Local Government Magazine
Parks, Sport & Recreation

Much more than green space

The purpose of parks

US parks specialist Jayne Miller believes councils must seize transformational moments in time to work with their communities. Now, she says, the reintroduction of the four well-beings presents such a moment, and parks are the ideal means of expression. Ruth Le Pla spoke with her at the NZRA Conference in Auckland.

For almost eight years, Jayne Miller served as the superintendent of the nationally-renowned Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board (MPRB) in the US. At the heart of the Minneapolis parks system lies what is today known as the Grand Rounds National Scenic Byway. This 55-mile [88.5-kilometre] urban loop showcases a chain of lakes, the Mississippi River, Minnehaha Creek, tree-lined neighbourhoods and downtown sites.

This legacy system of interconnected green spaces encircles much of the city, enabling people to transit through green spaces to get to their places of work, rest and play.

Much of it was built in the 1930s as part of Civilian Conservation Corps projects, the scenic byway serving as the lungs of the city.

Today, the MPRB is a diverse system of land and water spanning 6804 acres [approximately 2753 hectares]. It features 179 parks with 22 lakes, 49 recreation centres, 112 playgrounds, seven golf courses, 12 formal gardens, 200+ miles of biking and walking paths, 396 multipurpose sports fields, 65 wading pools, five outdoor performance stages, nature sanctuaries and the Grand Rounds National Scenic Byway. Together, these properties annually serve approximately 22.7 million visitors.

Every year between 2013 and 2017, the Trust for Public Land has recognised the MPRB as the #1 Park System in the United States.

In 2016 and 2017, the MPRB was named a finalist for the National Gold Medal Award for Excellence in Park and Recreation.

Among other attributes, the MPRB has drawn praise for its long-range planning, sound resource management and innovative approaches to delivering park and recreation services with fiscally sound business practices.

Jayne is now president and CEO of the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy (PPC), founded in 1996 by a group of citizens concerned with the deteriorating conditions of Pittsburgh’s historic city parks. Since 1998, the PPC has worked closely with the City of Pittsburgh under an official public-private partnership agreement to restore the city’s four regional parks.

To date, the PPC has raised over US$105 million for Pittsburgh parks and has completed 17 major improvement projects. Currently active in 22 parks, the PPC has expanded into community and neighbourhood parks throughout Pittsburgh.

What advice would you give to the leaders of a city that doesn’t have the strong parks legacy of Minneapolis?

My examples were Minneapolis and Pittsburgh, but I’ve worked in many other municipalities across the US. Parks can have a significant impact on a community. They can bring everything from economic development to health and wellness, environmental sustainability to community engagement and gathering spaces.

There is no other business that provides such a broad range of impacts – both individually for residents of a city and for a community.

From my perspective, it is most important that a government or organisations or local units, such as councils, in New Zealand’s case, really understand that impact. That needs to be the basis for how they build their community.

A community may be built today without this legacy of parks. However, if this idea is embedded in the framework of the foundation of that community, and the community starts mapping it out and creating a vision, over time it can happen.

We are reintroducing the four well-beings into local government in this country. This aims to restore the purpose of local government to promote the social, economic, environmental and cultural well-being of communities. Can parks be a mechanism by which you can pull those benefits together?


Should anyone working in the parks and recreation space explicitly spell out the benefits across that group of four well-beings?

Yes, that’s what parks [organisations] do in every community. Research in the US demonstrates the impact of parks and recreation on health and wellness. People living within a 10-minute walk of a park are healthier. There are fewer incidences of obesity, diabetes, depression and anxiety. When you make these investments, the economic impact on a city is incredible.

When it comes to environmental impacts, for example, in Minneapolis 30 billion gallons of stormwater [rain and snow] fall on the city each year. One hundred percent of that flows through the parks system before it goes into the Mississippi River. They’re not using man-made structures –but the natural environment – to process that.

Would US data be pertinent to the situation over here?

Absolutely. Access the data and then build a plan for those communities about creating this kind of green space that hits on all of those things. Look at trail networks that connect people to parks so when they step out of their front door people can get on a trail to get to a park within 10 minutes. Use that kind of framework to build a city through trail networks and parks that then help to address the issues you are trying to address here in New Zealand.

Could you give me an example of measuring something in a parks and recreation setting in a way that wouldn’t cost the earth?

In the US, every city keeps stats about crime. Maybe a neighbourhood doesn’t have a park today. Say the city puts in a park. You have the crime stats before that park was put in and you look at the stats for every year thereafter. It’s very easy to do because that data has already been collected. You are very likely to see a decrease in crime after a park has been put in.

Frick Environmental Center, Pittsburgh. courtesy of Jeremy Marshall.Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, Riverview Park Chapel Shelter. courtesy of Jeremy Marshall. Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, Schenley Park, Phipps Run Corridor. courtesy of Jeremy Marshall.

Is there a good place to start? Or is it a matter of just start now, start anywhere?

Just start anywhere. Every city will have different issues. They don’t have stormwater issues in Minneapolis because of the way the stormwater system had already been set up: they use the parks to manage stormwater. Whereas in Pittsburgh, stormwater is a huge issue. We never used stormwater management issues in Minneapolis as a measure because we didn’t need to. But we are using it in Pittsburgh.

So, start someplace, even if you are only starting with one measure. Start someplace and build off that.

You use what you call foundational principles. What are these?

First and foremost, parkland is public space. It’s fundamentally critical it stays within the public trust and under public ownership.

Another foundation – and I feel very strongly about this – is that those of us who manage parks or park systems are simply the stewards. We are entrusted by the public to take care of those spaces and to use the resources that we’re given to take care of them in the public’s trust. It’s not our space.

So, the principle is that the community gives us direction about what they want those spaces to be, what kind of development they want, where they want those spaces to be.

This drives community engagement. It’s incumbent on us to ensure that we’re not just hearing from the loudest or most vocal people but we’re really connecting with everyone in those communities. We have to figure out creative ways to engage a variety of neighbourhood cultures and communities.

Any examples of that?

In Minneapolis we had a park project in a very under-served diverse neighbourhood where there was a lot of crime. We were going to put in a park shelter. We partnered with an African-American landscape architects’ group for them to get teenagers and minority youth engaged.

They took part in a two-day workshop where we got a number of benefits.

They helped us to design a shelter that their neighbourhood would have wanted. But we also took the opportunity to help some of them understand what it means to be an architect: that this is a potential profession they could be in.

So, they went through the whole process of what it takes to engage a community. They helped work on the design: determining what the shelter was going to look like and how it was going to be laid out. We ended up by putting the project out for bids and getting the shelter built by a contractor.

Both water and roads are hotly debated at the moment. They take up a lot of councils’ mental and emotional space. Parks and recreation don’t get the same bandwidth. How do you make them important?

Circle back to our initial discussion about the well-beings. Communities have transformational moments in time that you have to seize. I’m hearing that here in New Zealand, there’s a new government that has laid out these four principles that they want to achieve. So, clearly, my sense is there’s a moment in time here to do that.

Seize that moment, figure out what’s going to work and make that connection: whether it’s by bringing in a consultant or there’s a visionary leader who can help make that connection, not only for the elected officials, but also for the staff that will create this vision.

A champion?

Absolutely. Pittsburgh is in one of those moments in time. For the past 40 years, it’s been in survival mode. Now, it is really starting to take off as a city. The elected officials, the foundation leaders, the civic leaders see this moment in time, and this opportunity to transform not only the city but do so through its parks system. I was brought in to Pittsburgh to seize this transformational moment and champion it to make it happen. 

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