Action Needed To Reclaim Hartford's Once-Proud Legacy
By TYLER SMITH
March 25, 2011
When Hartford officials asked residents to take part in the "One City, One Plan" planning process last year, one of the main concerns voiced from all corners was the condition of the parks. Although there was a recognition and appreciation of Hartford's glorious and expansive network of parks created over a century ago, there was great concern about the deteriorated state of this great legacy.
In response, Mayor Pedro E. Segarra appointed a Green Ribbon Task Force to evaluate the state of Hartford's parks and get back to him in seven months with recommendations to improve their care and maintenance. The task force presented its recommendations on Monday (see http://www.Hartford.gov/oneplan). These steps would ensure the preservation of these priceless and vital assets for future generations.
What parks they are. Starting with the city's acquisition of 39 acres of land in 1853 to create what is now Bushnell Park and continuing through the end of the 19th century, Hartford put in place a park system that was a model for the nation and now exceeds 2,000 acres. In a 15-month period between 1894 and 1895, the city added more than 1,200 acres of new parkland. This monumental burst of civic commitment to improving the quality of life in Hartford by expanding its park system became known as Hartford's "Rain of Parks."
For the ensuing half-century, Hartford parks played a central part in the lives of Hartford citizens. The seven larger parks, serving as the lungs of the city, remained well cared for and offered a respite from work for passive recreation, social gatherings, pastoral walks, and seasonal sports activities such as swimming, skating, horseback riding, sledding, baseball, croquet and boating.
With the major floods of the 1930s, urban renewal of the 1950s, '60s and '70s, and the advent of our car-centric culture, many chose to move out of the city. What ensued was a protracted decline in the maintenance of our parks, the resources to care for them, the civic pride they inspired, and a general erosion of the quality of city life that was so buttressed by our wonderful park system.
An extensive 1996 report declared:" "Hartford parks are in crisis." Things have only gotten worse in the past 15 years.
The task force report suggests ways to begin to reverse this decline by introducing significant improvements to the governance, maintenance and finance of our parks. It identifies 42 recommendations. Many of these can be implemented with minimal costs by introducing "best practices." Some call for a significant restructuring of the way services are delivered. A few will require substantial increases in financial resources to meet the minimal needs of park and recreation staffing, and one suggests a fresh look at promoting sustainable "green" practices.
There is currently a sea change in the thinking about how best to manage the urban environment, one that gives greater importance to parks and open space. Traditional functions of departments of public works that focused on road maintenance and storm water management and often included park maintenance (as is the case in Hartford) are being re-evaluated.
It is now understood that a city's tree canopy has important environmental and health benefits, and that it is desirable to expand that tree canopy by "boulevarding" our streetscapes with trees in addition to maintaining our park woodlands and green spaces.
It is also desirable to reduce the volume of storm water runoff and the area of impermeable surfaces, i.e. blacktop, so that storm water can be absorbed into the ground through pervious surfaces and "bio-swales." All this suggests the need to rethink current policies in the context of building a "greener," more sustainable urban environment.
Perhaps the most significant long-term recommendation of the task force is to evaluate the creation of a Department of Environmental Services that would encompass traditional public works, park maintenance and recreation functions, with an emphasis on sustainable practices and policies.
The report builds on a momentum of civic will, and should be propelled forward by the same convictions held by the civic leaders in the era of the Rain of Parks: that parks provide the oxygen so essential and integral to a vital city life. Let's reclaim this great legacy.
Tyler Smith, an architect and downtown Hartford resident, is co-chaiman of the Green Ribbon Task Force.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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