Smarter Parks, Smarter Cities

by Kelsey Jessup

image: Yalp Interactive

Today, there are increasingly more cities, parks departments, and real estate developers asking designers to create smart parks. The definition of what makes a park “smart” is still evolving and, up until now, there hasn’t been a comprehensive, reliable source to learn about smart parks precedents and the technology that exists specifically for parks and public spaces. SMART Parks: A Toolkit is exactly what has been needed. It provides landscape architects and planners everything they need to know and how to be ready for the next client that asks for a smart park.
– Ed Krafcik, ASLA, Parks & Recreation Professional Practice Network (PPN) Officer

“Advancements in technology impact every aspect of our lives—how we work, play, and live,” says the City of Chicago’s Mayor, Rahm Emanuel. And cities like Chicago are becoming “smarter,” using technology to enhance livability, workability, and sustainability. Yet, some aspects of cities are being left out of planning, most blatantly: public parks. To help address this, the UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation recently released SMART Parks: A Toolkit, a compilation of technologies that can be used in parks to increase environmental sustainability, visitor enjoyment, and maintenance efficiency.

The Luskin Center unites UCLA scholars with forward-looking civic leaders to address the most pressing issues confronting our community, nation, and world. Parks are a critical part of urban infrastructure and have been a Luskin Center priority. Staff and students have created multiple reports on how to increase and enhance community green spaces, including a toolkit on parklets (small innovative parks), how to transform underutilized alleys into multi-functional “green” alleys, and never-before-told case studies and lessons learned from successfully-implemented development projects along the LA River greenway. This research helps municipalities, nonprofits, and communities reinvent, regenerate, and rethink their cities and park spaces.

image: David Moss

SMART Parks are an asset to any community. They use technology to enhance community access, fit, and diversity; increase health outcomes and safety; and improve water, energy, and operations and maintenance efficiency. To encourage the consideration of using technology to address common public park management challenges, such as underutilization and lack of resources, the Luskin Center created the toolkit as a resource for city planners, park managers, advocates, and designers. SMART Parks: A Toolkit is the first of its kind. The toolkit:

  • identifies technologies that could be or have been used in parks,
  • presents a rating system for those technologies,
  • provides guidance for park management on implementation, and
  • determines potential partnerships and funding strategies for implementing SMART Parks.

As more people move into cities (about 80% of the U.S. population lives in cities today), urban parks become ever more important because they can improve public health, environmental sustainability, and economic growth. But with a changing climate and over-stretched municipalities, stress on the public park system is increasing. New (and unconventional) tools to help address these stresses, such as technological innovation, are critical. SMART Parks: A Toolkit highlights new approaches to addressing typical park problems, such as:

  • Self-healing concrete that minimizes the need for concrete maintenance and upkeep, thereby reducing costs.
  • High-performance track surfaces make exercise more comfortable for older adults.
  • Photocatalytic titanium dioxide coating that sterilizes surfaces, thus reducing the need for water and harsh chemicals to wash surfaces.

The Luskin Center’s toolkit features many more technology examples: near-infrared photography, automatic lawn mowers, green roofs and walls, smart water metering, engineered soils, piezoelectric energy-harvesting tiles, interactive play structures, motion-activated sensors, geographic information systems, and more.

image: Joe Wolf

Additionally, the toolkit highlights creative funding strategies and innovative partnerships that can help drive the uptake of technology in parks. Funding to create, maintain, and improve parks is limited, especially in low-income neighborhoods where the funding is needed most. Because SMART Parks are a new concept, there is no existing funding process or list of resources for supporting these types of park upgrades. However, SMART Parks are likely to draw attention and generate interest from nontraditional funders, agencies, and companies due to their novelty. Partnerships across sectors can also help. Companies like Google and Cisco have invested in parks across the country, installing Wi-Fi and other new technologies. Cities, such as Los Angeles, have created special departments that focus on technology and could be instrumental in supporting SMART Parks. For more information on funding and partnerships, take a look at the toolkit and read the recent blog post I wrote for Meeting of the Minds.

image: Soofa

As with each of our projects, the Luskin Center aims to encourage innovation. Though SMART Parks are a new idea, it’s a good one and cities are changing their policies and incentivizing a more entrepreneurial approach to improving city amenities and services, making technology development and experimentation more plausible.

SMART Parks: A Toolkit was made possible thanks to a generous grant from The Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert Foundation.

Kelsey Jessup is a Project Manager at the UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation.

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