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:
- Short cuts through a park or square initially incentivize the use of the park or square.
- 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.
- The environment of safety cycles up over time to an environment of conviviality, generating further traffic and usage.
- 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.
- These secondary uses transforms the park from a mere thoroughfare to a special attractor.
- 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:
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):
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:
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.
- 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:
- 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: