Sure, New York’s Central Park has a lot to offer, but when it comes to cool, the park just can’t compete with the thrill of swinging yourself off a 23-foot-high trapeze platform on Governors Island. Adding to the island’s cool factor is an expanding lineup of art installations, food-truck festivals, and rock concerts on a sandy beach—all this with skyline views.
Cities well beyond New York are investing in parks, either opening new ones or getting creative with traditional favorites like Denver’s City Park, where the Electric Prismatic Fountain puts on cutting-edge light shows. A 2010 study by the Trust for Public Land found that the most populated cities in the country spent about $5.8 billion on parks and recreation in 2008, up by a third since 2004.
Parks play a big role in making a city desirable for both locals and visitors. It’s easy to see why at San Diego’s Balboa Park. You can explore the open-air San Diego Zoo, where 4,000 animals such as giant pandas and koalas roam in natural habitats, catch a show at the Tony Award-winning Old Globe Theater, or take a breather on a garden bench overlooking the Pacific. Balboa Park is the single greatest tourist attraction in San Diego, where total park-derived tourist spending came to $114.3 million, according to the Trust.
Discovery Green in downtown Houston has hosted more than 800 events, including performances by Kings of Leon and Kenny Chesney and foam parties for kids, and attracted three million visitors since its 2008 opening—impressive considering the city’s population of just under 2.1 million.
“It’s a place where people can kick back and relax,” says Guy Hagstette, the founding president of Discovery Green, who recalls seeing a group of women coming from the nearby convention center dancing—“convention badges, tote bags, and all”—at one of the earliest park concerts. The park’s appeal is so strong that it has attracted over $500 million in development to revitalize downtown, adds Hagstette.
Whether the draw is a big-name concert or a genteel garden party serving mint juleps, America’s coolest city parks are proving they’re worth a trip across town—and even across the country.