Steven Dale on ‘The Uses of Neighborhood Parks’

New York City's, Washington Square. Image by flickr user Bob Jagendorf.

A thought experiment:

Imagine we were to design a brand new park or public square from scratch. For the sake of ease, let’s assume we’ve located it in an area whereby it will be (in Jacobs’ language) “supported by natural, nearby intense diversity.”

How do we get people to use it?

That isn’t a glib question; it’s essential.

I’m specifically talking about Jacobs’ idea of “generalized” parks – that is, parks that don’t have specific, demanded features (such as a swimming pool) to attract users.

Implicit within Jacobs description of a generalized park is the curious question outlined above: How does a successful, generalized park begin? How does it start?

After all, because our park is “generalized” there is no specific reason for anyone to use our park at first. There are no attractors. No cafés, no skating rinks, no amphitheatres — nothing. Presumably because there’s no good reason to use our park, no one will be using our park. And as Jacobs’ makes clear, a park, a square or street that’s devoid of people reinforces itself. “In cities, liveliness and variety attract more liveliness; deadness and monotony repel life.” Hard to argue there.

Our empty park’s emptiness will, therefore, reinforce further emptiness, thereby discouraging the people we need to encourage more people. It’s a paradoxical chicken-or-the-egg kind of situation.

Remember, every park starts its life in a state of emptiness and monotony. How, then, do we encourage people to work against that initial emptiness? How do we make it lively enough to attract just enough people to encourage even more liveliness and repel monotony?

Somehow we have to go from a time-place where no one is using our park to a time-place where everyone is using it.

How do we do that?

My favourite passage in chapter 5 give us some clues:

For if the object of a generalized bread-and-butter neighborhood park is to attract as many different kinds of people, with as many different schedules, interests, and purposes as possible, it is clear that the design of the park should abet this generalization of patronage rather than work at cross-purposes to it. Parks intensely used in generalized public-yard fashion tend to have four elements in their design which I shall call intricacy, centering, sun and enclosure.

Centering, sun and enclosure are rather straightforward elements. But Jacobs’ idea of “intricacy” is … well … intricate. She follows the above quote with a whole slew of uses for a generalized park, but no where are we provided with an answer to the question of how does a successful park become a successful park. How do we create intricacy?

While it may seem counter-intuitive at first, I think there is only one clear and logical solution: We should stop trying to attract people to use the park.

We should try, instead, to encourage people to pass through the park.

Like frontier towns that once popped up at the crossroads of major trails and roads, a successful park or square is a response to the traffic that flows through it. The genesis of a quality urban park or public square occurs when it’s situated and designed in such a way as to provide a rare and more direct or more attractive routing than the other available options.

In other words: A quality park must provide an attractive short-cut for a multitude of users coming and going in different directions at different times of day. As there is no initial specific attraction to use a generalized park, there must be some inherent quality it possesses to motivate people to initially use it – and that motivator is the saving of time via shorter distances of travel.

To simplify, we can imagine a generalized urban park uptake model:

  1. Short cuts through a park or square initially incentivize the use of the park or square.
  2. These short cuts create the initial user base of the park, thereby generating the eyes on the street mechanism (discussed here and here) needed to generate an environment of safety.
  3. The environment of safety cycles up over time to an environment of conviviality, generating further traffic and usage.
  4. This second wave of convivial users discover and claim other uses for the park beyond the short-cut function – suntanning, reading, lunch, bocci ball, etc.
  5. These secondary uses transforms the park from a mere thoroughfare to a special attractor.
  6. Once heartily in place as a special attractor, the park and its patrons create a virtuous circle of self-reinforcing behavior.

If this admittedly simplistic model is accurate, then the key is to maximize the number of short cuts available at the beginning to as many people as possible. And we can do this by maximizing the park’s permeability, portals and paths.

Permeability meaning design features that actively encourage pedestrian penetration of the site by as many people possible from as many different places and directions as possible.

Portals meaning clear, explicit public entryways into the park site logically arranged to coincide with the entrances and exits of surrounding diverse land uses. This does not mean a borderless entity where people can enter and exit at any place they like – that wouldn’t work. Strategically located portals are necessary to sculpt and direct the movement of people.

Paths meaning the trails, footpaths and vectors people travel through the park from one portal to another. Ideally, a majority of these paths will converge at a centre which as Jacobs points out is “probably the most important element in intricacy.” If a majority of these paths don’t converge at the centre, you don’t have a centre – you probably have an ugly sculpture or fountain that no one is likely to patron.

Maximize these three elements and Jacobs’ condition of intricacy follows.

Consider the the following examples Jacobs mentions as exemplary examples of North American parks and pay particular attention to the extent of permeability, portals and paths each park has to offer:

Washington Square, New York City. Click for larger image.
Boston Common, Boston. Click for larger image.
Rittenhouse Square, Philadelphia. Click for larger image.

All are clear examples of successful parks that are intensely permeable with a deep variety of paths and portals of entry/exit.

Now check out the parks Jacobs singles out as failures (again, paying attention to permeability, portals and paths):

Jefferson Park, New York. Click for larger image.
Corlears Hook, New York. Click for larger image.
Sara Delano Roosevelt Park, New York. Click for larger image.

The first three examples actively encourage and lure you into the park and speed your journey from one place to another. You can enter the park from at least a dozen different portals and can use the extensive network of paths to access virtually any other portal. The last three examples do the exact opposite. Their designs force you around the park as though they want nothing to do with you.

To my thinking, there is no greater example of this concept of permeability, portals and paths than a series of parks clustered around Toronto’s Queen’s Park and the surrounding University of Toronto. Take a look:

The Queen's Park & University of Toronto area of downtown Toronto. Click for larger image

Queen’s Park is an incredibly lively general use park most times of the day — largely due to the flow of student foot traffic between the east and west ends of the university campus. Notice the many paths and portals Queen’s Park offers; and how permeable the site is. Now compare that to the Back and Front Campus greens. It shouldn’t surprise you that Back and Front Campus are typically empty most days – with the notable exception of the occasional ultimate frisbee game.

That’s not to say the areas around Front and Back Campus are empty. Those areas are as teeming with life as Queen’s Park is — and the need for short cuts between buildings is as essential here as anywhere else on UofT’s massive campus. The problem is that Front and Back Campus are not designed (perhaps intentionally) to draw people in and use the space.

Most interestingly is a park area located in the middle of Back Campus, Front Campus and Queen’s Park (just south of Hart House, labeled “University of Toronto). For some reason Google chose not to colour this area green in the above map; but believe me, this is pure park — and it’s always a thriving hub of activity and life. Again, notice the permeability, paths and portals.

Certainly there are other social, economic and environmental reasons that make a park thrive or die. This isn’t to say that permeability, paths and portals are the only preconditions necessary for a successful generalized park — but they’re certainly a part of it.


Random Thoughts

  • Chapter 5 is in many ways my favourite chapter of the book simply because it’s so contrarian. For example: Jacobs calling people’s tendency to refer to parks as the lungs of the city “science-fiction nonsense.” I don’t know if she’s right or wrong about that point, but I love how unafraid she is to sacrifice the sacred cow of trees.
  • You’ll notice something odd in the successful parks shown above. Each converges on what can only be described as the pedestrian equivalent of a traffic circle or roundabout. It seems this is a rather natural phenomena that oftentimes emerges even without explicit planning. (Note: I have a specific reference to this concept, but am having difficulty finding the reference. Please give me a few days to locate it.)
  • I intentionally restricted my discussion to parks and squares in North America, but I wanted to take two seconds to introduce you to my absolute favourite public square/park in the world — Barcelona’s Plaça Reial. I’ve probably wasted more weeks of my life than I care to admit just sitting in that square watching and contemplating its never-ending show. Check it out:
Barcelona's Plaça Reial. CC image via Wikipedia.
This tiny square in downtown Barcelona has seven different portals on all four sides that are accessible year round. It provides a mind-bogglingly large number of uses around-the-clock and even has a centralizing fountain. Click for larger image.
Plaça Reial is for my money the world's most perfect example of a public park or square. It's almost impossible to describe the place except to say that it offers you the chance to bear witness to a lifetime of experiences in a single night. Image by flickr user Jean Robert Thibault.
  • To our Toronto readers: People are all aflutter about two of our city’s newest parks, Sherbourne Common and Canoe Landing. What do people think? Will these turn out to be successes? Is there intricacy? Is there sun? Is there a centre? Is there enclosure? How permeable are they? How many portals do they have? How about the system of paths? Are there intense, diverse surrounding land uses?
  • Excuse the rant, but does anyone else aside from me find today’s playgrounds to be absolutely, soul-crushingly boring? I understand the safety impulse of parents and government, but please. If I’m a child, I want a playground that will damage me enough to teach me a lesson but not so much as to make the damage permanent. Like this one, for example:
"Tell mom I'll be ready to go to the emergency room in 10 minutes." Image by Steven Dale.


6 Comments Add yours

  1. Great post Steven! And just to start off, I absolutely agree about playgrounds. They’re pitiful these days. I remember the dead-simple wooden one I grew up with in elementary school fondly. It was just a series of ramps with railings, different kinds of slides, a tire swing, and a pyramid of stacked 4x4s, but somehow it captured the imagination more than the over-prescribed metal and plastic contraptions that replaced it.

    I think your addition of physical elements that facilitate intricacy build upon her initial observations quite well, especially when trying to design a new park!

    I just wanted to mention a few things about Queen’s Park. It certainly gets a lot of use, but I think that has a great deal to with its captive audience. There aren’t as many kids and parents there as in other neighbourhood parks in Toronto, nor as big a variety of everyday community uses aside from protests, which ironically happen at the ass-end of the building, and the occasional festival. I think this has a lot to do with the neighbourhood it’s in, which lacks the fundamental diversity that Jacobs says is necessary to lively parks.

    In terms of the physical attributes that generate intricacy, I think the design of Queen’s Park’s paths, permeability and portals also deserve some further consideration. The park is full of “desire lines” because its paved paths simply don’t offer enough useful ways to cut through the park. Walking toward the central statue (a bafflingly irrelevant equestrian of Edward VII handed down to us from India because they didn’t want it), seems contrived when you just want to walk straight across the park. Washington Square, and many other New York parks mitigate this impulse by putting up fencing, gates and “velvet rope” style barriers around grassy areas. Other parks simply pave the desire lines, which to me makes more sense. Boston Commons looks like it followed the latter strategy to my eye.

    As for portals and permeability, the width and intense traffic of Queens Park Crescent makes J-walking a dangerous affair on both sides of the park. What’s worse, the natural-feeling entrances/exits to the park are often thwarted by poorly placed crosswalks. St. Joseph Street, and the east-side pedestrian entrance to the Hart House area (and to a lesser extent, the entrance to Flavelle House) lack crosswalks even though the park’s paths lead you directly to these useful locations. The north-side traffic triangle at the top is also a bit mysterious, with crosswalks on the south and west sides, but nothing on the west side.

  2. Since we’re still talking about the book after letting it age for about five decades, there are certain parts that have stood the test of time.

    Jacobs, though, is human and not all of her theories are winners. Her theories on parks do not hold up to the test of time.

    Despite her distaste for the generalized public park, much of the public favors the park instead of the street. Her favor of the street over the park has little traction.

    Communities all over do make parks into their own space, even if it was recreational space “licensed” to them by planners and city leaders. Jacobs stressed the human element is crucial in placemaking. Parks have eyes on the street, enable social bonding and play, and the spaces lend themselves well to human improvisation and inspiration. Even a patch of grass can come alive as a ball field, picnic ground or a place for kids and/or dogs to frolic.

    Parks also serve as the focal points for neighborhoods and/or cities. Parks are desired, and most of them, the public desires to claim them as its own. A park itself doesn’t become a petri dish of social ills, but it can be if left unclean and unpatrolled.

    Park scale is also important. Small-scale parks are focal points for neighborhoods, while large-scale parks are focal points for whole cities. The latter is important, as parks often serve as showcase space. The iconic California examples are the Presidio and Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, Griffith Park in Los Angeles and Balboa Park in San Diego. Each of these cities has several neighborhood parks, that have a mix of recreational activities such as playgrounds, ball fields, picnic areas to allow for various uses. The larger parks have these scattered throughout the land, but they’re also at a scale to go well beyond the neighborhood — and even the city for that matter.

    They allow for mass congregations by hosting band shells, museums and in the case of L.A. and San Diego, famous zoos.

  3. In my neighbourhood, there are a few parks, but when we say “the park”, we mean Grange Park. This is a park surrounded by many primary uses and it is intersected by many paths. It is populated by dog walkers, adults with kids, Chinese people doing Tai Chi every morning, elderly folk sitting on the benches in the afternoons and watching the world go by, homeless people, and many passersby on their way somewhere else. Everyone walks through the park, because it’s a convenient shortcut to many different places.

    Where are they going? The park is edged by residential houses, condos, the Art Gallery of Ontario, OCAD university, a church, an apartment tower, social housing, and facing the centre of the park you find an incredibly active settlement house which offers everything from music school to ESL classes to daycare to an out-of-the-cold program. The park is also steps away from Queen Street West where many of us shop and work, and Chinatown and Kensington Market where most of the neighbourhood buys its groceries, and the University of Toronto is just up the road. It is a simple matter to cut through the park from one to the other.

    Just up the same street there is a park that is little-used — so little used that I’ve lived a 5-minute-walk from it for almost 8 years and I have no idea what its name is. It is not quite as big, but it has similar landscaping and picnic tables. It is surrounded by parking lots and blank walls of tall buildings which are not destinations for anyone. People walk up the street it edges but cutting through it doesn’t get you anywhere interesting — much easier to just stay on the sidewalk and keep going. It is something you walk by, not through.

    I think we favour Grange Park over this other park because Grange Park is an extension of the street for pedestrians and bikes. It is part of a well-worn path, and carries much traffic — thousands of people walk through this park every day. This traffic attracts others to the park, because as Jane notes, we like to people-watch. Why else would we find people spending every afternoon sitting on the benches in Grange Park and not on the equally-comfortable benches in the quiet little park down the road?

  4. David Tittle says:

    Great post Steven. I would urge readers to take a look at Queens Square Bristol, Englan a Georgian square which I think illustrates your point. The paths converge in a ‘union jack’ pattern in the centre of the park which make it a proper node. There is overlooking on four sides and a nice boundary treatment whereby it accomodates a large volume of car parking without that becoming visually dominant. But the great thing about it is that throughout much of the 20th Century it had a highway running through the middle of it, an that was removed and the park restored, and the corners where the highway crashed through were ‘healed’ with new development.
    I have not put a link here because I could not find one that was particularly good, just google it.
    Queen’s Square is like many of the classic London Squares like Bloomsbury Square which I often refer to when I am doing presentation about parks. Overlooking, a sense of ‘ownership’ by surrounding properties, enclosure, a nodal path network, its a perfect recipe. Some of these squares are communally owned private gardens but most are public.

  5. Tim Gill says:

    An enjoyable, stimulating post – thanks! I doubt that the model you describe is the only recipe – but I agree that a successful park has to be well-connected and well used by people on foot and by bike. As for playgrounds: I used to think British ones were bad, until I started to see and read about North American ones. Though truth to tell, things have been getting better here in the UK. If you want to find out more, head for these posts on my website.

  6. Nice post. Parks are still underrated building blocks in many communities.

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