The following article appeared in the most recent Pennsylvania Recreation & Parks magazine published quarterly by the PA Recreation and Park Society.
Parks are an integral part of municipal government – where citizens gather to cheer their favorite teams, exercise with friends, and attend community special events. You know – fun and games.
Municipal administrators and elected officials know that residents value parkland and appreciate the programs and services provided by Recreation Departments – but may not see all the opportunities associated with parkland.
When parks are fully integrated into local governments they can be key assets in municipal initiatives and provide solutions to municipal challenges.
Municipalities face unique environmental challenges on an on-going basis, from evolving regulatory mandates, to flooding and the effects of severe storms, stream erosion, and increasing maintenance demands.
These and other environmental impacts present challenges to municipalities charged with working within typically modest budgets and limited resources.
Consider these challenges:
— Stormwater Regulations: State and Federal regulators have placed increasing mandates on Pennsylvania’s municipalities to address stormwater discharges and improve water quality. Requirements such as MS4 (Municipal Separate Storm Sewer Systems) and TMDL (Total Maximum Daily Load) are municipal requirements that many local governments are just beginning to understand and address.
— Flooding and Streambank Erosion: As development occurs and storms become more severe, municipalities are impacted by increased stormwater runoff and flooding on a more frequent basis. Increased impervious surfaces, coupled with severe storm events are impacting streams, causing streambank erosion and in some instances, threatening municipal infrastructure like roads and utilities.
— On-Going Maintenance: Maintenance associated with municipal stormwater facilities, rights-of-ways, and open space are stretching public works budgets and manpower, with limited benefits to the public.
Parkland is often leftover land, land with environmental constraints such as wetlands, floodplains, and steep slopes, or land a developer did not want or could not develop. Parks and underutilized open space offer settings that help to address these challenges.
Instead of single-purpose solutions that may address one aspect of environmental challenges, solutions that consider all of a municipality’s assets, including parks and underutilized lands, may yield multiple benefits.
This approach advocates bringing Parks & Recreation Departments to the table with municipal administration, engineering, public works, and planning, to work together to craft solutions that maximize both municipal and community benefits.
Parks and underutilized open space along streams naturally receive stormwater runoff from upland areas. Typically these parks may contain athletic fields, picnic areas, and trails, but are relatively open due to environmental considerations and limitations associated with flooding.
It is often possible to carve out fringe areas between these recreation amenities to incorporate stormwater Best Management Practices (BMP’s), such as bio-retention swales that filter runoff before it enters the floodplain.
These BMPs could address MS4 requirements if they provide water quality benefits and discharge to a stream or watercourse.
Native plantings that stabilize BMPs can enhance a park’s aesthetics and expand wildlife habitat areas. Trails can be extended to traverse these BMPs with boardwalk crossings, to add diversity to the walking experience.
Interpretative signs, which describe the function of the BMPs and their importance in the landscape provide the dual benefits of MS4 credits for public education and outreach and recreation benefits of adding interest to the park site and raising environmental awareness.
These same park and open space parcels along streams typically encompass significant floodplain areas that carry floodwaters during severe storm events.
Streambank erosion is common and in many areas has altered stream alignments from their natural course and may be threatening to undermine infrastructure. Severe storm events may cause flooding that impact areas beyond the natural floodplain.
Park professionals are well aware of the impacts of flooding on parkland. Often park amenities such as picnic tables and benches must be moved to higher ground before a severe storm or floodwaters are expected. Flood waters may reach a playground area, washing away the safety surface mulch or undermining resilient safety surfacing.
Restoring a stream’s natural alignment and capacity to reconnect it to its historic floodplain can mitigate these negative impacts and improve floodplain function.
Accommodating floodwaters within a restored floodplain that mimics its natural alignment and cross-section, carries the majority of storms with lower velocities, which minimizes the need for flood preparedness activities and reduces the potential for damage.
Recreation benefits of floodplain restoration includes removal of steep and eroded streambanks and the creation of a natural wetland plant community improves biodiversity and wildlife habitat while providing opportunities for nature study and interpretive trails.
Typically the floodplain reconnection allows easier access to the stream for fishing and paddle craft launch. The expanded floodplain is a stable condition for planting riparian trees and shrubs while lowering routine maintenance requirements.
Stream realignment and floodplain restoration can have a dramatic impact on recreation. Logan Park in Manheim Borough, Lancaster County is traversed by Rife Run, a deeply incised stream channel with severely eroded banks.
The Rife Run floodplain was burdened by years of sediment build up known as “Legacy Sediment” that had accumulated from historic land uses, resulting in less flood storage capacity. The park’s athletic fields were frequently out of use because of seasonal flooding and wet conditions.
A floodplain restoration project completed in 2015 allowed the athletic fields to be re-established on the uplands created from excavated floodplain material. The result is athletic fields that are higher, dryer, and more usable and a naturalized floodplain that adds beauty to the park and improves the function of the floodplain to mitigate stormwater runoff.
Wetlands were created and stormwater BMPs were introduced to improve water quality and meet regulatory mandates while providing an enhanced setting for trails and wildlife habitat.
Now is the time to inventory your municipally owned parkland, open space, rights-of-ways, and stormwater infrastructure areas and evaluate the potential to use these lands to mitigate flooding and meet environmental regulations and MS4 permit requirements.
Involving park professionals, with an eye on these issues, opens the door to integration of public access and recreation amenities as part of environmentally friendly solutions.
Simple steps, such as planting riparian buffers and flood-plain meadows along streams, coupled with development of walking trails and stream access areas, can lower maintenance associated with mowing and provide community health and wellness benefits.
Providing public access to developed wetlands and BMPs expands the diversity of the park setting. Developing traditional recreation amenities such as athletic fields or a playground on open space parcels where environmental issues are addressed invites the eyes and ears of the public to monitor the site, and in turn reduce inappropriate behavior.
Parkland and municipal open space offer settings that can be enhanced to address municipal environmental challenges. In many instances, recreation objectives and public use can be woven into environmental solutions, resulting in multiple “wins” for the municipality.
Incorporating environmental solutions into parkland and open space is efficient, using land already owned by the municipality. When recreation and environmental goals are integrated into a multi-purpose initiative, the potential for funding and partnerships expand.
When municipal park and recreation professionals have a voice at the table, environmental challenges can become solutions with great public benefits.
Ann E. Yost, RLA is a founding principal and president of YSM Landscape Architects, a York-based landscape architecture firm dedicated to the design and planning of community spaces for public recreation. Since 1990 Yost’s career has focused on park and recreation area planning, design, and development to maximize public and environmental benefits for communities and counties throughout Pennsylvania.
Kelly Gutshall, RLA is the owner and president of LandStudies, Inc., a Lititz-based firm and recognized leader in environmental restoration and sustainable design and a pioneer in Economic Ecology, an innovative approach that engages communities to work together to solve water issues and maximize both economic and environmental returns on investment. Gutshall’s award-winning projects incorporate cost-effective environmental solutions to meet water resource goals and regulations while improving biodiversity and landscape solutions.
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