Ever wonder why cities invest in parks, greenways and bike lanes?  The answer is simple: it pays off.

Consider New York City’s Central Park.  Beyond being a treasured local landmark at the center so many lives, it’s also the undeniable benchmark in smart park planning and proof positive that parks matter.

In 1856–before the 843 acre park was built–the assessed valuation of real estate in areas surrounding the site totaled $26 million.  When Central Park opened to the public in 1872, real estate values had risen to $186 million.  Central Park continues to be a major economic engine.  The park provides hundreds of direct employment opportunities and thousands of indirect jobs.  It’s a powerful tool to attract and retain commerce and talented employees, and a magnet for hard-won tourism dollars.

Who goes to New York without visiting Central Park?

In his book Forty Years of Landscape Architecture: Central Park, famed and visionary Central Park designer Fredrick Law Olmsted noted that “looked at from a commercial standpoint…Central Park was a success beyond all expectations” (Olmsted, 1928). Central Park is a success by many other measurements, too.  It’s New York’s public living room, an environmental education oasis, a major contributor to community health, and a chief contributor to good air and water quality.  It’s the green heart of the city that never sleeps.

My recent visit to New York revealed a confident city that continues to understand the value of strategic investment in its public realm.  I was very fortunate to have Lisa Switkin and Sarah Weidner of the landscape architecture firm Field Operations (master planners for Shelby Farms Park and the acclaimed High Line greenway in New York City) as my private tour guides.  We began our tour on a cold, damp Monday afternoon with a walk along the High Line–an elevated abandoned rail bed that is being converted to an urban greenway.  The first phase of the High Line (see photograph) opened to the public in June of 2009 and runs from the Financial District to Soho.

It’s an unusual concept. An elevated greenway in New York City?  A visitor’s expectation might be an atmosphere reminiscent of “The Jetsons,” but the High Line is a natural oasis of wood, trees and native grasses running horizontally through a familiar vertical skyline of residential and commercial high rises.  Even on a dreary winter day, the park was filled with visitors.  It was abundantly clear that High Line Park has already had a profound positive impact on the neighborhoods it touches.

Our next stop was the Hudson River Park–a spectacular new waterfront park that has transformed the entire west side of Manhattan and rocketed property values in the area by 15 – 20%.  Sarah, one of my capable guides, explained excitedly that with the opening of the Hudson River Park, she is now able to ride her bike from her home in Brooklyn, across the Brooklyn Bridge and up the Hudson River Park to the Field Operation’s offices on 10th Avenue in less than half an hour.  Now that’s a great commute!

To complete the tour, we hopped the closest subway line and crossed under the East River to visit New York’s current mega-park project. Brooklyn Bridge Park is currently under construction, and when complete, this 85 acre park will replace abandoned piers, parking lots and other eye-sores to become a magnet for the kinds of economic development that have been attracted to Central Park, the High Line, Hudson River Park and other celebrated parks in New York City and around the world.

Parks matter in more ways than one.  That’s why progressive city leaders, with the support of some visionary state and federal elected officials, invest hundreds of millions of public dollars in public park infrastructure.  Parks pay dividends.  That’s why local philanthropists donate precious time, energy and financial resources to enhance community parks and greenways.  Parks enrich our lives.  That’s why everyday citizens (like you and me) volunteer, advocate for, support and defend our neighborhood parks and greenways.

It’s clear that the quantity and quality of investment in infrastructure and operations of parks, greenways and other public realm amenities is a primary indicator of the success or failure of a city.  It’s part of what separates New York City from Detroit.  It helps explain why Minneapolis, Minnesota is thriving while Toledo, Ohio languishes.  A winter work day in Manhattan revealed a thriving outdoor culture that reflects a sense of self-assurance, a confidence that New York City will forever be strong and relevant.

I want that for my city.  Don’t you?