 million kids in outdoor recreation programs; providing educational opportunities to 10 million of the nation’s K-12 students annually; engaging one million volunteers in support of public lands; and providing 100,000 work and training opportunities to young adults, including returning veterans.

This month, the National Park Service and our partner the National Park Foundation also launched a broad public awareness and engagement campaign called “Find Your Park.” This campaign extends an invitation to the public to understand the current breadth of the National Park Service stands for and rethink where and what all that a park can be.

The National Park Service recognizes that we cannot accomplish our goal of connecting the next generation to the benefits of their parks and public lands without the support and assistance of a whole host of partners. So, I invite you to join us and find ways to engage and share in a public dialogue, to learn from one another, to address the impact of climate change on our cities, to create education and employment pathways for disengaged youth, and maybe even to co-design the next great urban national park. Go out and Find Your Park.

Jonathan_Jarvis_150x183About the Author: Jonathan B. Jarvis began his career with the National Park Service in 1976 as a seasonal interpreter in Washington, D.C. Today, he manages that agency whose mission is to preserve America’s most treasured landscapes and cultural icons. Managing the National Park Service on the eve of its centennial in 2016, Jarvis has focused on several key areas that are critical for the future: enhancing stewardship of the places entrusted to the Service’s care; maximizing the educational potential of parks and programs; engaging new generations and audiences, and ensuring the welfare and fulfillment of National Park Service employees. His blueprint for the agency’s second century, A Call to Action, calls for innovative, ambitious, yet practical ways to fulfill the National Park Service’s promise to America in the 21st century.

President Obama’s “Every Kid in a Park” Initiative: Connecting Kids to Nature and History

Two developments last week provide opportunities for cities to connect young people to the outdoors and to local history.

Every Kid in a Park initiativeThe President’s new Every Kid in a Park initiative will help city leaders develop and expand strategies for getting more young people outdoors and connected to our national parks. (Getty Images)

For some children, spending time outdoors isn’t as easy as it should be. In many communities, safety concerns and a lack of access to parks and green space hinder young people from spending quality time outside. This, coupled with a national screen time average of 7½ hours a day (seven days a week) among eight to eighteen year olds, has contributed to an increasingly indoor and sedentary lifestyle for many young people.

Last week, President Obama announced a new initiative, dubbed Every Kid in a Park. This initiative will provide all fourth-grade students and their families with free admission to national parks and other federal lands for a year beginning in September 2015. It’s an important step to providing needed access to the outdoors and ensuring that kids across the country have the opportunity to visit America’s national parks and landmarks. President Obama also requested new funding in his FY 2016 Budget to support transportation for school outings to parks for students from low-income areas.

In line with the Administration’s new initiative, NLC is partnering with the Children & Nature Network on the Cities Promoting Access to Nature initiative. This new, three-year project will help city leaders develop and expand strategies for getting more young people outdoors and connected to parks, green space and natural areas, with a focus on children and youth in economically stressed communities.

New National Monuments
Along with the Every Kid in a Park Initiative, the President announced that he is designating three new national monuments, including the Pullman National Monument in Chicago. “What makes Pullman special is the role it plays in our history,” President Obama said on a recent trip to Chicago, where he designated the factory district a national monument. “This place has been a milestone in our journey toward a more perfect union.”

The Pullman District was America’s first planned industrial town, created in the 1880s to house railroad and factory workers. Many of the jobs in the Pullman district went to African Americans, and the site became a symbol of economic opportunity for African Americans and other minority groups. The area was also where the seeds for the modern labor rights movement were planted. In 1894, workers organized a strike after railroad mogul George Pullman refused to lower rents when he lowered wages.

The designation of Pullman as a national monument means that fourth-graders and their families in Chicago, and from cities and towns across the country, will have the opportunity to visit the site (at no charge) and learn about our nation’s rich labor and civil rights history.

EmilyAbout the Author: Emily Pickren is the Principal Associate for Communications in the NLC Institute for Youth, Education & Families. Follow Emily on Twitter at @emilypickren.

Transportation Funding Needed for National Park Service

The National Park Service manages nearly 10,000 miles of roadways — 1,100 miles of which are major parkways.

GW-ParkwayGeorge Washington Parkway 04 2012 1403 by Mariordo (Mario Roberto Duran Ortiz) – Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons.

If the mention of transportation for national parks leads you to conjure images of dirt roads and unpaved trails, think again. The George Washington Memorial Parkway, a 25-mile-long stretch maintained by the National Park Service (NPS) along the south bank of the Potomac River, showcases a more accurate picture.

Those who fly in and out of Ronald Reagan National Airport may recognize the GW Parkway as a primary artery in and out of Washington, DC, one of the nation’s busier urban centers. But few may recognize the Parkway as a national park road. With a maintenance backlog of $11.6 million, the GW Parkway exemplifies the transportation funding crisis facing the National Park Service this year, along with other public land management agencies across the country.

Nearly one-third of America’s surface transportation systems are managed by federal agencies. As such, they serve as crucial channels to recreation, conservation and tourism interests in every major city and as central thoroughfares in gateway communities from coast to coast. These lands and waters include national parks and national forests, national wildlife refuges and more. Think Independence National Historical Park in Philadelphia, Statue of Liberty National Monument in New York City, or Golden Gate National Recreation Area in San Francisco.

The backlog of National Park Service transportation projects accounts for $6 billion, or more than half of the Park Service’s total deferred maintenance backlog of $11.3 billion. Our federally-managed lands and waters are a national responsibility. Though located in some of the nation’s busiest urban centers, access to and through these areas is a national responsibility. It is a responsibility poorly served. Each time someone fills his or her gas tank, less than one penny per gallon goes to fund major national park roads, bridges and trails. To re-iterate, the backlog of national park transportation projects account for $6 billion, or more than HALF of the Park Service’s total maintenance backlog of $11.3 billion.

The National Park Service manages nearly 10,000 miles of roadways — 1100 miles of which are major parkways. Moreover, roughly 150 public transit systems, like buses, ferries, and trolleys operate at 72 national parks, many located in urban centers and gateway communities whose tourist economies depend on these transit systems. The National Park Service is responsible for more than 1500 bridges (including the Memorial Bridge in Washington DC), and 60 tunnels. And because most bridges and tunnels were built in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s, they are in the second half of their service lives and therefore will require increasing amounts of funding for both maintenance and reconstruction in the years ahead.

As mayors and urban leaders focus their attention next spring on the reauthorization of the federal transportation law, MAP-21, they would be wise to support funding for America’s parks and other public lands when Congress develops a strategy to succeed MAP-21, particularly in light of the National Park System Centennial in 2016. The programs – and funding levels – for federal lands transportation have been largely unchanged for twenty years.

The next federal surface transportation program should include a new chapter addressing the federal responsibility for accessing our national lands. Municipal leaders should remember that of the 401 units managed by the National Park Service, more than half are located in urban centers. The nation should invest adequate funds to meet and maintain public lands system transportation needs, and mayors and city leaders must urge the use of Highway Trust Fund revenue for this purpose.

Karen Nozik's Head Shot blogAbout the author: Karen Nozik has served as the Director of Ally Development and Partnerships at the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) in Washington, DC since 2011. In previous experience, she was Communications Director for Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) in Boulder, Colorado, and Director of Outreach for Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, a national nonprofit organization in Washington, DC, working with communities to preserve and transform unused rail corridors into trails.