Building on a Firm Foundation: How Major Urban Planning and Park Movements Provide the Foundation for Our Future

During the last few months there has been a lot of discussion about the history, value and funding of parks in Grand Rapids. Last month, The Rapidian featured a three part series “Why Parks Matter” by Michael Tuffelmire where he exploredthe past of the Grand Rapids parks, theneed for parks in a city, and thecurrent conditionsof our park system.

In Grand Rapids, our early park acquisition and development was informed by major urban planning, landscape design and social movements at the turn of the 20th Century.

These movements weren’t without controversy, but they captured the hearts and minds of our community. That was followed by people donating park land and investing in creating great urban parks like John Ball, Riverside and Garfield. Leaders in the community exerted their influence to create parks, at times in the face of great opposition. Current park development has a whole new set of challenges and opportunities as people once again are looking to parks to make cities more livable, exciting and sustainable.

The next era of parks needs to look back at what made the parks movement in our country and city so successful, but also learn from our mistakes.

  • The best parks in Grand Rapids are those that are central to neighborhoods and the City. The parks that continue to struggle are those built on the edge of neighborhoods as buffers, or on land that could not find other uses. Moving forward, we must not settle to just build parks in places where nothing else can be built or where the land is cheap. The next era of parks will require the redevelopment of existing sites, mostly industrial, and the integration of the existing built environment, and creation of natural areas. Parks can’t just be an afterthought, but central to quality urban redevelopment.
  • Parks will gain in importance as the places that pull us back together as a community. Recently Tim Gleisner wrote this piece in The Rapidian Parks as Place Makers Record Our City’s History. “For our city, like any other community, there have been events at different times that have helped create the community in which we live. Our parks recall the scenes of our community’s memories,” says Gleisner. We must acknowledge and preserve our past while adapting to new uses and user groups. Parks can change as the city changes by creating great spaces that can evolve and serve multiple purposes over time.
  • We need our parks to do more for us now than ever before. Beyond just the inherent value of being a place to relax and play, we must embrace sustainable park design principles and guidelines i.e. power generation, stormwater management, native plants and recycled materials. We must also look to a more diverse funding portfolio and new public and private partnerships to not just develop parks but also ensure ongoing operations. Parks must “work” for us, as well as be places of play.

Let’s continue the dialogue about what value park have in Grand Rapids past, present, and future.

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