One day Joe Martin got tired of looking at the overgrown vacant lot near his home in the King neighborhood of Portland, Oregon. The retired Union Pacific Railroad worker went down to Goodwill, bought an old lawn mower, and began pushing it through the tall weeds.
The neighbors "probably thought I was a lunatic," he chuckles today.
But the lot looked better when he had finished, and some of the neighbors started coming around to help him clean out garbage and plant flowers. They began talking about turning the lot into a park. The northeast Portland neighborhood was suffering from drug traffic and decay, and residents had little nearby green space. One of the residents contacted city officials, and planning was soon under way.
The timing was fortunate. The Trust for Public Land had recently obtained funding from the Lila Wallace—Reader's Digest Fund to help create parks in Portland and other cities. The Portland parks department passed out flyers inviting residents to help design the park. Every Tuesday night 15 to 20 neighbors would meet at a nearby school to swap ideas.
But at these meetings several neighbors voiced fear that the new park might be unsafe, since drugs were being sold and used in an abandoned building on an adjacent lot, bringing crime and danger to the whole community. Both lots had been abandoned by their owners and seized by the county for nonpayment of taxes. Martin and his wife, Laura, would lie in bed at night and hear gunshots coming from the lot, the bullets sometimes whizzing through their trees. "There was a lot of fear," he recalls.
The neighbors persuaded the city to expand the plans to include both lots. The city paid off the back taxes and took possession of the lots, and the house was razed. The park was completed in November 2001; the neighbors named it Two Plum Park after the two plum trees that grew there.
Today, Two Plum Park includes a swing set and trees and an eco-friendly lawn, using grasses that require little watering and no fertilizer. It provides a safe place to play for the Martins' nine-year-old granddaughter, who stays with them while her mother works at two jobs.
The King neighborhood's experience inspired other neighborhoods to approach the city about building their own parks. By the time the program ended, TPL and its partners had helped northeast Portland residents obtain five new neighborhood parks.
As important as the use of the park itself was the cooperation it generated among residents to keep their neighborhood a safer and more attractive place. The whole area has become quieter and neater, with residents finding new pride in their homes. "We all try to keep our properties looking good," Martin says. And when neighbors witness drug transactions, they call the police, leading to a sharp decline in street drug use.
"It's been improving ever since we started the park," Martin says. "We have neighbors always watching out for each other."
Parks Create More than Green Space
The experience of Joe Martin and his neighbors is not unique. Residents of cities and towns across the country have learned that banding together to create a new park, garden, or playground can leave a community with a lot more than new swing sets, rows of vegetables and flowers, and green space. Neighbors become more willing to protect one another's families and properties from harm. They are more likely to accost or report teenagers spraying graffiti or harassing passersby and are more likely to mobilize to demand better schools and libraries.
To social scientists, what these residents are experiencing is the growth of "social capital"—the social ties, mutual trust, and standards of behavior that enable people to work together toward shared goals. Just as investment capital builds financial strength, social capital builds community strength. Researchers have found that, when compared to otherwise similar neighborhoods with weak social capital, neighborhoods with strong social capital enjoy fewer homicides and other violent crimes, fewer property crimes, reduced juvenile delinquency, better-performing governmental institutions, higher educational achievement, and lower rates of asthma and teen pregnancy. Where social capital is weak, neighborhoods fall into decline.
Some of the strongest evidence for the social benefits of parks comes from the Project on Human Development in Chicago Neighborhoods (PHDCN), a $50 million-plus interdisciplinary study on the roots of crime, substance abuse, and violence. The study is focused on a concept related to social capital called "collective efficacy"—social cohesion and trust among neighbors combined with their willingness to intervene for the common good. Collective efficacy can be built through activities such as working together on community gardens and holding community festivals in neighborhood parks.
As part of the study, researchers interviewed more than 8,000 residents of 343 Chicago neighborhoods. Questions were designed to measure collective efficacy, perceived levels of neighborhood violence, and actual violence experienced by an interviewee. Researchers also reviewed homicide reports for the neighborhoods. The project found that neighborhoods with higher collective efficacy experienced lower rates of crime and juvenile delinquency.
Simply having a park where neighbors can interact can increase social capital, says Professor Robert J. Sampson of Harvard University's Department of Sociology, a lead researcher on the Chicago study. "It's hard to develop trust and cohesion where you can't see people or interact with them," Sampson notes. And while isolation breeds cynicism and fear, neighborhoods with greater interaction enjoy "lower crime rates and a sense of social cohesion."
Rise of a Miami Neighborhood
This has certainly been the case in the historic Spring Garden neighborhood of Miami, where the creation of a single park has led to a community newsletter, an effort to guide development citywide, and a wedding.
Bordered by the Miami River, a canal, and a highway, Spring Garden is the city's oldest intact single-family neighborhood, with an eclectic blend of architectural styles from Art Deco to Dutch Colonial. In the late 19th century, the neighborhood was home to Alligator Joe's, where tourists would arrive by paddleboat to watch alligator wrestling. In 1997, that land—by then a 1.1-acre vacant lot where the canal met the river—was targeted for high-rise development. Fearing this would destroy the neighborhood's unique character, members of the Spring Garden Civic Association (SGCA) approached TPL for help. Decades old but long dormant, SGCA had sprung back to life in 1995 to defeat a proposal for a commuter rail line that would have torn up the neighborhood. It seemed like the perfect group to try to stop the land's development and create a park.
By luck, Brenda McClymonds, TPL's regional director of development for South Florida, attended church with the property's owners. She persuaded them to take the land off the market and give the community time to raise funds and work with the city to protect the land. The whole neighborhood went to work raising money, applying for grants, and lobbying government agencies. Residents packed the hearing chambers each time a government body reached a decision point on creating the park. With TPL's help the neighbors raised $600,000, including $300,000 from a 1996 county parks-creation bond referendum, which TPL had helped promote, and $300,000 from the Florida Communities Trust, a state land acquisition grant program. TPL used the funds to purchase the property in 1999 and prepared to turn the title over to the city. The new park, called Point Park, would mesh perfectly with TPL's planned greenway along the Miami River corridor.
But the deal hit a snag. The city, struggling with budget problems, said it couldn't accept title to the parcel because it couldn't afford to build and maintain a new park. Spring Garden residents, who at the time had only a sliver of park space, pulled together again. "We said, if you can't afford to maintain it, we will maintain it as a neighborhood," says Ernest Martin, a Spring Garden resident who helped lead the effort. In 1999 the SGCA signed an agreement committing itself to raise the funds to build the park and then maintain it for seven years.
Working together on Point Park is building ties among people who would otherwise have little reason to interact. The neighborhood has its own newsletter now, featuring a column on local history. Once a month residents gather for a potluck dinner, chatting over meatloaf, coleslaw, Filipino-style chicken, and angel food cake. "We didn't even know each other for the most part until we started working together on the park," Ernest Martin says.
On the third Saturday of each month, residents show up with rakes and wheelbarrows and work side by side to clean the park. On one of those Saturdays, James Broton met Eileen Marcial, and in April 2000 the two were married in Point Park with many neighbors in attendance.
"Creating and maintaining the park has become a rallying point for this historic neighborhood," McClymonds says. "The park is small in size, but it has already touched a lot of people."
Building on their social capital, the Spring Garden neighbors are now driving change across Miami. This year the Spring Garden Civic Association helped organize a coalition of neighborhood associations to fight inappropriate development.
"We're trying to protect the integrity and character of Miami's neighborhoods," Ernest Martin says. "Even though we got ourselves organized around a specific neighborhood park, we've started to see the benefits of reaching out to other communities. It gave people the confidence that a little neighborhood could make a difference."
Growing Community in San Francisco
A few years ago researchers from the University of Illinois and the University of Chicago measured the social ties between neighbors in a large Chicago public housing project. They also measured the amount of vegetation in the courtyards and other common outdoor areas of those housing projects and found a direct relationship between the amount of vegetation and the likelihood that neighbors would interact.
Published in 1998 in the American Journal of Community Psychology, the research revealed that "the presence of trees and grass supports common space use and informal social contact among neighbors. In addition, vegetation and [neighborhood social ties] were significantly related to residents' senses of safety and adjustment."
For a study published in 2004 in the journal Leisure Sciences, Dr. Troy D. Glover of the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, looked at how social capital is built, maintained, and distributed in community gardens. Glover noted that social ties are built in these gardens not only through gardening but also through nongardening activities such as grant-seeking, fundraising, and community cookouts.
"In this sense," he writes, "community gardens are less about gardening than they are about community."
The researchers' findings would come as no surprise to neighbors in the Visitacion Valley neighborhood of San Francisco. Cut off from the rest of the city by hills and a major freeway and long ignored by city hall, "Vis Valley," as San Franciscans call it, is a racially mixed, working-class neighborhood full of families with young children. Its 25,000 residents lack many services more affluent neighborhoods enjoy, and even the nearest large grocery store is a long bus or car ride away.
Although many children live in Vis Valley, the neighborhood has been chronically short of close-to-home places to play or learn about nature. In the mid-1990s, a handful of neighbors began working to change that. They looked at a strip of six weedy, garbage-strewn lots stretching up a hillside from the center of the neighborhood and saw a potential park that would bind together their community. Almost a decade later, the Visitacion Valley Greenway is nearly complete.
"We're trying to green the whole neighborhood," says Fran Martin, co-chair of the Visitacion Valley Greenway Project and one of the park's driving forces. "The greenway is like a seed, and we hope it will sprout throughout the community."
For Anne Seeman, the project's other co-chair, it was the birth of her daughter, Lila, that inspired her commitment to the park. Anne remembered the outdoor play she enjoyed as a child and felt driven to give Lila the same opportunity. But the few small playgrounds nearby "were all decrepit, really in ruins," Seeman says. "I could see that she wasn't going to get to play in her own neighborhood, and that was depressing. In my generation kids had the freedom to run around and be in touch with nature. Nowadays kids don't have that opportunity, and I wonder what effect it has on their psyches."
The neighbors learned that the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (PUC) was planning to sell the land—the right-of-way for an unused water line—to private developers. With TPL's help residents convinced the PUC to turn the lots over to the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department in 1999 with the stipulation that if the park was not created within five years, ownership would revert to the PUC. Then, with a $300,000 grant from the Columbia Foundation, TPL managed a community-driven design process and built Hans Schiller Plaza as an entry to the greenway on the lot closest to the neighborhood's commercial strip.
Today the growing greenway offers a touch of nature and a gathering spot for the entire community. One portion, named the Enchanted Forest, features grass and boulders to sit on, shade-giving trees, and a stream. A soft lawn where children can run and play has been dubbed Magic Meadows. Elsewhere are a quiet corner for contemplation, an herb garden, a wooden bridge, a native plant garden, and a big sandy playground with gleaming new slides.
On a sunny spring day the greenway offers an artist's palette of color: plump red strawberries and tomatoes, peachy gladioli, snapdragons in white or lemon yellow, purple lupine, a green bush brimming with sweet red raspberries, a carpet of dark-green moss. Fat bumblebees drop into orange poppies.
Neighborhood residents gather for tai chi practice, Easter egg hunts, and monthly cleanup days. Children from the Visitacion Valley Community Center's Rover Afterschool Program come to a community garden on the greenway to plant seeds, dig for worms and bugs, and sniff the peppermint geraniums that smell good enough to eat. "For some of them it's the first time they've seen fruits and vegetables coming from trees and growing out of the ground," says Dee Smith, the program's coordinator.
These neighbors could tell researchers more than a little about collective efficacy and how the sense of empowerment from a successful park project can be channeled to other goals. A few years ago Home Depot wanted to plant a 24-hour superstore with 850 parking spaces in the midst of residential Vis Valley. Members of the Greenway Project organized a coalition to block it, arguing instead for a mixed-use development combining housing, retail, transit connections, and a supermarket. The group also successfully pushed the city parks department for a new playing field, which opened in 2002 and where neighborhood children now play baseball and soccer. And they won a new and larger public library for the neighborhood.
"These projects have given downtown a different image of us," Fran Martin says. "They understand that this is a neighborhood that can do."
"And it all started with a park," adds Deborah Schoenbaum, director of TPL's Bay Area Urban Program. In this she could be talking also about the King neighborhood in Portland or Miami's historic Spring Garden community. "The greenway project helped jump-start ecological, social, and economic development throughout the community."
Paul Sherer's story on how parks contribute to exercise and health appeared in the Spring 2004 issue of Land&People. He is a former reporter for the Wall Street Journal and the Asian Wall Street Journal.