By Matt Cunningham
Cincinnati, OH (December 14, 2010)- How many parks do most Cincinnatians pass on their morning commutes? If they looked closely, many of them would be able to count two, three or even more along the way to their jobs, schools and other destinations around the city. With approximately 10 percent of the city’s land area designated as park space, it’s not surprising that residents come into contact with- and are affected by- more of the city’s 5,000 acres of parkland than they might suspect.
Cincinnati’s parks are noted among the parks management and urban forestry industries, and not just for long-time gems such as Eden Park, or innovative revitalizations like the one occurring at Washington Park. The City of Cincinnati Parks System is known as much for these highlights as for a more subtle, though equally significant, reason: the Queen City gets a solid return-on-investment from its parks, one that goes beyond simple dollars and cents.
Parks have been a fixture in the Queen City for the majority of its existence. Piatt Park, which splits Eighth Street between Vine and Elm streets, was established in 1817, just 29 years after the city was founded. And as the city grew, parks followed, from the first plot, in 1859, of what would eventually become Eden Park to the converted cemetery land that became Washington Park in 1859 and Uptown’s Burnett Woods, created in 1872. The city established its parks board at the turn of the 20th century.
Much of the city’s park planning owes its origin to landscape architect George Kessler. His master plan, laid out in 1907, called for the hilltop parks that now provide spectacular overlooks; more importantly, it set a precedent of acquiring land alongside development, ensuring that the city would have parks and greenspace as it grew.
One can’t ignore the benefits Cincinnati’s reaped from its parks, and a prime example might be the well-established neighborhoods abutting Eden, Ault and Alms parks on the city’s east side. Few would argue that the beautiful hilltop vistas and stone pavilions add significant value to these neighborhoods.
The Incline Residences that were developed in Mt. Adams along Baum Street in the late 90’s have a very close connection to Incline Park, a piece of greenspace Cincinnati Parks developed out of vacant, unuseable land. At the time, the construction of the interstate 71/471 interchange made a large plot of land at the base of Mt. Adams unsuitable for development, due to the highways and soil instability. However, Cincinnati Parks turned the weedy plot into greenspace, including uncovering and making use of terraces originally put in to support the Mt. Adams incline.
As the Park’s project developed, Mid-American Development Co. coordinated with the city as it developed the high-end properties along Baum Street adjacent to the greenspace. According to Cincinnati Parks, the development “took off” after the greenspace was created. At the time the development’s second phase was announced in 1999, the condos were retailing for about $300,000-$400,000.
But a more recent, and in some ways more drastic, improvement, came about in part because of one of the city’s newest parks. Steven Schuckman, superintendent of planning and design for Cincinnati Parks, says the creation of Theodore M. Berry International Friendship Park along the Ohio River played a role in the condominium developments that now line Riverside Drive to the east of downtown.
“The developer, Towne Properties, has said that it was the location of the park that sold them on moving forward with their project,” he says. The benefit to the city’s appearance was significant, he adds. “Prior to the construction of Friendship Park, the site now occupied by condos consisted of a junkyard and vacant land.”
Schuckman adds that Cincinnati’s experience with parks benefiting local real estate is not unique. “The first thing that happens is that the neighborhood surrounding the new or revitalized park becomes more livable and viable. Public spaces are community gathering places, so they strengthen the sense of community and the sense of place. “Developers, home owners and business owners also like the stability and continuity the park provides,” he adds, “knowing that this public greenspace will not ever be used for something else.”
But there’s another aspect of parks’ return that goes beyond the standard financial measures. Everyone who enjoys the outdoors knows that parks, public land and greenspace are places to “escape,” “reset,” or find one’s emotional center, and a growing body of medical and scientific literature supports this idea. In an increasingly busy, technology-centered urban environment, the outdoors provide much-needed nature therapy for adults and children alike.
According to Erin Morris, assistant manager for nature programming with Cincinnati Parks, getting kids into the green – and improving their mental health – has been part of the organization’s mission since its founding. “We’ve been at it for quite a while,” she deadpans, although she says there is serious science to back up the benefits of getting kids outside for relaxed, unstructured play.”Children can focus and pay attention more closely when they have unstructured play,” she says. “The brain needs that time for release.”
In a world where children bounce from school to after-school sports, to evenings spent playing video games and watching television, unstructured time in nature can be as soothing as it is for stressed-out adults who escape to the park on lunch breaks. The calming lack of structured distraction makes us more effective when we return to work or the structured world of school and student sports, Morris says.
Cincinnati Parks provides a number of activities year-round for children, families and adults interested in hiking, seeing more of the city’s natural side, or learning about the finer points of the natural world. But Morris says that, often, simply being at a park or in the woods is enough to get young minds benefiting from nature. “Just being outdoors and being active, they’ll notice a flower and focus on it. It’s about being outside, and using all of their senses to experience the world.”
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Cincinnati Parks Foundation