Great parks are the foundation of great cities

David Livingstone, left, and Mitch Burroughs, employees of Miami-Dade’s parks department, use the elliptical machines at Miami-Dade Parks' new Fitness ZoneAE outdoor gym in Aventura.
David Livingstone, left, and Mitch Burroughs, employees of Miami-Dade’s parks department, use the elliptical machines at Miami-Dade Parks' new Fitness ZoneAE outdoor gym in Aventura. MIAMI HERALD

Last month, the Miami Foundation, Knight Foundation, Parks Foundation of Miami-Dade and Miami-Dade County Parks, Recreation and Open Spaces Department convened leaders for the sixth biennial Great Park Summit.

With a focus on “Placemaking, Health and Conservation,” participants were inspired by a discussion on the power of parks and how they can transform our community and improve our quality of life, health and the economy.

In 2006, Miami-Dade Parks began updating its master plan, which was last revised in 1969 when land was cheap and suburban sprawl was the cornerstone of urban planning. Thirty-seven years later, we learned that challenges to Miami-Dade’s quality of life — increased congestion; declining open spaces; visual blight; poverty; and obesity — required a new lens from which to view future development. Residents said they wanted a green community with more parks/public spaces, and more options for recreating, including greenways and trails.

And that is what we set out to do.

Miami-Dade Parks benchmarked the best design practices from cities like Chicago, Seattle and Boston, and we learned a simple formula: Every great city has a great park system. The park system residents want encompasses the entire public domain so that when you step out from your front door onto a sidewalk, you have entered a park-like realm; a system of great parks with public spaces, natural and cultural areas, greenways, trails, waterways and complete streets that serve as linear parks.

The community identified six values that became the master plan’s guiding principles: equity, access, seamlessness, sustainability, beauty and multiple benefits.

In 2008, the County Commission unanimously adopted the parks’ master plan, a vision for a livable, beautiful and sustainable Miami-Dade: where every resident lives within walking distance of a public space; with a diverse and balanced system of recreational opportunities; where the county parks department works with every municipality and public school to provide open access to school yards and city parks; where a system of conservation and cultural centers elevates the public’s appreciation for our ecosystems; and where an interconnected network of shaded bikeways, trails and complete streets connects us.

In 2009, the master plan was adopted as part of the county’s Comprehensive Development Master Plan. Miami-Dade Parks assumed the regional leadership role, and through the South Florida Park Coalition, consisting of local park directors and planners, created a movement that saw the Master Plan principles adopted by the School Board, 34 municipalities, Biscayne and Everglades National Parks and three state parks.

And, despite significant budget reductions between 2008 and 2014, Miami-Dade Parks gained recognition from first lady Michelle Obama as a national model of health through the parks department’s afterschool programs and published three articles in public health and medical journals on the health outcomes of evidence-based programs.

We built 140 miles of the 500-mile greenway system, made more than $300 million in capital improvements, 21 Fitness Zones® areas and Zoo Miami’s Amazon and Beyond. Our municipal partners have also built an equal amount of park and recreation infrastructure.

While Miami-Dade’s park system serves as a national model and enjoys the strong support of Mayor Carlos Gimenez and the County Commission, we have a long way to go.

On a national level, cities and counties average 9.5 acres per 1,000 residents: Miami-Dade has just 3.8 acres. nationally, there is one park for every 2,277 residents, in Miami-Dade it’s one park per 5,200 residents.

In San Francisco and New York, more than 95 percent of residents live within a 10-minute walk of a park or public space, in Miami-Dade only 48 percent do. The 2014 Parks Leisure Interest Survey of 8,000 residents revealed they want more parks.

What can you do to help? Become a park champion.

Support the implementation of The Park and Open Space Master Plan and demand greater investment in parks. Attend key community events to get informed and spread the word on the importance of parks. Volunteer your time to a park and roadway beautification projects.

Together, you can help us build a great community through a great park system.

Jack Kardys is Miami-Dade Parks, Recreation and Open Spaces director. Maria Nardi is chief of planning and design excellence, who led the creation of the Open Space Master Plan.