City parks aren’t luxuries. They are critical infrastructure.

an aerial photo of Central Park in New York City
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Nearly 80 percent of Americans live in cities and metropolitan areas. Increasingly, those cities are challenged by aging water and transportation systems that are nearing or exceeding their designed capacity. A new focus on flood and other natural disaster resilience is driving city planners to leverage mixed-use infrastructure, including parks, to address civic needs while taking advantage of cost savings and other social benefits. 

Leveraging green infrastructure

City parks can be designed to act like sponges, holding water during rain events and slowly filtering stormwater after the event has passed. Cities are using that natural capacity as green infrastructure to complement the traditional alternative of building and maintaining large underground networks of pipes and tunnels. And parks do this all while improving air quality, reducing the heat-island effect and creating close-to-home opportunities for outdoor recreation and experiences with nature. 

If you need further proof of the importance of parks, ask America’s mayors. Last year, the U.S. Conference of Mayors adopted a park infrastructure resolution that urges Congress to include city parks in any infrastructure packages it considers. Such mixed-use infrastructure projects are building a strong track record of leveraging public funds with private capital to address many urban challenges.

City parks for health

Beyond the physical infrastructure challenges, cities are also facing our national health crisis. Nearly half of all adults in the U.S. have chronic health conditions such as heart disease, diabetes and obesity, and 1 in 3 children is obese or overweight. Mental illness affects more than 43 million adults in the U.S., according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Physical activity can reduce or prevent serious health problems, and a nearby park equipped with the right facilities and programming can help get people outside and moving.

Stories of success: Atlanta, Denver and Houston

Atlanta, Ga., is creating transportation options and addressing stormwater management issues with the Atlanta BeltLine. The 22-mile loop around the city connects communities and residents, while the parks along the BeltLine are engineered to manage stormwater and improve resilience to flood risks. The Historic Fourth Ward Park, for example, is designed to hold up to 5 million gallons of stormwater during rain events and offers a park for residents to enjoy at other times with walking trails, greenspace, and an amphitheater. By investing in this green infrastructure option instead of only pipes and underground tanks, the city saved $14 million dollars and provided a catalyst for the flood-prone and neglected Old Fourth Ward neighborhood to be revitalized. The Atlanta BeltLine is one of the most highly traveled multi-use trails in the United States with more than 1.2 million users every year.

Confluence Park in Denver, Col., is considered the birthplace of the city. Once an industrial dumping ground, Confluence Park and the South Platte River Corridor are now a premier outdoor recreation destination helping to drive downtown Denver’s continued economic growth and reduce health care costs via increased recreation. The project received $1.2 million in federal Land and Water Conservation Fund grants, which helped leverage an additional $2.5 billion in local public and private investment.

Houston is improving its resilience to flooding, in part, through the revitalization of Buffalo Bayou Park. The 160-acre linear park links a network of trails, open space, public art and other amenities while helping the city manage stormwater runoff, especially after large-scale weather events. A $58 million capital campaign transformed the park from a neglected drainage ditch to a citywide signature park with more than 15 miles of multiuse trails and footpaths that provide significant recreational and cultural benefits to Houston’s growing population. Approximately 44,000 households are within a 10-minute walk to the park, and 500,000 people are within a 30-minute bike ride. There is approximately $2 billion in development taking place adjacent to the park, providing jobs and additional economic stimulus.

Emerging equitable funding strategies and tools

Many of these city-building initiatives leverage multiple sources of funding from federal, state, local, philanthropic, private sector and more sources. City Parks Alliance recently commissioned the report “Investing in Equitable Urban Park Systems: Emerging Strategies and Tools,” as part of a national initiative to help cities understand various sources of funding and the additional implications each can have on communities, specifically related to equity.

Urban Institute led the research and published the report, which explores twenty funding models and their equity considerations in cities of various sizes across the country. This work is made possible with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Urban parks are not luxuries, they are part of the basic physical structure needed for a functioning society. They make cities more livable, environmentally resilient, attract businesses and jobs, increase economic competitiveness, and create new revenue streams – all while saving cities billions on traditional infrastructure costs. Parks are essential infrastructure for 21st century cities.

Want to learn more about parks as infrastructure? Check out our video series and case study report at cityparksalliance.org/infrastructure.

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