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City parks studied by Urban Land Institute, suggestions provided

a photo of a green space

Story by Elizabeth Walztoni, News Intern
Photos courtesy of Pexels, LocalWiki

With a campus so abundant in green space and a large park next door, it can be easy to take the presence of nature for granted here at Aquinas. But not all of Grand Rapids has an equal opportunity to enjoy the outdoors.

The Urban Land Institute (ULI), an association of professionals in urban planning, land use and architecture, visited Grand Rapids to evaluate the parks system and offer recommendations for its expansion. The committee of volunteer members conducted their study at the invitation of the Grand Rapids Department of Parks & Recreation from March 25-27. Their findings were presented in a public meeting at City Hall on Wednesday, March 27.

Central to the study was the 10-Minute Walk Campaign, whose name refers to the ideal distance for all city residents to live from a park. The campaign has been endorsed by 230 mayors throughout the country, including Grand Rapids’ Rosalynn Bliss.

ULI presenters explained that parks contribute to communities in many more ways than providing a place to play. Areas with plentiful green space see increased economic value as property values rise. Parks also perform a number of environmental functions, including stormwater management and biodiversity protection. Community bonds are strengthened in the use of public spaces as well.

A map showing the three wards Grand Rapids is divided into

Grand Rapids is divided into three wards; the ULI study focused on the first and third of these / Courtesy of LocalWiki

Residents of Grand Rapids have different levels of access to these services depending where they live, and the study focused on communities with the greatest need — the First and Third Wards (see map above). These were described as “areas of socioeconomic disparity,” where development should aim to create and maintain “inclusive spaces.” This equity focus intends to manifest in several ways. An example is so-called “catch-up provision,” in which more funds are allocated to the parks that need them most.

The 10-Minute Walk Campaign comes with additional considerations. “In order for people to make that walk, the destination needs to be there and the walk needs to be welcoming,” said Rachel Banner, another presenter and a senior program manager at the National Recreation and Park Association. This means ensuring sufficient lighting, crosswalks and traffic control throughout the city, in addition to promoting easy accessibility through multiple modes like bicycle and bus.

Challenges facing the realization of this vision are largely financial. City parks receive supplemental funding from a millage, or property tax, that citizens voted to approve in 2013. The $4 million fund is largely spent on the acquisition of new land. According to the presentation, however, the millage does not support operations; combined with an underfunded and understaffed department, this means that both new and existing parks are often inadequately maintained. The ULI noted from stakeholder interviews that parks entrances were sometimes unmarked or obstructed, for example.

The Grand Rapids Parks & Recreation Department of Operations & Management is underfunded by $3.25 million, and spends $1,000 less per acre on its public land than the national average for cities of comparable size. Another challenge moving forward will be the acquisition of funding through avenues such as concessions without compromising the focus on inclusive growth.

A second major hurdle outlined in the presentation was a historic mistrust between citizens and city government. ULI recommended a new acquisition strategy that involved neighbors in the planning process, as well a dedicated staff member for community relations.

The breadth of things that parks do remind us of “the way that everything is connected to everything else,” Melanie Smith, a senior director of transit-oriented communities for the Los Angeles Metro and participant in the ULI study, said.

About the Writer:

45198424_349831512435226_2338936578337931264_nElizabeth Walztoni is a sophomore majoring in Geography with a minor in writing. 

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