Crisis funding for public parks

I spoke last week to Adrian Benepe, former commissioner for the NYC Parks Department and currently the Senior Vice President and Director of National Programs at The Trust for Public Land.

We discussed a lot of things – the increased use of parks in the era of COVID-19, the role parks have historically played – and currently play – in citizens’ first amendment right to free speech and protests, access & equity for underserved communities, the coming budget shortfalls and how they might play out in park systems.

I wanted to pull out the discussion we had about funding for parks and share Adrian’s thoughts with all of you, as I think it will be most timely and valuable as we move forward with new budgets and new realities.

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Amid Protest and Pandemic, Urban Parks Show Their Worth

During this extraordinary time in America’s cities — weeks of coronavirus lockdowns followed by mass protests against police violence and racial inequality — one theme runs through the twinned crises: the power and value of public spaces.

The nation’s parks experienced a surge of use during the pandemic that closed stores and businesses and kept so many Americans isolated in private. Since March, when coronavirus restrictions in the U.S. were enforced en masse, still-open city park facilities saw soaring numbers of visitors. Popular trails in Dallas, which tracks visitors, saw usage climb from 30% to 75% in march. In Minneapolis, during the still-cold month of March, trails experienced summertime levels of usage. Erie, Pennsylvania’s Presque Isle State Park saw visitor numbers jump 165% year-over-year during the third week of March.

“Parks are the most valuable resource in the city at this point,” says J. Nicholas Williams, director of the Parks, Recreation and Youth Development Department in Oakland, which has also seen an uptick in visitors in the last few months.

Then came the protests over the killing of George Floyd on May 25, triggering a wave of mass demonstrations that, in venues such as Lafayette Square in Washington, D.C., and Cal Anderson Park in Seattle, are using these same public spaces as stages for protest. That, too, is part of the critical role they play in urban life.

“The thing I tell people about parks and public spaces is they can be platforms for equity, and the events of the last week in America show the public realm is the essential platform for equity,” says James Hardy, Akron, Ohio’s deputy mayor for integrated development, who focuses on parks and public space. “It’s especially evident when the press and disregarded members of our community need these spaces to communicate truth to power.”

But amid this rediscovery of the value of parks, steep budget cuts now loom: City tax revenue is drying up, the need to provide additional protective gear for staff is expensive, and funds from special permits and fees, from athletic events to large outdoor concerts, may be small or non-existent during this socially distanced summer. The ongoing protests against police brutality and inequality both highlight the importance of public space for civil action and engagement and likely add to repair and maintenance costs.

A survey from the National Recreation and Park Association in mid-April of more than 300 park commissioners found half had been asked to make budget cuts this year between 10% and 20%, and many have already instituted hiring freezes or laid off part-time and seasonal staff. New York City faces a $61.3 million cut in its park budget. Coming shortfalls may mean delayed maintenance, shelved plans and deteriorating facilities.

“This is a critical time for public space, perhaps more than we’ve seen in past decades,” says Bridget Marquis, director of the Civic Commons Learning Network, a national nonprofit initiative focused on public spaces. “We’re seeing the gaps and how we’ve let them erode in many places.”

According to Parks and the Pandemic, a report issued last month by the Trust for Public Land, cities are repurposing this open space in ways that aid the civic response to the coronavirus. Toledo, Ohio’s botanical garden, for example, has been transformed into a Covid-19 test site. The report also highlights how the coronavirus, and the nation’s response to it, has accelerated existing divides and inequality. Despite big investments in signature parks like the reconstructed Brooklyn Waterfront or the $100 million expansion of Klyde Warren Park in downtown Dallas, a widespread lack of equitable access to green space remains. That gap stands to widen further with Covid-related budget cuts.

But there’s some cautious hope here, too: This convergence of crises could ultimately help convince local leaders and the public to reconsider the importance of public space, and even see parks as part of a broader plan for economic and social recovery.

“We’re optimistic and excited around the top-to-bottom interest in this issue,” says Benita Hussain, director of the Trust for Public Land’s 10-Minute Walk campaign. “There are challenges, but there is a lot of hope, because the will politically to make public space and parks remain a priority is there.”

Hussain leads the Trust for Public Land’s signature initiative, which calls for making sure every American is within a 10-minute walk to a public park or green space. That goal is far from being realized, with 100 million Americans, and 27 million children, lacking such access. In some cities — such as Charlotte, Oklahoma City, and Mesa, Arizona —  less than half of residents live that close to a public recreation facility.

“We haven’t been investing in civic infrastructure, parks, and trails,” says Marquis. “I hate to say there’s a silver lining to Covid-19, but it’s a time to recognize what we prioritize in this country. I hope part of the legacy will be an equitable and resilient investment strategy in the public realm.”

It’s not hard to find examples of the public’s new appetite for public space in the midst of a pandemic. While so many places to congregate have closed or changed, parks and public spaces still provide places to relax and decompress while maintaining social distance.

“The Covid-19 response, while clearly necessary, created a huge burden of cabin fever, loneliness, anxiety, stress, and personal loss,” Howard Frumkin, professor emeritus of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences at the University of Washington School of Public Health, told the report’s authors.

Before the coronavirus crisis hit, park finances were on the upswing, according to Charlie McCabe, a city parks researcher with the Trust for Public Land. Public funding for city parks hit roughly $8 billion nationwide in 2019, a slight increase from the last few years, as the robust pre-pandemic economy allowed some cities to invest in improving and reconstructing parks, McCabe says, spending money on newly popular amenities such as dog parks and splash pads, as well as recreation and senior centers.  

This resurgence was long delayed: After increasing 15% between 2003 and 2007, city spending on parks plummeted 22% as the Great Recession arrived in 2008, according to the NRPA. Spending was slow to recover. By 2013, parks represented just 1.9% of local government spending, down from 2.2% in 2000.

Coronavirus has forced city park departments to respond to fast-changing public health rules and needs. In addition to opening up trails, adapting space to social distancing, and converting golf courses to parks, a third of park and recreation departments are also offering emergency services, says Kevin Roth, vice president of research, evaluation, and technology at the NRPA. This includes converting recreation centers to shelters, delivering meals, setting up testing sites, and providing day care to children of first responders and health care workers.

“It’s really quite challenging now,” says McCabe. “Many amenities, especially the ones that have been invested in heavily in recent years, have closed due to concerns over close contact, while parks have needed to quickly adapt to provide enough access to walk and bike on trails and open fields, which often get crowded.

Hussain says many park departments are cutting costs by engaging citizens to help; Rochester, New York, has instituted a pack-in pack-out trash policy, similar to what’s seen at national parks. There’s also a legislative push in Congress to get the Great American Outdoors Act, which would add $900 million annually to the Land and Water Conservation Fund and help address the maintenance backlog for the nation’s parks.*

Demonstrators observe a moment of silence during a protest over the killing of George Floyd by in Brooklyn’s McCarren Park on June 3. (Scott Heins/Getty Images)

Still other park advocates and staff see this moment of crisis as the right time to make the case for parks as key parts of larger economic recovery, and community investment plans, especially commercial corridors hard hit by both the pandemic and damage during ongoing protests. It’s not just savvy political thinking, but a smart way to integrate smaller, community-focused green space in neighborhood-level development.

In Detroit, where the city faces a $348 million budget shortfall over the next 16 months, park officials point to the ongoing Strategic Neighborhood Fund, a public-private initiative focused on building up commercial corridors across the city, as a model that can help make parks part of broader initiatives. The program, which has made parks and streetscape improvements pillars of the process, aims to make green spaces part of inclusive economic development; that may mean including parks in housing programs, and looking beyond traditional standalone “trees and recreation” thinking to figuring out how parks can fit into larger projects.

“The city just emerged from bankruptcy five years ago, so we’ve been doing economic recovery here ever since,” says Alexa Bush, a design director for Detroit.

Akron’s newly created Office of Integrated Development also focuses on making parks part of larger investments in neighborhoods and civic infrastructure. Hardy, the city’s deputy mayor for integrated development, says that parks programs by themselves can struggle to get funding but fare better when included in larger programs about job access and the quality of public space.

Despite facing an estimated 20% decrease in municipal funding this year, Akron plans to focus on projects and priorities in traditionally redlined and lower-income neighborhoods first, says Hardy. It’s all about being strategic and prioritizing the places that need it the most. Parks, community centers, and libraries are always the easiest to eliminate, Hardy says; he cautions that policymakers desperately need to do the opposite, doubling or tripling investments in public space. He fears that city leaders may look at the protests of the last week and see parks as a thing to cut, to limit the liability that comes from mass civic action. That mindset will only deepen the inequality.

“Part of the reason people have been protesting is disinvestment in public spaces to begin with, especially in black neighborhoods,” he says. “Parks and park access are part of the large narrative of racism and discrimination against African Americans.”

To the extent possible, Akron is trying to say no to cuts, and view recreation as an essential public service. That’s a paradigm shift, and one that, post-Covid, park managers hope becomes standard practice.

“Parks are as important as roads and bridges, they’re not something to get to later,” Hardy says. “They’re where people from different backgrounds come together and find themselves on equal footing. They’re essential to the American experiment, and this is a great opportunity to make that argument.”   

*CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story did not accurately describe this legislation.

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The Power of Parks in a Pandemic

Parks aren’t usually in the news this much.

With half of the world now living under lockdown, the ability to go outside and get some fresh air has never been so important, or so fiercely contested. As those who can afford to do so converge on green spaces, seeking exercise and solace amid the coronavirus pandemic, parks have become stages for collective joy, anxiety, and social-distancing infringement crackdowns. The multiplicity of benefits parks have always offered us — physical and mental health relief, community building, and free public open space in tight, increasingly privatized urban quarters — seem not only like an added bonus right now, but rather, a critical lifeline for cities and their residents.

Between 2017 and 2018, I researched and visited 65 of New York City’s parks in a policy report assessing their state and potential problem areas for the Center for an Urban Future. This kind of mass recognition of parks as critical urban infrastructure was something park advocates always wanted, and hoped to encourage. None predicted that it would take a global pandemic for that to finally happen. But the Covid-19 era is also emphasizing something I found in my research: Parks haven’t gotten the attention in dollars that they deserved in the years leading up to this crisis. Now we’re seeing the consequences.

The coronavirus crisis, to me, highlights three key gaps in parks equity that cities will need to address once this is all over: accessibility, funding, and space.

Accessibility

As Alissa Walker recently pointed out in Curbed, a glance at Covid-19-era social media might lead you to believe that everyone had access to a garden, nature trail, or an Instagram-worthy weeping willow. That’s not the case: In the U.S. alone, 100 million people (28 million children included) do not have a neighborhood park within a 10-minute walk from home. And now that trails and parks are closing in state, county, and national parks (in the U.S., but also in countries like Canada, Scotland, etc.), and parking constraints to reduce crowding, this systemic lack of local green space is stark.

That search for space is incredibly apparent in London, where I’m currently studying. In October of 2017, the city released a report touting the economic value of parks: For every pound spent on parks, it said, the return to the taxpayer was 27 pounds, when you add up the health and air pollution savings with the effects on property values. Mayor Sadiq Khan has made green space a priority, seeking to squeeze in streetside trees and rain gardens in a city known for its private parks. But still, who has access to that 27 pounds worth of benefits persists, if not worsens, in pandemic times.

In a game of “tutting,” or social reprimanding of park users, local councils have made efforts to close two sizable green spaces: Victoria Park and Brockwell Park. (Brockwell has since reopened; Victoria will reopen on April 11.) The tourist-famed Royal Parks have been threatened to, as well. The low-income borough of Tower Hamlets, home of Victoria Park (which was first built as a public health measure against disease), has one of the worst air qualities in London, and its parks fall victim to this pollution. Yet Tower Hamlets only has 300 hectares of park space, for a little over 317,000 people; without Victoria Park, that number drops down to about 214 hectares. (The borough of Lambeth, home to Brockwell Park, faces a similar dilemma.) For comparison: Kensington, a wealthier borough, has 200 hectares for about half the population, and less land mass.

So what little space is left to occupy? And with public transport reserved for front-line workers, how does one even get there?

Funding

One thing I heard consistently from park workers, volunteers, and advocates during my research was to look beyond the statistics: Even if you have a park within 10 minutes of your home, that doesn’t necessarily mean much if the park or playground is not well-maintained or well-designed. I found that to be the case across the board: The average New York City park, for example, is 73 years old, and last saw a major renovation in 1997. At least 20% of the city’s parks hadn’t seen a renovation in 25 years. Issues like clogged drainage, broken comfort stations, and vulnerable bridge structures were the most apparent.

Where do we see that happening? In working-class communities, the ones now hit hardest by the pandemic. In Woodside, Queens — which lies within the radius of the virus’s epicenter — 45% of parks hadn’t received a major renovation since 1993. Overall, Queens has six parks that haven’t been renovated in over 100 years, and 31 in over 50 years. The borough’s largest park, Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, which serves the city’s most vulnerable neighborhood, is prone to flooding and cracked pavement.

This inequity, which persists in plenty of city parks systems around the world, specifically derives from the ways in which private wealth and public dollars function. Under local rule, priorities like community safety or health take budgetary precedence in low-income areas, which places parks down the list of spending priorities. Meanwhile, marquee parks in highly visible locations (think: Central Park and the High Line) usually have conservancies backed by rich neighbors, affording them amenities like Beaux Arts bathrooms and high-quality landscape care. So what you end up having is the 834-acre Central Park with a 125-person private staff (when the report was published), while the city at large has only about 150 public gardeners, for nearly 20,000 acres of green space, and limited specialized workers throughout the boroughs.

Most of the parks in desperate need of renovation were small neighborhood green spaces, like triangles, plazas, and gardens. But as we’ve seen, these are the open spaces we’re now relying on the most during the pandemic. Especially when the big parks fill up.

Space

After discussing who can access parks, and what parks get funding, it’s worth finally considering the actual space within or around those parks.

It’s no surprise that the movement to reclaim streets from now-scarce vehicles that is currently attracting attention in cities across the globe (as CityLab’s Laura Bliss mapped last week) has also targeted parks. When public space gets tight, we’re more likely to realize what takes up a lot of it. And in many urban parks, car space still dominates.

Portland has closed 10 of its parks off to cars and trucks, in an effort to promote social distancing and ease overcrowding. Minneapolis-St. Paul continues to open up parkways to pedestrian and cycling traffic, and close roads around park edges and bodies of water. All roads within Vancouver’s Stanley Park are now car-free. The same pattern can be seen in cities like Philadelphia, Cleveland, and Denver. Seemingly overnight, acres of park space have been added to urban landscapes, without spending a single city dollar.

***

One statistic that always stuck out to me during my research is the fact that urban green spaces function as the primary source of natural recreation for about half of New Yorkers. Now we’ve entered a period when more city dwellers, confined to their homes, are appreciating that space together. In Philadelphia, community gardens and urban farms have been deemed “essential” services. In Calgary, gardening stores are being swarmed with calls. And trails are seeing visitorship double from this time last year. (Again: with social distancing measures in mind.)

In a quick Twitter survey, I asked users if they’ve discovered new parks in their backyard during self-quarantine, or rediscovered parts of old ones. People in Charlottesville, Harlem, and other parts of London told me that neighbors were using previously defunct spaces, venturing to ones off-road themselves, or exploring in their neighborhood for the first time. (In Oxford, UK, where I currently live, I’ve found a few uncharted trails myself.)

The Covid-19 pandemic should reawaken interest in parks and open spaces long overlooked by city officials, or unnoticed by city residents. Beyond that, this crisis should refocus attention on the deficiencies in green space and contact with nature at the hyper-local level. And, hey, maybe the space that does exist shouldn’t go to cars.

But it’s not yet clear if the critical importance of urban parks that the pandemic has revealed will be accompanied by resources to support these spaces. Pushed by an alliance of union workers and advocates, our report garnered an unprecedented infusion of money ($43 million, to be exact) into New York’s parks last year, building upon the administration’s initiative to fund community parks. A second-year push was in the works. But what happens now? We have now undoubtedly entered uncertain economic times, and city budgets will tighten. Parks are often the first to get cut in recessions. (In fact, Mayor Bill de Blasio is now proposing $18.1 million in parks cuts.)

A more robust effort to support parks that doesn’t include a significant burden on taxpayers is the new reality we face with. So now is the time for cities to get creative with funding mechanisms. Our report recommended a number of revenue streams, including small surcharges on sports events and concerts (when they reopen), golf course fees, and the mandatory inclusion of green space in rezoning efforts. But there is much more out there to consider, especially in this brave new world we’re living in.

The Covid-19 pandemic has many lessons to teach us, and how cities rethink infrastructure in the days ahead will be one of the greatest tests of urban resilience. Let’s not let parks be one we forget.

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Parks for All, Not Just the Privileged: Data-Driven Approaches to Park Equity

City Parks Alliance believes that all residents deserve access to high quality parks, and we believe that cities are wise to prioritize access for all residents for the health, environmental, and community benefits. That is why we also recently commissioned Investing in Equitable Urban Park Systems: Emerging Strategies and Tools, as part of a national initiative to help cities address park equity while promoting innovative strategies for funding parks and green infrastructure. Urban Institute led the research and published the report, which explores funding models and their equity considerations in cities of various sizes across the country.

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How and Why Parks Spur Gentrification in Cities

There is no hotter hot-button issue among urbanists than gentrification. It’s a subject we cover often at CityLab, busting myths and misconceptions about what drives it, where it occurs, and its effects on people and neighborhoods (which can be more positive, even for lower-income residents, than commonly thought).

Most urbanists and economists have long thought that gentrification is driven, in large part, by the desire of more affluent and educated people to reduce their commutes and be close to the offices and workplaces of the central business district (that’s why the term is often used synonymously with the back-to-the-city movement).   

But it is becoming increasingly apparent that more is at work. Gentrification is also driven by a desire to be close to unique urban amenities like restaurants, galleries, museums, or even fitness facilities. In some cities, gentrification is associated less with proximity to the workplaces of the central business district and more with the desire to access the amenities and park spaces of what has been dubbed the central recreational district. The pricey condo and office towers that line New York’s High Line park stand as physical exemplars of just this.

Locations of gentrification-eligible (GE) tracts in 2008 and gentrified tracts between 2008 and 2016 for five of the largest cities in the U.S.

(Alessandro Rigolon and Jeremy Németh, Urban Studies © 2019 Reprinted by permission of SAGE Publications, Ltd.)

Now, a study by Alessandro Rigolon of the University of Utah and Jeremy Németh of the University of Colorado takes a close look at the role of urban parks and green spaces in gentrification. Published in the journal Urban Studies, their research unpacks the roles of several elements of parks in gentrification.

The study covers 10 cities (not metros) in different regions of the country. This group includes five of the very biggest cities—New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, and Philadelphia—and five somewhat smaller cities that have also seen significant gentrification: Seattle, Denver, Austin, Albuquerque, and Portland, Oregon. It tracks the role of parks in the gentrification of the cities over 15 years, from 2000 to 2015, a period during which the back-to-the city movement accelerated gentrification. It breaks this longer time frame into two shorter periods—2000-2008, before the crisis, and 2008-2015, after the crisis, when gentrification took off even more.  

The study pegs gentrifying neighborhoods in these cities with a fairly standard definition that tracks changes in median income, housing values and rents, and college graduates. The authors dub neighborhoods or census tracts that start out with median incomes lower than that of the city as “gentrification-eligible.” Under this definition, about half the tracts in these cities were gentrification-eligible in the year 2000 (ranging from 43 percent in Seattle to 56 percent in Chicago). About a tenth to more than a quarter of these gentrification-eligible neighborhoods actually gentrified, depending on the city, from a low of 12 percent in Houston to a high of 27 percent in Denver.

The study goes beneath parks as a broad category and focuses on several key characteristics of parks and their effect on gentrification. These are: size, overall quality, whether they are new, proximity to downtown, and whether or not they are linear “greenway parks,” longer than a mile, that include an active transportation component like bike lanes.

More new parks (381) were built in the earlier pre-crisis period than in the later post-crisis period (215), likely due to the impact of the Great Recession on local park finances. To test propositions about the role of parks in gentrification, the study develops a series of advanced statistical models which also control for factors including income, density, race, housing, proximity to downtown, and accessibility to transit, among others.

Locations of gentrification-eligible (GE) tracts in 2008 and gentrified tracts between 2008 and 2016 for five medium-sized cities in the U.S.

(Alessandro Rigolon and Jeremy Németh, Urban Studies © 2019 Reprinted by permission of SAGE Publications, Ltd.)

The upshot of the study is that it is not parks or green space per se that spur gentrification: Certain types and characteristics of parks play a much greater role than others.

The first big finding is that long greenway parks, like the High Line or Atlanta’s BeltLine, are the biggest culprits in gentrification. According to the study, being located within a half-mile of a new greenway park increases the odds that a neighborhood will gentrify by more than 200 percent (their actual estimates range from 222 to 236 percent). Five of seven new greenway parks in the study spurred significant gentrification in their surrounding neighborhoods, including New York’s High Line, Chicago’s 606 trail, and Houston’s Buffalo Bayou Park.

The reason for this is likely the simple fact that long linear greenway parks provide ample opportunities for new real estate development along their lines. The study also finds that greenway parks were much more likely to spur gentrification in the latter 2008-2016 period, but not in the 2000-2008 period. There are likely two reasons for this. On the one hand, as the study notes, even though fewer parks opened during this latter period, it is the time during which many of the most well-known greenway parks like the High Line and the 606 trail opened.  

Second, parks located closer to downtown also play a larger role in gentrification (though not as big as greenway parks), increasing the odds that a neighborhood will gentrify by about 90 percent. Here the study points out that for every one-mile increase in distance from downtown, the odds of gentrification for a gentrification-eligible neighborhood decline by about 20 percent. This effect was especially large in downtown L.A., in particular along the Los Angeles River, and also in Seattle and New York City.

A couple of things matter considerably less. For all the fuss made about big parks driving gentrification, the variable for park size fails to show statistical significance with gentrification. In other words, there is no evidence that larger parks are bigger drivers of gentrification than scattered smaller parks. Parks of any size trigger gentrification when they are located close to downtown.  

Furthermore, it is the very existence of parks and not their quality that is bound up with gentrification. In fact, the study finds that there is less gentrification on balance in cities with higher-quality park systems.

Ultimately, gentrification is tied to the particular location, type, and function of urban green spaces. Linear greenway parks and parks located close to downtown are most closely tied to gentrification; these are also the parks that are most closely tied to the creation of central recreational districts, another key driver of recent gentrification.

This has a couple of useful implications for mayors, urbanists, park planners, community developers, and neighborhood groups concerned with managing the gentrifying effects of parks and green space. The authors suggest that cities steer a good chunk of park development to building and refurbishing parks and green space, including large parks, in less advantaged areas outside the downtown core.

They write: “[A]s we find that large parks do not foster gentrification more than small parks, planners and policymakers should strive to address deep rooted inequities in accessible park acreage by adding substantial amounts of new green space in park-poor, low-income communities of color, while also providing and protecting nearby affordable housing.”

On the other hand, cities should make concerted efforts to proactively address gentrification around new greenway parks and downtown adjacent parks. This can include policies and provisions for more affordable housing in neighborhoods surrounding these parks and efforts to create employment for less advantaged residents in the parks, or in developments that appear alongside them. Or, for developers who take advantage of the park amenities, cities could assess fees or taxes that can be used for affordable housing and neighborhood development, or mandate that the developers set aside a percentage of their units, say 20, 25, or even 30 percent, for affordable housing.

Great parks and open spaces help to make great cities. They provide areas for recreation and burning off the stresses and strains of everyday urban life, and their tree canopy helps communities mitigate pollution. People feel more attached to their cities and their neighborhoods when they can access nature, and green space contributes to the physical beauty of their neighborhoods.

Parks are a central piece of the civic infrastructure that helps bring people and families together in large, anonymous cities. What cities need to do is ensure that their initiatives for parks and green space are fully integrated with their broader strategies for more inclusive development for all neighborhoods and residents.

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The Smart Cities Toolkit for SMART Urban Parks

The toolkit is designed for city and park managers, advocates, and anyone interested in utilizing technology in parks. In addition to providing example technologies, the toolkit rates each one based on how it impacts health, community access, water efficiency, and a number of other criteria, includes tips for implementation, as well as presents creative ideas for establishing partnerships and funding strategies. 

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