Daily Archives: August 27, 2013

The Death and Life of Parks

A short post on parks, relevant for discussion of the area of downtown between 2nd St and Union Station.

The function of parks is probably the least-appreciated lesson of The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Let’s turn it over to the master:

In orthodox city planning, neighborhood open spaces are venerated in an amazingly uncritical fashion, much as savages venerate magical fetishes. Ask a houser how his planned neighborhood improves on the old city and he will cite, as self-evident virtue, More Open Space. Ask a zoner about the improvements in progressive codes and he will cite, again as self-evident virtue, their incentives towards leaving More Open Space. Walk with a  planner through a dispirited neighborhood and though it be already scabby with deserted parks and tired landscaping festooned with old Kleenex, he will envision a future of More Open Space.

And yet, modern day urbanists still deplore the lack of open space in places from Boyle Heights to Long Beach, based on open space ratios. These are people who ought to know better than to analyze city parks using the same analytic framework behind parking minimums. Here’s Streetsblog:

You see, there’s this thing called a Healthy City–and according to the National Recreation and Parks Association, a Healthy City has 10 acres of parks for every 1,000 of its residents.

In 2001, a debate in Long Beach was sparked: how had a city of a half-million dwindled its park space to 5.2 acres per 1,000 residents?

I don’t mean to single out Streetsblog or any of the Long Beach park proposals in particular, since I don’t know the area very well, but this is simply the wrong framework. Any urban design goal that could be met by people leaving your city is likely to be focusing on the wrong thing (see GHG emissions reductions for another example). If the population of Long Beach drops from 468,000 to 234,000, the park ratio will go up to 10.4 acres per 1,000 residents. Would anyone argue that the city or its parks would then be better off?

How Parks Work

The most important design feature of a park is everything surrounding the park. In general, we know how design good parks. You need some sun, you need some trees and shade, you need places to sit, you need some space for kids to run around, and you need paths that go places people want to go. Usually, the detailing of the park is relatively unimportant. Drop the High Line in the middle of a towers-in-a-park housing project, and it’s just another failed “promenade that go[es] from no place to nowhere and [has] no promenaders”, as Jacobs put it.

The things that make parks unique, and make them succeed or fail, are the things all around them. So when we’re looking at the possibility of new parks, the first thing we should look at is the neighborhood surrounding the park. That will tell us how much open space, if any, is appropriate for the area.