Friday, June 1, 2012

Petaluma’s Center Park

In my last post, I introduced place-making into the lexicon of urbanism.  I did so because of Petaluma’s Center Park.

I had lived in Petaluma for several years before I knew there was a Center Park.  I assumed the outsized median in front of the Mystic Theatre was only the remnant of a superseded traffic pattern.  It probably is that, but it, along with its three mature redwood trees, is also an official Petaluma city park, managed by the Park and Recreation Department.

 Much of the use of the park is passive, with folks looking upon the redwoods as a downtown landmark.  But some uses are also active.  Some people may take shelter from cow chip debris, although most flingers are right-handed so New York Pizza is the more frequent inadvertent target.  (If you had to reread that sentence, you’re probably not from Petaluma and have never attended Butter & Eggs Days.)   Others folks enjoy the shade of the redwoods while watching downtown parades.

And now Center Park is becoming a concern for the Park and Recreation Department.  The three redwoods are ill.  No specific pathogen has been identified.  It’s more likely that the redwoods are in a situation where their environmental needs aren’t been met.  Too much of their root area is overlaid with asphalt.  People have walked over the bare ground around the trunks, compacting the soil that should be loose and spongy for redwoods to thrive.  And Petaluma is at the far end of the redwood’s natural habitat.

Parks and Recreation has tried to save the trees, including installation of a misting system designed to mimic their natural setting along the North Coast.  But it seems a losing battle.

The northernmost redwood is closest to demise.  Its condition has sufficiently deteriorated that Parks and Recreation was obligated to top both leaders last fall to protect public safety.  Its days are now limited.  The other two trees are healthier, but remain in danger.  The look of the trees, showing two distinctly different types of foliage, illustrates the stress.

Accordingly, the Petaluma Parks and Recreation Department and the Petaluma Tree Advisory Committee hosted a public workshop last week.  Center Park might be the smallest public place in Petaluma, but it is well-used.  The question posed was how the park should be configured after the first tree is gone.

I’ll be honest.  My first inclination was to remove the remaining redwoods.  They are clearly not thriving in their setting and it just seemed better to make a clean sweep and move to a different approach to Center Park.  Plus, landscape aesthetics generally require an odd number of trees.  When only two trees are stilling standing, that design standard would be broken

But there was deep community affection for the trees.  The potential hotel builder on the opposing side of B Street reiterated his intent to incorporate a sculpture into his structure that would evoke a redwood, bringing the number of “redwoods” back to three.  Others proposed adding ferns around the base of the surviving trees to keep pedestrians out of the sensitive areas.  A seat wall at the periphery of the park was suggested for parade seating.

In the area where the sickest redwood would be removed, other good ideas were put forth.  Benches made from the departed redwood to inhibit foot traffic around the surviving trees.  An expanded planting of the shorter trees at the northern tip of the park.  A fountain that would provide white noise to make the traffic-encircled park more amenable to conversation.  There was a good spirit of community cooperation.

The public meeting was only one step in an ongoing process.  There will be other public opportunities, such as Park and Recreation meetings, charrettes, etc.  If you believe in place-making and its role in urbanism, feel free to get involved.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

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