Wednesday, March 26, 2014

One More Lap Around the Park(s)

In a recent post, I recounted a tour of five public parks.  They were the parks assigned to me in my role as a member of the Petaluma Recreation, Park, and Music Commission.  My task was to do occasional oversight, looking for condition and maintenance issues.

I was disappointed to find only 32 people using the five parks on a lovely Sunday afternoon in early spring.  That wasn’t 32 people per park.  It was 32 people total in all five parks, an average of barely more than six folks per park.

From my observations of the five parks, plus a look at another pair of City parks, I began formulating a hypothesis on what makes parks successful, or unsuccessful, in our time.

Since the post was published, the Commission has met.   After I reported my concern about the low usage of my assigned parks, the Parks Director suggested that I visit Leghorn Park on Petaluma’s eastside.  I was familiar with the park, but hadn’t visited in several years, so readily accepted his idea.

To make my comparison as fair as possible, I began my outing by once again visiting my five assigned parks.   Once again, it was a lovely Sunday afternoon in early spring, with a blue skies and a temperature approaching 70.  Once again, I visited my parks between noon and 1pm. 

I hoped that the 32 folks I’d spied on my earlier visit to my assigned parks had been an aberration and that I’d see a more thriving park culture on my revisit.

I was half-right.  Perhaps 32 park users had been unusual, but it might have been unusual on the high side.  On the revisit, there were only 20 people total between the five parks.  And once again, one of the parks was completely empty.

With those images of empty grass in my head, I continued onward to Leghorn. 

The Parks Director had been correct.  Leghorn Park on a pleasant Sunday afternoon was bustling and full.  I tried to count heads, but gave up at 100.

And the activities were widely varied.  Pickup games were going on the basketball courts.  A Little League game was underway on one of the diamonds.  Neighbors had wandered over to watch the youngsters play ball.  Teenagers were sitting at the picnic tables making plans for their post-high school futures.  The play equipment was being well used.  An older gentleman in a motorized wheelchair was cruising on the path with ragtime playing on his onboard sound system.

About the only facilities not in use were the bocce ball courts.  And I’ve since spoken with a friend who told
me of meeting other couples for evenings of playing bocce balls on those exact courts, evenings that ended only when the sun set.

It was a scene to warm the cockles of a dubious parks commissioner’s heart.

Leghorn Park is tucked between the Parkway Plaza shopping center and the Santa Rosa Junior College Petaluma campus.  Thinking that enthusiastic park usage might be something peculiar to that area of town, I visited another park on the other side of the campus.

Eagle Park is roughly the same size as Leghorn Park.  It has play equipment and a broad expanse of green grass, but lacks the other amenities of Leghorn.  On this pleasant Sunday afternoon, it also lacked people.  I’d found another completely empty park.

So what is happening at Leghorn is specific to the Leghorn site.  But what’s different at Leghorn?  I can point to several factors.

The level of development at Leghorn is much higher.  While most of my assigned parks get by with play equipment and green grass, Leghorn also offers ball diamonds, basketball courts, and bocce ball courts.  Indeed, one of the few areas of Leghorn not being well used were the grassy mounds.  People seemed more willing to sit on aluminum bleachers or wooden picnic tables than on the grass.

Leghorn adjoins retail.  Although we don’t often like to admit it, most of us feel more comfortable if other folks are around.  No matter how many layers of grumpy individualism we’ve donned, we have an underlying sense of community.  Being around a gang of folks enjoying themselves, even if we don’t know them, makes us happier.  And the retail begins to develop the critical mass of people needed to create a self-sustaining park population.  Plus the retail provides a convenient place for a post-recreation meal or beverage.

Leghorn adjoins higher density residential.  High density residential affects parks in two ways.  It brings more people within walking distance of a park.  And it reduces the inside places where one can lounge away a Sunday afternoon, making park visits more likely.

(Some may also point out that Leghorn Park has a parking lot.  But it’s not the only city park with a lot.  Nor are many of the parks short on curbside parking.)

Looking at the list of elements that help make Leghorn Park special, a link quickly becomes evident.  They are all also elements of urbanism.  Denser, more intense uses?  Check.  Walkable access to retail?  Check.  Higher density housing?  Check.

Far from parks being incompatible with urbanism, it may be that parks absolutely thrive in urbanist settings.

I’ll admit that two Sundays of casual observations doesn’t prove a grand theory.  However, the two Sundays needn’t stand alone.  I suspect we all have recollection of drivable suburban parks sitting relatively unused while well-designed downtown plazas and playgrounds surrounded by multi-family housing thrive.

What course of action should this imply for our current supply of parks?  That’s a question that I’ll tackle another time.

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


  1. McNear Park, between the baseball (of all levels) and the dog park, tennis courts, playground and picnic areas, and just being in the midst of a vibrant active neighborhood; gets used a lot. Paying attention after your last post, I think it was Sat evening, between all those things, adding up 2 teams and spectators, fellow dog walkers, three picnics, and the playground we used to frequent when our 28 year old was of that age, there had to be a couple hundred people using that wonderful park. Maybe a design to be studied for others. OH right, of course there are the horseshoe pits, also!

    1. Murray, your identification of McNear Park was right on and informed much of my continued thinking on the success of local parks.