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How Urban Parks Can Help Transform Downtowns

By June 6, 2022No Comments

Park systems in urban settings have a common thread as an increasing number of people nationwide are realizing they can have a positive economic impact on their communities, according to Fred Buzo, San Jose director of SPUR, a Bay Area urban planning research organization during the “Urban Parks as the Anchor for Equitable Downtown Economic Development: Case Study from San Jose” session at the ULI Spring Meeting in San Diego.

Yuxiang Luo, also a panelist and a director of urban economic development at New York-based urban strategy consulting firm James Lima Planning + Development, said many cities are now prioritizing parks and recreation as part of their local economic development strategies, and there is a great demand for space from government entities as well as from private developers. He pointed out urban parks bring tangible benefits to cities, including attracting visitors as well as talent and investments.

Making the Case

“In New York City alone, according to the latest research, the city’s park system generates $1.1 billion of healthcare savings because—again, common sense—parks make people healthier,” Luo said.

In addition, the city’s park system creates $18 billion in tourism spending annually as well-maintained parks can help bring in visitors and increase foot traffic for local retail. Luo said a good park can increase demand, which translates into higher property values. Such parks can raise the property values of surrounding real estate on average as much as 10 percent, according to national research.

Luo also pointed to the ULI report, “The Case for Open Space,” which outlines why the real estate industry should have incentive to finance open space. When managing and investing in parks, there are many variables to consider.

“For example, what should the park be like?” Luo asked. “Who is the park for? How to convince those unwilling stakeholders to care, and last but not least, how to secure sufficient and stable funding for our parks? In our experience working across the country, we see there’s one common solution that will be useful to answer all of these questions, which is public-private partnership.”

Such partnerships are generally discussed in land use and development deals but not as often when it comes to parks, according to Luo. He and other panelists said the partnerships can work to the advantage of Guadalupe River Park in downtown San Jose, California, the third largest city in the state. James Lima Planning + Development worked with SPUR on a Knight Foundation-funded case study of the park.

Location, Location

The three-mile urban park, which runs through downtown, is at the center of a major commercial real estate boom. One of the projects includes a multibillion-dollar mixed-use project planned by Google. Researchers found 62 percent of the new real estate planned for the area is located within a five-minute walk from the park.

“This growth that we are generating comes with a need to build this infrastructure, and parks are such a critical part of that infrastructure,” Nicolle Burnham, another panelist and deputy director of design and planning for the City of San Jose’s Department of Parks, Recreation and Neighborhood Services, said.

Considering Public Needs

Burnham would like to have the opportunity to work with developers in order to converse with them early on regarding whether to establish a park and “what the needs are in the public realm,” she added. The city is also making new investments in Guadalupe River Park, including increasing maintenance staff with the goal of helping spur private investment, she said.

San Jose has created, through one-time funding from the city’s mayor and through Covid relief, a “Resilience Corps” program that provides jobs for recent high school or college graduates who may have had difficulty finding a job during the pandemic, according to Jason Su, a panelist and executive director of the Guadalupe River Park Conservancy. The city has also established a “Beautify SJ” group, which focuses on abatement of encampments and trash service.

Another program, “San Jose Bridge,” aids unhoused individuals with job training. The Conservancy also aims to highlight underrepresented voices through its Guadalupe River Park Art Walk. With plans for new development, there are also obstacles that must be overcome.

We have a host of challenges that are happening, not unlike what is happening in a lot of other downtown cities,” Burnham said. “We have social challenges. We’ve got a drop in commercial tenancy happening downtown based on the pandemic, at the same time we have a lot of projects in the pipeline.”

Chloe Shipp, director of public space operations for the San Jose Downtown Association, can attest to the challenges. Arecent strategic planning process showed safety is the biggest concern association members have, she said.

“Whether it’s perceived or real threats to safety, folks no longer felt comfortable coming downtown into our public spaces,” Shipp said.

Extreme Income Inequality

An innovative approach is needed to work with unhoused individuals downtown, she added. Luo agreed, saying the homelessness crisis hinders the programming and operations of the park in addition to deterring visitors to the “highly unequal city,” he said.

“Just on the different sides of the park itself, you can find neighborhoods whose income levels are on the opposite end of the spectrum, and this high degree of income inequality as well as the lack of affordable housing exacerbated the homelessness crisis in the Bay Area and those directly manifest in the park itself,” Luo said.

For developers, planners, and governments to best work together, their vision must be pertinent to as large a group of people as possible and its value must be communicated well, among other steps, according to Luo.

“When you see some fundamental differences among the parties, find the common ground and reach the common denominator through smart policy planning and design,” Luo said. “I believe when you do those, you can get people to care and to collaborate, and only when you collaborate, can you move mountains.”

KAREN JORDAN is an LA-based business writer.

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