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Parks and Sustainability in Small Towns

Updated on December 2, 2018
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Eric Standridge is a published author that shares tips and advice for everyday situations.

Inherently, parks and recreational areas are sustainable. Other than keeping the grass to a manageable level, there is not a lot of maintenance. For the most part, parks tend to be a hands-off community amenity that require minimal maintenance... at least on the surface.

When one delves deeper into the real cost of having a city park, a lot of "hidden" costs begin to materialize. Obvious costs include things such as electric and water costs. Beyond that, there are both environmental and social costs.

Over the last few years, Springdale, Arkansas has been taking a new look at how they manage their parks.

Around 2015, an ambitious project was put in place to make their parks fully sustainable. At J.B. Hunt Park, through a grant from the U.S. Department of Energy, both solar and wind energy collectors were installed. This now provides an extra 400 kwh of clean energy per month. A second wind generator was installed nearby, which provides an additional 400 kwh. The 800 kwh of clean energy is enough to power the entire park, and also helps generate an income during peak days by selling back some of that energy to the electric company.

Other parks are following this example. Chattanooga’s Coolidge Park was one of the most popular parks in the region during the day, but by night, because of lack of lighting, it became an almost frightening place to be. Through a grant from the U.S. Department of Energy, Chattanooga invested $252,000 in a new high-tech lighting system.

Throughout the park, they installed magnetic induction lighting. Instead of using traditional filaments, electricity conducted into the bulb through magnets. Not only does this reduce the overall cost to keep the park lit, since the lights are known for their long lifespan of up to 80,000 hours, this also reduces maintenance costs. The negative social impact was also negated. Today, the park is a beautiful place to visit both day and night.

Many small towns are reluctant to take on some of the more ambitious programs simply due to funding issues. However, through programs offered by the U.S. Department of Energy and local energy cooperatives, many towns have been able to fund the majority of their projects through such programs.

When considering an overhaul, there are a number of other things that can help with sustainability.

While concrete and asphalt paths provide a hard surface for jogging and bike riding, secondary paths should be installed with sustainability in mind. Many parks are moving towards using crushed glass as their walkway surface. This recycled glass is crushed and tumbled to give the pieces blunt edges, similar to sand but as large as pea gravel.

Instead of spending a fortune on landscaping that has to be changed out yearly, other parks have turned to Xeriscaping. This is a process that hit the mainstream in arid states such as Arizona and New Mexico. To landscape public spaces, they used naturally growing plants. This concept has been applied to many other locations to great effect. By using native plants, long-term maintenance and installation costs are greatly reduced.

One of the things that make parks so enjoyable is the natural scenery mixed in with comfortable seating and shady areas. When redesigning a park, use geographic information system (GIS) software to track where water runoff occurs, where people tend to spend the most time and pedestrian flows. The data compiled over the course of several months will help provide a more accurate picture of what all needs to be completed.

Water runoff can be a big asset to sustainability. Instead of allowing that water to escape through ditches and pipes, consider using it to help water lawns and create other water features.

Studying where people congregate will provide information as to where benches and shade structures should be installed. Further, using sustainable energy sources as mentioned above, charging stations could also be installed.

Tracking pedestrian flow is vital to a sustainable park environment. By following where people walk, planners can begin to lay out secondary paths, locate new bike racks and benches, as well as provide other amenities as needed.

In addition to the topics mentioned here, there are a wide variety of methods that will help turn traditional parks into sustainable and economically friendly parks. The best thing is that they all work together as a whole, so there is no need to try to accomplish everything at once. Focus on one project and once that's complete, move on to the next. It may take a few years to complete but a sustainable park will benefit a community for years and years to come.

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