A young family playing with bubbles at Historic Fourth Ward Park in Atlanta, GA
Christopher T. Martin

Pittsburgh and other cities are committed to our 10-Minute Walk vision

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Three hundred U.S. cities—large and small, urban and rural—have demonstrated their commitment to the 10-Minute Walk vision to expand safe and equitable access to parks and green spaces for all residents by signing the 10-Minute Walk commitment. To turn those commitments into reality, cities are improving existing parks and trails, and they’re creating new public green spaces that serve desirable outcomes. While the health benefits of close-to-home park access are clear (green space improves physical and mental health in multiple ways), the climate benefits of nearby green space are no less significant and no less timely.

And given the availability of federal dollars from landmark COVID recovery funding and infrastructure package, mayors and community planners have a unique and urgent opportunity to invest in critical park infrastructure that achieves multiple benefits for communities. “There’s a lot of conversation and drive to design 'complete neighborhoods' or  ‘15- or 20-minute neighborhoods’ that are designed to give residents convenient, even car-free access to the places and services they use every day, such as grocery stores, restaurants, healthcare, and schools,” says Bianca Shulaker, Trust for Public Land’s park initiative lead and senior director of the 10-Minute Walk program. “The 10-minute-walk-to-a-park ideal is a vital element in those models, with parks providing multiple benefits to communities and serving as a key differentiator for cities.”

Living close to a park means not having to hop in a car to reach a place to take a walk, play with your kids, go birding, or meet a friend. That means less tailpipe emissions, one of the leading sources of carbon dioxide in the United States. (Carbon dioxide is the main greenhouse gas responsible for climate change.) But beyond reduced emissions, close-to-home parks yield other benefits for city residents, including flood prevention and cooler temperatures.

“The whole concept of 10-Minute Walk is to bring parks to where people live to engender benefits equitably, for all residents,” says Shulaker. “Climate is so tied to proximity of green space because of the protection that space provides against flooding, as well as the availability of trees and shade.”

One 10-Minute Walk city that has made big strides in becoming more resilient is Pittsburgh. The city of 300,000 is deploying parks to help control flooding and landslides and to act as a first line of defense against the changing climate. Rebecca Kiernan, a principal resilience planner in Pittsburgh’s Department of City Planning, points out that 2018 was the wettest year on record. Torrential rains triggered floods and landslides, leaving the city with a cleanup that cost north of $12 million.

Unlike pavement and concrete, parks are able to absorb large quantities of rainwater, keeping it from flooding neighborhoods. Kiernan says the city has added seven new parks in the past year and is especially eager to see Hays Woods Park take shape. At 626 acres, Hays Woods, as it is called, will be the largest new urban park project undertaken east of the Mississippi River in 75 years, she says.

A former coal mine, the future park was considered alternately for a potential fracking site and then a casino. But ultimately, Pittsburgh’s Urban Redevelopment Authority bought the land in 2018, with the intention of making it a park. The city will soon begin planning for its remediation and, eventually, a focus on passive recreation.

In Trust for Public Land’s recent ranking of the nation’s 100 most populous cities for their park systems, Pittsburgh ranked No. 16. The ranking, known as the ParkScore index, uses five metrics—investment, equity, access, acreage, and amenities—to measure cities’ parks. Pittsburgh scored especially high for its park access, with 92 percent of residents living within a 10-minute walk of a park.

In addition to creating new parkland, Pittsburgh is busy daylighting streams that were piped underground more than a century ago and routed to the city’s sewage treatment plants. The sewer system, like those of many old cities, combines wastewater and stormwater. When it rains, those systems can’t handle the volume, so untreated wastewater, combined with stormwater, overflows into nearby rivers. Heavier, more frequent rain—a result of climate change—threatens local water quality.

“Our combined sewer system overflows at a tenth of inch of rain,” Kiernan says. “Right now, streams are flowing into combined storm sewers. In addition to upgrades to gray infrastructure by the county sanitary authority, we are working to daylight streams in parks so they are not contributing to overflows. Some of our sewers explode in low-lying areas into fantastical geysers.” An added benefit of daylighting streams: the addition of new parkland and trails running alongside the water for residents to enjoy.

Close-to-home green space counters urban heat as well. As we head into the summer months knowing that excessive heat is the leading weather-related killer, especially in urban areas, it’s easy to see why cities should lean into the 10-minute walk concept as a matter of public safety. An analysis by Trust for Public Land of 14,000 cities and towns showed that nationwide, areas within a 10-minute walk of a park were as much as six degrees cooler than those beyond that range.

“Parks are a refuge during the summer heat,” Shulaker says. “When park agencies add in features like pools, splash pads and misters, residents benefit from even more cooling.” In the recent ParkScore ranking, Pittsburgh received high marks for its amenities, like playgrounds, bathrooms, basketball hoops, dog parks, and splash pads. In fact, the city had a perfect score for access to splash pads. “Being able to seek cooling shade out your front door or to know that your city is making investments to prevent your home from flooding—there is no replacement for that,” she adds.

Trees and vegetation cool air temperatures both by providing direct shade and also through a process known as evapotranspiration, in which trees pull moisture from the soil and release it through their leaves. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, surfaces in shade can be 20 to 45 degrees cooler than those in full sun.

The city of Pittsburgh and its tree-planting partners recently pledged to plant 100,000 new trees by 2032, with the stated goal of conferring “the many social, economic, environmental, and human health benefits of trees” on current and future residents. The campaign will add trees to both streets and parks. Error! Hyperlink reference not valid.

Kiernan says the various initiatives—from the 10-Minute Walk commitment and new parks to daylighting streams and tree plantings—should make Pittsburgh’s neighborhoods more resilient in the face of climate change. She notes with pride that in the past year alone, the city has acquired 900 acres of new parkland, including 300 acres added to a network of greenways. “Those properties, many along steep slopes, had been dump sites, vacant lots, and places the city had neglected for 40 years,” Kiernan says.

There are resources to begin the process of turning the derelict sites into alluring parks. In 2019, Pittsburgh voters approved a city ballot measure that authorized a new tax to fund parks. This year, the tax will generate $10.8 million for park staffing and maintenance. Kiernan said the money would help pay for “signage, trails, parking, cleanups—all sorts of things” across the expanding park system.

In 2020, Trust for Public Land provided the city of Pittsburgh and community partners a $50,000 grant to launch a pilot program for ecological restoration and access on a 183-acre site known as Hazelwood Greenway. With support from TPL, the partners removed garbage (think abandoned refrigerators) and tackled invasive species like knotweed with the help of goats. They also built trails, managed stormwater, mitigated landslides, planted 180 trees, and offered workforce development opportunities.

Community groups were enlisted to steward the property as well through volunteer days and “get to know your greenway” events. The successful pilot has since been expanded into a two-year program with help from the National Recreation and Park Association.

Nationwide, there is now a batch of funding available to cities to deal with the effects of climate change. The federal Coronavirus State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds delivered $350 billion to state, local, and tribal governments “to stimulate a strong, resilient, and equitable recovery” through the American Rescue Plan (ARPA). In addition, the U.S. Congress and Biden administration last fall delivered a $1.2 trillion infrastructure package, the largest in decades, with billions of dollars and several new programs for infrastructure to make cities more resilient. For Shulaker, increasing 10-Minute Walk access not only protects against climate change, but cultivates tomorrow’s environmental stewards. “So many of the cities we work with are using that green space out the front door as a learning lab—a place for the invaluable, early exposure to nature,” she says. “That’s important for building an environmental ethic in future generations.”

And there are actions we can all take to help ensure our communities benefit from parks now and long into the future—from our leaders prioritizing and restoring funding to park systems, to residents engaging with their parks and city leaders and local parks organizations.

Visit 10minwalk.org to find out if your city has signed the commitment and what you can do to advise park investments and stewardship in your community.

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