Your Park: Why It's More Essential Than You Think

Summer is officially here, and the summer months signify different things to different people: time to go on vacation, trips to the beach, or firing up the barbecue.

However, there is usually one unifying theme to everyone's summer plans — and that's spending as much time as possible outdoors, often in our local park.

During this October's National Community Planning Month, APA will be celebrating 10 years of the Great Places in America program. Over the past decade, APA's Great Places in America has commemorated and highlighted some of our nation's most beautiful, captivating, and well-planned parks.

Parks are so much more than collections of grassy lawns to lay on or benches from which to people-watch. Parks serve an irreplaceable role in developing and preserving our sense of community and pride in where we live. They bring people together, inspire commerce, and spread an appreciation for the splendor of nature.

The wide variety of Great Places designees from the past 10 years demonstrates just how integral parks are to our daily lives and the overall functioning of society.

Millennium Park opened only in 2004, but it has grown to become a staple of Chicago city living. Photo by Terry Evans, City of Chicago.

Parks, like fingerprints, are unique and give us a sense of identity and belonging. Manhattan's Central Park and St. Louis's "heart and crown jewel" Forest Park are so deeply engrained in its citizens' sense of place that they can represent the cities as much as any other structure.

Some parks, like The Emerald Necklace of Boston, are centuries old and have served as defining characteristics of our built environment for generations. Chicago's Millennium Park, on the other hand, has been around for barely a decade and yet serves no less significant a role in the lives of Windy City street goers.

Biker enjoying the Lincoln Trail Network's 100+ miles of pedestrian and biker friendly pathways. Photo courtesy City of Lincoln.

Not only do parks provide us with a sense of belonging, but they can also serve to connect us. They can do so physically with the 131-mile Lincoln Trail Network, or even culturally by welcoming visitors in 25 different languages to "The Park for Everyone" at Los Angeles' Grand Park. It's easy to break away from civilization by visiting Minneapolis' 6,400-acre Grand Round Scenic Byway. But for those just looking for some greenery amongst their city skyline, the Norman B. Leventhal Park's 1.7 acres with free wi-fi should work just fine.

Considered a catalyst for Providence's revitalization, walkers, bikers, joggers, and artists sketching the city all can be seen daily at Waterplace Park. Photo courtesy Rhode Island Planning Department.

Despite their lack of skyscraping buildings or commercial hubs, parks can server as tremendous engines for economic stimulation and centers for urban revival as well. U.S. Representative and former Mayor of Providence David Cicilline has credited Waterplace Park in Providence, Rhode Island, as being "central to the revitalization" of one of New England's largest cities, and Dallas's Fair Park helps to contribute a staggering $300 million annually to the city's economy.

In 2004, the Campus Martius Park in Detroit was reopened as "the world's best public space," and has served as the catalyst for over $700 million in downtown investment since.

And of course, parks play an indispensable role in protecting our environment and well-being. When Philadelphia's Fairmount Park was assembled in the 19th century, it was done so both to create a public space for its residents and, perhaps more importantly, to mitigate industrial pollution and protect the city's natural watershed.

Denver's Washington Park hosted an Arbor Day event that brought hundreds of volunteers to the park to plant trees, and the park's meadows are being naturalized with native grasses and wildflowers to reduce water consumption.

In addition, EarthFair, the world's largest free annual environmental fair, has been hosted in San Deigo's Balboa Park for more than 25 years and counting.

Originally developed to mitigate industrial pollution, Fairmount Park has been essential for improving the health of Philadelphians for generations, including hosting the annual Boxers' Trail 5k. Photo by Albert Yee.

So this summer, while you're enjoying the unmatched scenery of your local park (though it's hard to beat Seattle's Rainier Vista) take a moment to reflect on what else your park brings to your city and your community, beyond the mere aesthetics. And remember! Parks are not just for warm weather. Just ask Buffalonians when Delaware Park hosts its annual snowman-making challenge at their Flurrious! festival every winter.

Don't forget to celebrate Great Places in America's 10 Year Anniversary during National Community Planning Month — stay tuned for updates on how you can best participate this October. In the meantime, learn more about all of APA's Great Public Spaces by exploring our Great Places Story Map.

If a community park you know that's worthy of recognition is missing from the list, consider nominating it as one of our 2018 Great Places in America next spring.

Top image: Rainier Vista is one of the most captivating parks in all of Seattle, with its unparalleled view of Mt. Rainier. Photo by Kristine Kenney.


About the Author
Jerah Smith is the communications fellow for APA's Great Places in America program.

June 30, 2017

By Jerah Smith