Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Summing Up on Neighborhood Parks – Part 1

In recent posts, I’ve written about public parks in Petaluma.  As an urbanist, I care that parks are vital places, adding to the life of a neighborhood and a community.

To summarize the discussion thus far, I periodically observe five specific parks in my role on the Petaluma Recreation, Music, and Park Commission.  As spring approached, I expected to see more and more folks using “my parks”.  But I was instead disappointed in the small number of users.

So I began collecting data.  It wasn’t a rigorous scientific study.  I just began counting heads, taking notes, sharing the data, and looking for insights that would enlighten me.  Nor did I have a pre-determined conclusion.  As always, I was content to see where the data would lead.

Also, any insights, whether in earlier or future posts, only apply to a couple of categories of parks, not to the full panoply of park types.  In an earlier post, I described four types of parks.  Further observation had led me to add a fifth.

The first three types, natural parks largely used for hiking and mountain biking, parks for organized sports, and downtown plazas, are all interesting, but aren’t the subject of these observations.

My only focus was my last two types, neighborhood parks, which are typically large expanses of grass with limited recreational amenities and no parking except curbside, and what I’ll call multi-use parks, which are similar to neighborhood parks, but with more recreational amenities and off-street parking.

In my most recent post on parks, I suggested that neighborhood parks may be the result of flawed thinking about how we live, a type of falsehood that I described as “self-myths”.  The post elicited an unusual level of response, both on the sites where I publish and through email.  To keep the dialogue going, I’ll begin reproducing some of the comments below, with responses.  (Names are only provided where their use was made public or approved by the writer.  And some of comments have been edited down, although with the argument and voice preserved.)  Your continued participation in the discussion is welcome.

The first two comments were similar and can be addressed in a joint response.

 From “Unknown” on the “Where Do We Go from Here” site: “I think you underestimate the value of parks by using a fixed time as your system of measure.  What does the park look like at 7:00am when the family dog needs walking, a standing run or walk is scheduled, or an impromptu evening stroll happens?”

From a private email: “Your reasoning and your data collection both seem flawed to me.  I don't think a snapshot at a given time of day for a brief period of time really gets at what a park provides to the people that use it.  Do traffic engineers base their design for traffic lights on a single slice of a day?  I think they survey a given street for a full day and probably on multiple days of the week before reaching conclusions about traffic flow.  It might be better to spend a full day at the park and count the total number of people that spend time during that full day to get an idea of the variety of people that use the park, and the variety of activities they engage in while there.  The cumulative number gets closer to the truth of what kind of difference a park makes in peoples' lives.”

As a side note, I find it ironic to have traffic engineering suggested as a good model for determining anything.  Traffic engineering, because of the traffic study format not the individuals, has shared the responsibility for drivable suburbia.

For too long, we sized roads for peak periods.  Given a conflict between another travel lane for the afternoon traffic peak and a wider sidewalk that might accommodate a sidewalk café, we chose the travel lane, with the primary goal of flushing people from the city to the suburbs.

It’s only recently that we’ve begun to accept traffic congestion as acceptable in urban cores.  Any suggestion that traffic engineering is a good model for park assessment triggers a visceral response from me.

With that rant concluded, there are several responses to be made.

I agree that total daily usage would be another valid measure of park usage.  But as long as a reasonable time is selected for instantaneous park tallies, either method is valid.  Indeed, there is likely a relatively fixed ratio between the two.

And I’ll argue that an instantaneous measure is better suited to how the human mind processes the data.  We can perceive how a small handful people in a large park at a particular moment would look.  But we can’t construct a mental image of a total number how a greater number of daily users might look.  Indeed, using daily total may lead us to overestimate impacts, both good and ill.

Using traffic counts as an example, most of us can probably conjure an image of what a street with three cars per minute at peak hour might look like.  It feels like a light traffic volume.  But a thousand cars per day sounds more ominous.  In fact, the two may well refer to the same street.  It’s more difficult to visualize daily totals and that visualization difficulty may lead us to false conclusions.

If you’re trying to decide whether to preserve a park, or to build a new street, daily totals would likely be useful.  But if the only goal is comparing the usefulness of existing parks, instantaneous data is likely more insightful.

So, that gets back to the question of whether early Sunday afternoon was a good time to take instantaneous counts.  I thought it was, but was willing to take more counts at other times.  The data follows:

Park Type:
Day of Week
Median Time
Five Neighborhood Parks (per park) (1)
Eagle Park
Leghorn Park
McNear Park
14.0 (2)
2.0 (3)

(1)    No deceit is intended in the lumping together of my five parks or in leaving them nameless.  I have a personal relationship with the parks and don’t want to make them or their neighborhoods feel badly.  Plus some of the early data was combined and the underlying data is no longer available.
(2)    This unusually high data point, although still far short of Leghorn and McNear, was driven by a 40-person family picnic at one of the five parks.  Seeing that much activity nearly brought tears to my eyes.  But it remained an outlier.
(3)    This data point was the driven solely by a ten-person outing of developmentally-disabled young adults, which is a fine park use.  But the group was about to leave as I arrived.  If I’d been five minutes later, I would have recorded all five of my parks as empty.

Some may be tempted to try further parsing the data.  I suggest that you don’t.  Every park is unique in its area, catchment range, features, and adjoining land uses.  It’s good data, but can’t be pushed too far.   Objective conclusions would be an over-reach, although subjective conclusions can be made.

And my subjective conclusion is that my earlier finding that multi-use parks garner significantly higher use remains valid.  That doesn’t mean that neighborhood parks don’t fill a need, only that they don’t provide as much benefit as they might.  And that will be a topic on which I’ll continue, responding to more comments and suggesting a revised model in my next few posts.

Before closing, I should refer back to Unknown’s comments about strolling, jogging, and dog walking.  All are legitimate recreational activities.   But the first two more frequently use sidewalks and trails.  They may pass through a park, but truly don’t need a park.  Regarding dogs, I walk several.  Their needs are a few trees, the occasional front lawn, and other people and dogs to watch.  A well-maintained and well-used sidewalk often better meets their needs than a neighborhood park.

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


  1. Two possibly disconnected anecdotes on park use...

    A few years ago, Charlene and I volunteered for the COTS "Family Connection" program, in which we and a few other folks from middle class existences volunteered to be some sort of extended family for a family that had been through the homeless shelters. Part of this was setting up regular outings, and we started with suggesting picnics: Hang out in a park, grill some food, throw some projectiles, neutral ground...

    And we got push-back. It took a while to dive in and really get the communication open about why there was resistance, but... if you're middle-class without children, going to a park is a novelty. If you're homeless, a park is a place you go when you don't have a home to hang out in.

    Note that neither of those circumstances have the park as a place you'd want to regularly use. If you have kids, the multi-use parks are at least places where there's an organized framework for regularly using the park, but...

    The park closest to where I live is Wickersham Park, a place I mostly know as a diagonal across a block when I'm walking to or from downtown, and where I think of the regular denizens as the good-natured but often slightly inebriated teenagers hanging out there because it's an escape from the house, when we're walking home in a later evening.

    I know there are other users, I've been there to launch soda bottle water rockets with a nephew, once, in the 6 years I've lived in Petaluma, I do see the occasional dad and kid playing catch there, but...

    The communal uses for that park are things that people can't do in their own spaces. The kids are there hanging out because they can't talk freely and sneak the occasional kiss in at home. The sports, because 8 houses an acre doesn't really allow for a lot of space, but the park is broken up in a way that means there's not room for team play (and team play means more grounds maintenance, and noise for the surrounding houses, anyway).

    We've built a number of neighborhood parks to be unsuitable for gatherings, we don't want noise, or packs of teenagers, or whatever, in our neighborhoods, but if they're not for communal gatherings then they're just less convenient versions of our back yards: If we were at 20+ homes/acre they might be useful, but at 8 homes/acre they're just inconvenient space.

    1. Dan, thanks for the comment. You offer a number of good thoughts, two of which really jumped out at me. First, that's a great insight about people not from the middle class having different perspectives about parks. Also, you're right that the role of parks change as the nearly housing density changes. Adjusting to that changing role is what I fear we've failed to do.