Vibrant parks can serve as a catalyst for economic regeneration of urban areas. Amanda Burden, a commissioner with the Department of City Planning in New York City and previous recipient of ULI’s J.C. Nichols Prize for Visionaries in Urban Development, moderated a session with leading thinkers in park development across the country. Panelists shared from their experiences in New York, Detroit and Houston on how parks have spurred development and transformed their neighborhoods.

Parks need a few key ingredients to make them successful: plentiful seating, food, a performance stage, and appropriate programming. Attributes like these get park patrons to linger and, more importantly, return more regularly. Daniel Biederman, President of the 34th Street Partnership/Bryant Park Corporation found that surveying the needs of its female patrons worked well to secure regular activity in the park. Women were more attuned to the amenities available in the park. For example, women pay more attention to cleanliness of bathrooms, full length mirrors and security. The hope is to get a regular flow of people partaking in programming in the park and by paying attention to the needs of female patrons; Bryant Park was able to retain people. Biederman also focused on single people programming such as a move night and concerts, sometimes drawing 10,000 people.

Similarly, Houston’s Central Gardens built by the Discovery Green Conservancy provides amenities such as renting boats for the lakes, and an outdoor skating rink during the winter. Successful parks like these spur development. Barry Mandel, president and park director for the Discovery Green Conservancy said that the park pushed for new development around the park. Two new residential towers were built with over 97% occupancy which Mandel believes is entirely due to park proximity. The Campus Maritus project in downtown Detroit, managed by Detroit 300 Conservancy, has catalyzed over $700 million of new development. This includes the relocation of the $400 million Compuware building, which was reciprocally connected to the park’s development.

All of these successful examples of parks in America had one thing in common: strong leadership and community will. The leadership in each of these communities had a vision of how to revitalize their urban areas, understanding that people need park space to congregate. And, these parks had the right mix of uses to make gathering easy. For the development community, this gathering of people leads to increase in property value and ample opportunity to secure developers’ future ability to build.