Durable Growth

Summing up on neighborhood parks – Part 2

Forsyth Park in Savannah

Forsyth Park in Savannah

In my previous post, I began responding to questions and comments made about earlier posts on park usage.  I’ll finish up with a few more responses before moving onto musings about alternative ideas for neighborhood parks in my next post.

To reiterate one point, parks matter to urbanists because walkability matters.  Even in settings that are more drivable suburban than walkable urban, improving walkability is a worthwhile goal.  And having parks as inviting, well-used places helps walkability.

From a regular reader who’s active in neighborhood affairs:  Community gardens came up at a recent town hall meeting.  One neighborhood mentioned the lack of community gardens.  Home gardening is one of my recently-found obsessions.  If a neighborhood feels the need for more gardens, I would like to help them with their vision.

McNear Park has a community garden, but I don’t know if other parks have community gardens.  It certainly seems a concept worth expanding.  I’m familiar with at least one local neighborhood park with land that hasn’t been developed because of a lack of funds and need.  A community garden would seem a reasonable option.  I’ll fold the idea into the suggestions in my next post.

From Justin Bollock in Petaluma Patch:

I live close to Eagle Park and enjoy going there as an alternative to the very busy Leghorn Park.  I also agree with the benefit of daily interaction with nature.  Sometimes I will take an alternate route home just to drive by the park, even though I don’t stop to enjoy it.

I think the primary driving force behind the decline in park usage by what I’ll call “non adult-led groups” is the fact that parents don’t feel as safe letting their kids out of the house without supervision as they used to.  That being said, my boys call Eagle Park “our park” and I am very grateful for it!!

For several years, my wife and I lived a short block from Eagle Park.  To this day, my wife calls it “Mollie Park” after one of our dogs, a stolid old Golden Retriever, who liked nothing more than doing a barrel roll into the grass of Eagle Park.

And I appreciate that Eagle Park can be a less hectic experience than Leghorn Park.  However, when I see a park sitting underused, I feel as I do when I visit a favorite restaurant on a Friday evening and find it nearly empty.   “Wow, we’ll get great service,” is quickly followed by, “Uhh, I hope they can stay in business.”

That’s not to imply that there are any thoughts of Petaluma closing parks.  Nothing of the sort is being considered.  But financial times remain tough for almost all North Bay cities.  Barring new taxes, tough decisions may need to be made in the future and I would expect that busy, well-used parks will be further from the chopping block.

Regarding safety, Justin is correct that parents seem more concerned about safety today than in the past.  However, statistics don’t bear out the concern, particularly with regard to the most frequent worry about abduction.  (As a recent speaker noted at a meeting in Santa Rosa, a child is equally likely to be struck by lightning as to be abducted by a stranger.)  Ironically, the greatest risk to a kid today is a vehicular accident during the walk to the park, hence the “Twenty is Plenty” argument.

An email from regular reader Steve Kirk:  

Living near McNear Park, I access it daily and find it well-used and well-loved by the neighborhood.  I don’t know why one park is successful and another not, but I suspect that contrivance plays a role.  By that I mean people feel comfortable in larger, more mature park-like environments than in spaces simply pretending to be “parks.”

A multiplicity of uses and consequent critical mass is probably another key reason some parks are more successful than others. I use McNear Park to play catch with my daughter, throw the ball for my dog, play tennis in the courts, and sometimes use one or more of the picnic tables.  We no longer have a plot in the community garden, but when we did, I had to be there almost daily to water, pull weeds, and try to figure out why my plot was always more disheveled and less productive than the others.  That fairly large piece of green gets well used in many ways.  If you visit on any summer weekend day, you’ll find literally hundreds of people filling the picnic end of the park.

One last thought: Built-in suburban “parklets” have the same underlying existential deadness that permeates the rest of those artificial auto-centric “communities.”  If there’s no place to comfortably and enjoyably walk, it’s difficult to create a space that’s comfortable and enjoyable to congregate.

Steve mirrors my thinking on many points.

Lastly, regular reader Dan Lyke, in a comment to my previous post, offered perceptive insights that worthy of being excerpted here:

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.  Neither of those circumstances have the park as a place you’d want to regularly use. …

The park closest to where I live is Wickersham Park.  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 or sneak in the occasional kiss at home.  …

We’ve built a number of neighborhood parks to be unsuitable for gatherings because we don’t want noise, packs of teenagers, or whatever in our neighborhoods.  But if parks aren’t for communal gatherings, then they’re just less convenient versions of our back yards.  At 20 homes per acre, these parks might be useful, but at 8 homes per acre, they’re just inconvenient space.

Dan reminds me why I like having readers who look at the world through different lenses than I do.  They point out ideas that I’ve overlooked.

In my next post, I’ll try to combine everything I’ve learned thus far into ideas for making parks more useful.  My ideas won’t be perfect and ready for implementation.  They’ll only be intended to continue the conversation.  Urbanism is often a process, not a destination.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. – Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Written by Dave Alden

Dave Alden

Dave Alden is a Registered Civil Engineer. A University of California graduate, he has worked on energy and land-use projects in California, Oregon, and Washington. He was also the president of a minor league baseball team for two seasons. He lives on the west side of Petaluma with his wife and two dogs. The blog that he writes can be found at http://northbaydesignkit.blogspot.com.

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