Big Benefits From Small Parks

In downtown environments lined with asphalt roads, concrete sidewalks and brick buildings, open space is highly valued. Parks and trails not only add greenery and increase public space, but deliver associated health and economic-development benefits. As part of RPA’s continuing work with the Together North Jersey regional sustainable planning initiative, two new studies explore ways to increase downtown access to public open space and take advantage of the benefits they can bring to communities.

In Morristown, RPA looked at how parklets can increase public open space and vibrancy in downtowns. Parklets – typically small, parking space-size extensions of sidewalk areas into the street – function as mini-parks that might feature public seating, art installations, or plants. Parklets have been safely and successfully implemented in cities across the country, including San Francisco, Philadelphia, and even in New York. The report, Beyond the Curb: Parklets in North Jersey, found a number of benefits associated with parklets, including enhanced opportunities for walking and biking, increased business activity at cafes and restaurants, and support for a more inviting downtown environment. Parklets also are a great way to integrate art and creative community interaction on or near main streets.

The two-part report was designed to be a resource for communities that are interested in exploring parklets in their downtowns. Part one of the report provides a parklet blueprint for local officials and civic leaders, including how to build support within communities, as well as the technical and programmatic issues that should be considered. With support from dlandstudio, the second part of the report contains a parklet design handbook, offering tips for choosing prime parklet locations, a suggested application process for sponsors and design and safety standards for the installation.

Building upon past work on greenways, RPA also completed work on how a 3.5-mile rail-trail in Middlesex County could improve public health, spur economic activity and make the area more attractive to residents and visitors. The Middlesex Greenway is a paved route that connects three downtowns: Downtown Metuchen, Clara Barton in Edison and Fords in Woodbridge. The Middlesex Greenway Access Plan found that the greenway has helped to provide new fitness opportunities and increase physical activity among residents in neighboring communities. Yet the study found that residents still face real and perceived challenges in getting to and from the greenway safely. Recognizing opportunities to attract new users to the trail and build upon its health, education and economic benefits, RPA made a number of recommendations to improve the greenway and make it more enticing for visitors, including: enhancing opportunities to walk and bike to the greenway from nearby neighborhoods; adding bicycle and exercise amenities nearby; promoting the greenway in conjunction with nearby businesses and attractions as a local tourism destination; and extending the greenway.

You can read the full parklets report here, and the Middlesex Greenway report here. Learn more about these and other projects by visiting Together North Jersey.

--Janani Shankaran

Photo of Rahway Parklet // Courtesy of Rahway