In cities around the world, the most desirable land surrounds parks. This hasn't been the case in Hartford: Witness the fact that for decades the only people living adjacent to Bushnell Park were the tenants of the YMCA.
But things seem to be changing. Though the Y's residential tower is closed, there are two new housing developments on the park, and another is in the works. More of this, and parks can be the underpinning of the city's economic revitalization.
That's one of the findings of a year-long study of the city's park system by the nonprofit Trust for Public Land released earlier this month.
Hartford had one of the finest park systems in the country in the early 20th century. Although the land is still there — 1,185 acres within the city — decades of disinvestment have left these priceless historic assets at risk.
Where once the city had 350 park and recreation employees, there are now 35 park specialists and seven recreation staffers, and the numbers continue to decline as workers retire. Hartford spends much less money on its parks than most other large cities do — only $36 per resident, well below the national average of $89. Hartford relies too heavily on the herculean efforts of "friends" groups at most major parks. This leads to an inequity: The parks with the stronger friends tend to be in better shape.
The Trust recommends that the city work toward unifying the various "friends" groups and sports leagues to get more bang for the bucks. There ought to be a separate park and recreation department, as there was until the 1990s, instead of splitting the duties among departments. There is an opportunity to consider regional park management. The city should think about selling Batterson Park in Farmington and using the money for its local parks.
Finally, the study brings back an idea first proposed in 1895 and again in 1912: to connect the parks with a series of parkways. Imagine what Hartford would look like had they been built.
The thought now is to study a greenway system through the city. It was a good idea back when, and it's a good idea today.
The parks are among the city's finest assets, and should be treated as such. The city is trying to compete for middle-class residents. As the report observes, "It is only the joy of great urban parks that ... can overcome the convenient allure of suburban yards."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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