Almost all older, heavily urbanized cities are facing a shortage of parkland and open space. As density and property values increase, cities are less likely to purchase large parcels of land for recreation. As a result, urban populations have fewer opportunities to exercise and socialize outside, which exacerbates chronic health issues such as asthma and obesity. The solution may lie in the creative strategy of utilizing lands owned by utility companies within the urban core.
Anaheim, California, like most cities, is growing in density. Anaheim’s 820-acre Platinum Triangle is emerging as a high-density, mixed-use area that is replacing older industrial developments. The area is nestled between the SR-57 and I-5 freeways and surrounds Angel Stadium and the Honda Center, two of Orange County’s most prominent sports and entertainment venues. However, this high-density development has few opportunities for large scale recreation or nature parks.
In the early 2000s, it was apparent that the City of Anaheim needed to find open space near the high-density Platinum Triangle that would provide a connection to nature and give residents and visitors a place for exercise. The City of Anaheim forged a creative partnership with the Orange County Water District (OCWD), the largest landowner in Anaheim and owner of Burris Basin, a 116-acre ground water replenishment facility on the west bank of the Santa Ana River only half a mile north of the Platinum Triangle.
In 2005, the OCWD granted a 25-year lease to the City of Anaheim to open 14 acres of land west of Burris Basin for a public trail and nature park for an annual payment of $1. The agreement required the City pay for the construction, maintenance, and security of the public park area. The City immediately began an intense public input process and funding campaign and received $6.3 million in grants from the Rivers and Mountains Conservancy, California River Parkways Grant, and Recreational Trails Program.
Anaheim Coves at Burris Basin was opened to the public on November 15, 2011. This 14-acre nature park includes a 1.5-mile bike path and two staging areas with permanent restrooms and parking lots that offer a resting spot for Santa Ana River Trail users and nearby neighborhoods.
There is ample seating and opportunities for watching nature and wildlife, including Ospreys, Canada Geese, and Great Blue Herons. Integrated public art highlights the natural environment with bird images embedded in the concrete seating and metal gates. The signage interprets OCWD’s mission of groundwater recharge and the importance of water conservation. It also presents local history and information on the native flora and fauna. All landscape elements are plants and trees indigenous to the Santa Ana River Watershed. This is a place for people of all ages to exercise, socialize, commute, and enjoy nature.
Anaheim is continuing to build on the relationship with the OCWD. On April 30, 2013 a Memorandum of Understanding was ratified between OCWD and the City for the extension of the bike path almost one mile north and the addition of an 11-acre nature park on the OCWD’s Five Coves facility.
Most utilities and public agencies are hesitant to open their land to the public. Their mission is groundwater recharge, flood protection, transportation, and education—not building trails or ball fields for public enjoyment. Freely opening their property to the public brings a myriad of maintenance and liability issues that these agencies would rather avoid. Today, most of this land is fenced off from the public, which only increases crime and vandalism by not allowing surveillance from the police, park rangers, and neighborhood residents. Sometimes, these lands are weed-infested dumping grounds that are a drain on the landowner’s budget and a blight to the community.
Cities can turn these unsightly lots into public open space by understanding the mission and challenges of the landowners. For instance, the 1.5-mile bike path at Anaheim Coves doubles as a maintenance road and is built to withstand even the heaviest grading equipment frequently used to maintain the basin. The project also includes a six-foot-high decorative fence that keeps the public away from the water and sensitive habitat. These elements ensure that the OCWD’s primary mission of providing water to the residents of Orange County can be maintained while allowing public access to a natural amenity that was previously off-limits. There has been a drastic reduction in calls for service and crime rates in the neighborhood around Anaheim Coves at Burris Basin.
How can this be applied to your city? There might be publicly owned property in your jurisdiction that can be converted into open space. These areas are primarily owned by water, flood, transportation, rail, utility, and school districts. Given the shortage of land and public funds, it is imperative that cities and public agencies work together to provide for all of the needs of their residents within city boundaries.
Many cities have developed trails and parks that do not interfere with the function or maintenance of the utility lines or infrastructure owned by utility companies. Anaheim has been able to open school fields to the public after hours in exchange for assuming maintenance responsibilities. Cities can also enter into joint use agreements within school districts for their school libraries or multipurpose rooms that can serve the local community after normal school hours.
Anaheim Coves at Burris Basin represents a great example of how cities can partner with local agencies to provide parkland and open space. It is a significant step in pursuing opportunities in dense, urbanized neighborhoods by creating and providing links to passive and active recreational areas that currently lock out the general public. Consider pursuing any and all public lands of local agencies available within your jurisdiction and asking them to be your partner in trying to meet the needs of an increasing and ever-changing population.
by Pamela Galera, ASLA, LEED AP, Principal Project Planner for the City of Anaheim