Monday, March 17, 2014

Connecting Urbanism and Parks

Ardent suburbophiles sometimes try to position parks and urbanism as incompatible and then use the evident value of parks as an anti-urban argument.  As is true of most binary arguments, and particularly true here, the reality is more complicated.  It’s true that many urbanist land-use configurations don’t easily allow some of the park forms that we currently use.  But it’s also true that some of the current park forms aren’t well used.  Perhaps urbanism can point us toward a better park paradigm.

I’m on the City of Petaluma Recreation, Music, and Park Commission.  (Yes, it’s an oddly reordered version of what most communities, along with Amy Poehler, would call a Park and Recreation Commission, but I’ve become accustomed to it.)

 One of my tasks as a commissioner is to periodically observe five assigned parks.  It’s a good and appropriate task.  It makes a meaningful connection between the commissioners and the park system.  And it provides additional sets of eyes that might have different awarenesses to changes happening at the parks.

The anticipated goal of the observations is providing information such as how the irrigation system is working, whether the play equipment is in need of repair, and if the paved surfaces are deteriorating dangerously.

But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve become less good at coloring inside the lines.  So I wander afield with questions like:  “Shouldn’t we be looking at a large field of bicycle parking so more people can come downtown on bicycles for community celebrations? “  “Why can’t we provide a gate in the fence between the low-income apartment complex and the adjoining park?”  And “Are we sure we that there’s not a better use for the five acres lying unused within a park?”

I probably exasperate the park staff, but it’s how I view the world.

Realizing that I’ve usually looked at my five parks during quiet weekday hours, I recently took a weekend tour to see how much usage was occurring on the days when the parks should be well used.  Especially because all the parks are located within residential communities, surrounded on most sides by single-family homes.

It was a warm and sunny Sunday at the beginning of spring, exactly the kind of day when parks should be thronging with people.  Especially between noon and 1 pm when I took my tour.  Without including the names of the parks, this is what I found:

·         Park 1: Seven adults and four children.  Three of the adults were pushing an elderly woman in a wheelchair, although they had to turn around where the concrete path turned to gravel.  The other adults were the parents of the children and were engaged with the play equipment, although most of equipment remained unused.  Only one of the three picnic tables was in use.

·         Park 2: One man throwing a ball for his dog.  That was it.

·         Park 3: Five adults and five children engaged in casual ballplay.  The play equipment and picnic tables were unused.

·         Park 4: Two adults and eight children.  One of adults was setting up tables for a party later in the afternoon.  (Six of the children, who didn’t have a parent hovering nearby, were engaged in a game with ill-defined rules and a fuzzy objective.  One child would regularly complain that “It’s not fair”, at which the other children would huddle and renegotiate the rules.  It was the fine example of good childhood play, the kind of play that trains kids to be adults.)

·         Park 5: No one.  Acres of verdant springtime grass and not a person to be seen.

That’s a total of 32 people.  Yes, it could have been even fewer, especially with Park 5 providing an example of a completely empty park.  But when we consider that the parks serve neighborhoods with a population of perhaps 8,000, 32 people, 0.4 percent of the nearby population, seems paltry.  And overcrowding certainly wasn’t the issue.  There were plenty of grass, play equipment, and picnic tables going unused.

Trying to decide if I should be distressed by the sum total of 32 park users, I visited another couple of parks.  Walnut Park is a block-sized park adjoining downtown.  Much like my assigned parks, it has grassy areas, picnic tables, and play equipment.  But with its proximity to downtown, it also has a gazebo/bandstand and serves as the site for community-wide activities.  On the Sunday afternoon, there were 23 people using Walnut Park.  Still not a big crowd, but far above the average use of my assigned parks.

Putnam Plaza is a mostly hard-surfaced park in the heart of downtown.  Roughly the size of a building site, it fronts on restaurants and other food services.  Despite its small size, it had 20 people on the sunny Sunday afternoon, filling many of the available sitting locations.

To give structure to these park usage figures, I’ll suggest that most cities have four kinds of parks:

·         Large, natural parks that are mostly used for hiking and perhaps bicycling.  In most communities, these parks are well-used and beloved.

·         Parks for organized sports.  Few communities have enough parks for organized sports.  It’s the most pressing park need in most towns.

·         Parks for casual play and family activities.  My assigned parks are squarely in this group, which are usually relatively small parks located within single-family subdivisions.

·         Urban plazas for socializing. Putnam Plaza is a fine example and Walnut Park straddles the line between casual play and urban plaza.  My one day of observations indicates that urban plazas are likely more popular than casual play parks.

The first two types needn’t be discussed further here.  But the latter two are of great interest.  Public opinion seems to generally support all kinds of parks (at least until dollars are discussed).  But when it comes time to actually use the parks, the casual use parks seem under-used, especially compared to the other types.  And yet it’s the casual play/family parks that are most frequently added to a park system, usually as the result of a newly-approved drivable suburban subdivision.

I don’t think there was this under-use during my youth.  One would see games of Three Flies Up or Pickle in most parks on a Sunday afternoon.  But park usage has changed over the years, with televisions, DVRs, computers, and video games pulling youth away.  It isn’t a good thing.  I would have loved to have seen a good game of Three Flies Up during my park tour.  I would probably have sat and watched for awhile.  But it seems clear that there has been a change.

This ties back to urbanism because parks in urban settings tend to be more like Putnam Plaza, with the occasional Walnut Park, than like casual play parks.  And some argue that that “Kids need places to play.”

I agree that kids need places to play.  I’ve have often argued that childhood play is a great thing.  Integrating adequate areas to be a kid into urbanist communities is a challenge of which urban planners are continually aware.
But the fact remains that few youth, and few adults, are using many of the parks that are now available, particularly the type of parks delivered by drivable suburban development.  As much as I’d like to bring youth back into parks, arguing against urbanism on the grounds of hypothetical youth use isn’t reasonable.

Instead, we should be looking for comprehensive solutions that involve urbanism and effective strategies for improving park use.  (About a year ago, I reviewed the current downtown parka and plazas in Petaluma, while also proposing the need for another plaza.  The posts have continuing relevance.)

It’s a multi-faceted challenge of which I’ve only scratched the surface.  Indeed, I’ve barely begun to define the problem.  But I’ll return to the topic.  And in the meantime, we need to stop paying attention to arguments that put urbanism and parks in opposition.  The reality is far more complicated.

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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