Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Are We Fooling Ourselves about Parks?

I’ve previously written that one of the fuels of drivable suburbia is self-myths, stories about ourselves that we’d like to believe to be true, but aren’t.

Although it’s declining as a demographic segment, let me use the nuclear family as an example.  Mom fantasizes about serving drinks in a formal living room while wearing a black cocktail dress.  Dad thinks he’ll become a barbecue master with the right set-up and a bit of practice.  And both parents picture their children playing in a backyard pool before settling in to do homework in their study cubbyholes.

 But the reality is that Mom doesn’t even own a black cocktail dress, the last time Dad grilled anything other than hot dogs he needed a fire extinguisher to douse the flames, the pool is filled with moldering leaves, and the children haven’t done homework in months and will be lucky to get C’s.

But meanwhile the family found a home to support their myths, a four-bedroom house on a quarter-acre lot, surrounded by other four-bedroom houses on quarter-acre lots, and everyone drives everywhere because the low density can’t support walkability.  Meanwhile, no one is happy because the failure to conform to their myths weighs on them and because their suburban setting doesn’t meet their psychological needs.

(I suspect that the happiest folks are those who’re honest and insightful about how they live their lives and find homes that accommodate those lives.  But that’s a topic for another time.)

Today, I’ll offer another myth to add to the story.  The parents expect that their children will happily spend their Sunday afternoons gamboling in the grassy sward of a neighborhood park, perhaps romping with other children.  But the apparent reality is the children have no interest in neighborhood parks.  Nonetheless, because everyone from parents to zoning code authors to planning staffs to city councils believed that the neighborhood parks are needed, many exist, often empty but sucking up municipal funds.

This tentative conclusion is based on recent observations I’ve been making.  Twice before, I’ve written about the number of park users that I found around Petaluma on sunny Sunday afternoons.  I recently took another trip around town to collect a third set of data points.

There are five neighborhood parks at which I’m asked to make periodic observations in my role on the Petaluma Recreation, Music, and Parks Commission.  During my first springtime visit, I found 32 folks using the five parks.  Disheartened, I hoped for more during my next visit.  Instead the total had declined to 20.

Nor did the trend improve during my third springtime visit.  Again counting heads near midday on a warm, sunny Sunday afternoon, I found a total of eight people in my five parks.  Seven of them were clustered in a single park, with three of my parks completely empty.

Even more telling, every group of people that I spied was adult-led.  There wasn’t a single instance of a child or a group of children coming to a park on their own.  The myth of children going to a neighbor park without adult encouragement and supervision was apparently dead, at least on this Sunday afternoon in Petaluma.

That doesn’t mean that all Petaluma parks were underused on that day.  I continued onward to Leghorn Park, where I’d found had found over 100 park users on my previous visit.  This time, perhaps there wasn’t a Little League game being contested, the count was down to about 75, but good use was still being made of the broader range of park amenities.  And there was again a flow of people between the park and the adjoining Parkway Plaza shopping center.

However, I found only two people at Eagle Park, a park close to Leghorn and similar in size, but without the breadth of amenities or the retail proximity.  At least it was an improvement over the empty park that I’d found on my previous visit.

Lastly, I swung by McNear Park.  In response to a previous post, a reader suggested the McNear was the westside equivalent of Leghorn.  It was a good comment.  When I dropped by, there were about 50 people engaged in a variety of activities.  McNear lacks the breadth of facilities, the well-integrated design, and the retail proximity of Leghorn, but it stands far above the neighborhood parks on my checklist.

As I’ve written before, three Sundays of observations doesn’t prove anything.  There are people who spent years studying how parks are used and their insights should be rated far above mine.  However, among those people are writers such as William Whyte and Jan Gehl whose findings seemingly support my observations.

If my Sunday observations and broader studies with which they’re consistent are valid, what direction does that set for parks?

To begin, neighborhood parks, especially if all they include is a swath of grass, a few benches and a play structure, are badly underutilized and probably unneeded in their current form.

That isn’t to say that neighborhood parks can’t have a function.  In “Happy City”, author Charles Montgomery offers a supported argument that people are happier when they have a daily interaction with nature, even if the interaction is at a distance.  So, neighborhood parks, even if underused, may still function as a backdrop for relatively more contented lives.  So the challenge may be to reconfigure neighborhood parks toward the “biophilia” function and away from the mythical childhood play function, perhaps saving a few municipal dollars in the process.

Also, the decline of neighborhood parks doesn’t mean that parks in general are a failing idea.  I can name at least four other types of parks that are doing well.  Those types, with Petaluma examples, are:

·         Multi-faceted parks that attract a variety of users, reaching a critical mass where people show up to watch the people who are already there.  Petaluma examples: Leghorn and McNear Parks.

·         Parks for organized sports.  Petaluma examples: Lucchesi, Princeton, and the upcoming East Washington Park.

·         Native parks for hiking and biking.  Petaluma example: Helen Putnam Park.

·         Downtown plazas.  Petaluma examples: Putnam Plaza and, to a lesser extent, Walnut Park.

It’s an interesting time to be a parks commissioner.  I look forward to my continuing duties, especially if it means breaking down further myths.

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


  1. I think you grossly underestimate the value of parks by using warm bodies at a fixed time as your system of measure. What does the park look like at 7 am when the family dog needs walking, a standing run or walk is scheduled, or an impromptu evening stroll happens? Why use your personal concept of 'family time' to measure the value of a park?

    1. Unknown, if even only for one particular moment in time, if parks with a broad range of amenities are averaging over 60 users and neighborhood parks with more limited opportunities are averaging less than 2, it'd be hard to conceive that the averages could come close to being equal at a different moment in time. It's also be hard to argue that there's not a fundamental difference in how attracted people are to the two types of parks.

      Also, it's interesting to note that of your three proposed uses, jogs and strolls may pass through a park, but much of the route would on streets and sidewalks, so having a smaller, more biologically complex park, which is what I mean by "biophilia" would make little difference. And most dogs I know are far more intrigued by parks with more trees and less grass.

      You are one of several people who responded with comments similar to this. I'll compile the comments and write a cohesive response sometime next week.