The Smart Cities Toolkit for SMART Urban Parks
Public parks have been a central facet of urban life for more than 100 years. During that time, technology has become integral to our lives – when traveling, at work, at home, and at play. However, technology has not historically been used in park settings. The UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation’s recently released SMART Parks Toolkit empowers city planners, designers, and park managers to change that in order to better serve communities.
SMART Parks use technology (environmental, digital, and materials) to reflect and fit within their cultural and environmental surroundings, are easily accessible, are resilient to climate change, are water- and energy-efficient, are easy to maintain, and help promote the health and safety of communities.
While some parks already achieve these goals, many fall short, especially in urban centers. Parks, most of which are owned and managed by cities, face challenges ranging from underutilization to lack of resources, such as funding for maintenance, staff, and programming community services. The Luskin Center’s SMART Parks Toolkit provides numerous examples of technologies that can help park management address these obstacles by category: landscape, irrigation, stormwater, hardscape, activity spaces, urban furniture and amenities, lighting, and digital landscapes.
- Smart irrigation controllers can determine the optimal amount of watering needed, based on weather patterns and soil conditions, thus reducing water use and maintenance costs.
- Interactive play structures use customizable software to meet community needs based on language and cultural background. They can also provide amenities accessible to disabled children.
- Energy-generating exercise equipment not only can improve community health, but also produces clean energy for use onsite.
- Automatic lawn mowers can save staff time and reduce emissions associated with typical gas-powered lawn mowers.
- Lighting improvements, such as walking paths that glow in the dark, can increase the appeal and safety of parks, thus encouraging a sense of security and therefore, visitation.
The toolkit can be a good resource for folks interested in implementing just one technology or it can serve as a foundation for long-term land use planning. It recommends investigating which and how many products are most appropriate for each particular park and community.
How to Create SMARTer Parks
The toolkit is designed for city and park managers, advocates, and anyone interested in utilizing technology in parks. In addition to providing example technologies, the toolkit rates each one based on how it impacts health, community access, water efficiency, and a number of other criteria, includes tips for implementation, as well as presents creative ideas for establishing partnerships and funding strategies.
Cutting park maintenance costs
Technology options range in cost, and park managers can select those that meet their budget and goals. Technological upgrades do not need to be implemented on a large scale to be impactful. Small-scale and relatively “low-tech” technologies, such as air-pruning plant containers that encourage healthy root growth before permanent planting or rainwater harvesting that captures, diverts, and stores rainwater for landscaping, can be low-cost and effective at helping park management meet visitor needs.
Because parks are typically run by public agencies that are often risk-averse, pilot projects can be a great way to test the effectiveness and value of a technology. A small-scale test that proves effective could help management make a case for a larger roll-out of the technology later.
Covering the cost of upgrades
No matter the scale, investing in new technologies requires resources, which are often scarce. Thus, it is imperative to think creatively about how to secure funding to invest in technology to create SMART Parks. The Luskin toolkit provides information on establishing partnerships (public-public, public-private, and public-nonprofit) as well as securing grants, loans, rebates, bonds, and other funding resources.
Partnering to implement technology in parks is critical.
Public-public partnerships, such as those between park and other city departments can help leverage resources and cost-effectively meet common goals. Many cities have created new offices focused on technology use, such as the City of Sacramento’s Office for Innovation & Entrepreneurship created to develop, test, deploy and scale new technologies. These departments could be valuable partners and provide funding to park departments to create SMART Parks.
Private-public partnerships can offer startups and technology companies a chance to test or pilot new technologies and park management an opportunity to provide a new service for the community. For example, when Soofa first launched their Soofa Bench in Boston in 2014, they provided technical and maintenance assistance to all early adopters. The benches collect park visitor data which park management can use to inform decision-making. In Oak Park, Illinois, the parks department installed 4 benches in 2016. Bobbi Nance, Senior Manager of Strategy and Innovation at the Park District reported “starting to see how park visitation is impacted by rentals, holidays, weather, construction, as well as the number of attendees at a special event or number of people that take advantage of temporary offerings like outdoor ice rinks or art installations.” Soofa continues to provide services to all their customers to assist with implementation and data analysis.
Public-nonprofit partnerships can enable park departments to access funds only available for nonprofits, including large organizations, grassroots community groups, and research universities. Not only are nonprofits eligible to apply to foundations and can attract individual donors, but also they can supplement park annual operating budgets, establish endowments, or implement new community projects. For example, the UCLA Research in Engineering, Media and Performance (REMAP) Center partnered with California State Parks to develop and implement technology in the Los Angeles State Historic Park. The effort was part of a larger research initiative on cultural civic computing, a concept coined by REMAP, to consider computers in public spaces in the service of community (as opposed to personal computing).
Meeting community needs
Technology can be used in urban parks in two distinct ways: to improve operational efficiency and/or to enhance community services.
- To improve management efficiency, reducing resource use and costs, such as with self-healing concrete – a new material that is traditional concrete mixed with bacteria that can “heal” cracks in infrastructure.
- To enhance community services, such as by providing free Wi-Fi access, restroom occupancy sensors, or outdoor DJ booths, thus drawing a wider range of visitors to parks.
Different technologies are appropriate in different park settings. Management can (and should!) work with the surrounding community to identify gaps in services and to develop technological solutions collaboratively. The Luskin Center’s toolkit, which was made possible by the generous support of The Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert Foundation, is an excellent resource to help determine the most appropriate technologies for parks and how best to implement them.
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