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Parks enlivening Brooklyn and Boise, Tulsa, and San Diego

George Washington Parkway runs like a green ribbon through historic Alexandria, Va., connecting it to Mount Vernon. George Washington Parkway runs like a green ribbon through historic Alexandria, Va., connecting it to Mount Vernon. (RICHARD NOWITZ/ALEXANDRIA (VA.) CONVENTION & VISITORS BUREAU)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Beth D'Addono
Globe Correpondent / July 6, 2008

Urban parks aren't what they used to be.

Historically, a 17th-century patch of green in the middle of a Colonial town, like the Common in Boston or Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia, was reserved for activities like grazing animals, hunting for game, or public hangings.

Fortunately, times have changed. With the advent of the parks movement of the mid-19th century, city green space became more regulated. Fueled by visionaries like landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, who strung together the Emerald Necklace and designed New York's Central Park, urban oases became a reality.

Today's parks go Olmsted's concept one better. "Olmsted didn't believe that parks were for playing," said Elizabeth Milroy, a Wesleyan University professor who is writing a book on how Philadelphia's Fairmount Park system got its start. "He wanted people to just commune with nature." But what people really wanted was to get outside and have fun.

These nine urban parks fill that bill, combining revitalizing green space with the chance to hike, bike, or even kayak in the shadow of city skyscrapers.

Prospect Park Brooklyn, N.Y.

Located in the heart of Brooklyn, the Olmsted-designed 585-acre Prospect Park has everything Central Park has, and more. A free trolley connects visitors to the park's zoo, stunning Botanic Garden, and Brooklyn Children's Museum. Take a pedal boat ride on Brooklyn's only lake, ride the antique carousel, shop the weekend green market at Grand Army Plaza, or spy one of the 270 species of birds that stop here along the migratory Atlantic flyway. An easy subway ride from Manhattan. prospectpark.org

Fairmount Park Philadelphia

A system of 63 parks that covers 10 percent of the city's footprint, Fairmount Park is dominated by East and West parks, home to the Mann Music Center, the soon-to-open (this fall) Please Touch Museum in Memorial Hall, and America's first zoo. Rent bikes and pedal Kelly and West River drives along the Schuylkill River, with its Boathouse Row, views of the Philadelphia Art Museum, and plethora of public art. The newly developed Schuylkill Banks just south of the museum offers the chance to kayak, canoe or boat, jog, go inline skating, or even take a jazz cruise on select summer evenings. fairmountpark.org

Millennium Park, Chicago

From year-round ice skating to free concerts, art exhibits, and festivals, Millennium Park has transformed 24.5 acres of unsightly railroad tracks and parking lots into Chicago's downtown jewel. Located on Michigan Avenue between Randolph and Monroe streets, the park includes the Great Lawn, site of free weekly outdoor yoga and tai chi classes in the summer, and the Frank Gehry-designed Jay Pritzker Pavilion, which offers a full roster of performances, from gospel to dance and theater. Don't miss walking beneath the Cloud Gate, a mega-sculpture of polished stainless steel inspired by liquid mercury. millenniumpark.org

River Parks, Tulsa, Okla.

Stretching along the Arkansas River, River Parks leads from downtown Tulsa to the popular aquarium in Jenks, also a hub of shopping and dining. Lined with biking and walking trails, the park includes a riverfront amphitheater for concerts and music events. For a wilder view of Tulsa, hike 300 feet up to the Turkey Mountain Urban Wilderness Area, which runs along the riverfront from the Southside Wastewater Treatment Plant near Interstate 44 to 71st Street and west from the river to the Elwood Avenue section line. Back on the downtown side, there's a bridge for fishing for catfish and stripers off Zink Dam, volleyball courts, a Frisbee golf area, and an outdoor cafe open in summer. riverparks.org

Boise River Greenbelt Boise, Idaho

Once the dumping ground for trash, industrial waste, and raw sewage, this riverfront park was reclaimed in the 1960s and transformed into a haven for outdoor lovers, with 25 miles of pathways geared to walkers, runners, skaters, bikers. If you don't have your own, there are vendors who rent equipment along the way. Float, tube, kayak, or canoe along the Boise River, or just relax and watch the critters, which include ducks, geese, great blue heron, beaver, grey fox, muskrat, and the occasional bald eagle.

www.cityofboise.org/Departments/Parks/ParksAndFacilities/Parks/page18151.aspx

Point State Park Pittsburgh

Locals adore the Point, 36 downtown acres located at the confluence of Pittsburgh's three rivers. Currently being spiffed up in honor of the city's 250th birthday, Point State Park is known for its 13-mile loop of user-friendly biking and blading trails, Great Lawn for performances and picnicking, and boating and kayaking along the rivers' edges. Additional water features and a renovation of the central fountain will be completed next year. pointstatepark.com

Discovery Green, Houston

This brand new downtown park, opened in April, replaces 12 acres of parking lots with tranquil ponds, jogging trails, horseshoe and croquet greens, and a towering Mist Tree, a kids' play area designed to attract migrating birds. Splash around Gateway Fountain or float your model boat along Kinder Lake. For dinner, experience The Grove, a formal affair officiated by chef Robert Del Grande. Drinks are served in The Treehouse, a second-floor deck with a leafy view. discoverygreen.com

George Washington Parkway, Alexandria, Va.

Declared a National Scenic Byway and an "All-American Road" in 2005, the George Washington Memorial Parkway connects Alexandria to Mount Vernon to the south and Washington to the north. A green ribbon through the heart of Alexandria, the parkway's Dyke Marsh Wildlife Preserve features a trail through wetland forest, mudflats, and vistas of the Potomac River. Explore the preserve by kayak or bike a 20-mile trail that leads to historic Mount Vernon. nps.gov/gwmp

Balboa Park, San Diego

From its cactus garden to the wilds of the 100-acre San Diego Zoo, Balboa Park tops the list of attractions for any visitor to the area. An introduction to the city's cultural heart, Balboa Park offers a smorgasbord of museums set in Spanish Colonial buildings. Kids will love the Model Railroad Museum, or a visit to the Hall of Champions Sports Museum. Try a game of table tennis in the giant Activity Center or hike through Florida Canyon, which meanders through rocky hillsides of sagebrush and cacti. Ask about a combo Passport to Balboa Park, $30 for 13 attractions, or $55, including the zoo. balboapark.org

Beth D'Addono can be reached at bethdaddono@comcast.net.

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