What makes a city park work?
What, then, defines a “good” park, a true urban public place? My [Peter Katz] own criteria for a successful urban park can be counted on one hand:
1. A park should be “nearby” for everyone.
Public open space, such as a square or “commons” should be at the center of a neighborhood; no more than five minutes’ walk from most residents. Public buildings, shops (a corner store at minimum) and a transit stop should be near the center too. Smaller parks should be scattered throughout the neighborhood so that no one is more than three minutes’ walk from a park.
2. A public park should look and feel truly public.
Being bounded by streets or sidewalks on all sides is one sure way to communicate “publicness.” The presence of civic buildings and monuments also reinforces this public character.
Conversely, spatial relationships get confusing when private houses or buildings back up to a park, without a clear public zone in between. This ambiguous edge fosters conflict between those who live next to the park, and others who come from the surrounding area. A better approach would be for houses to front the park, so that porches, front yards, and streets buffer the edge between public use and private enjoyment.
3. Parks should be simple and not over-designed.
Trees, grass, some walkways and a bench: these are the basics of my ideal park. Unfortunately, many new parks are so “designed” that it’s hard just to find a patch of grass where one can sit in the sun, or a clear meadow to set up a volleyball net. A park can have a stong identity and implied use–for example, active versus passive recreation–but it should also have enough of the “basics” to satisfy the needs of a broad range of users.
4. A park should retain or enhance the natural contours of the land.
In densely settled areas, its hard to get a sense of how the terrain looked before it was built over. I’m particularly aware of this in my own hilly city of San Francisco. I feel that too many new parks, both here and in other cities, are terraced and bermed beyond recognition. The legendary Olmsteds moved a lot of earth too, but they did it a way that always looked more natural than what they started with.
5. A good park should allow you to both see and walk through it.
Part of this relates to obvious issues of safety, but this principle also relates to the earlier point about “overdesign.” In many new parks, I feel like a victim of planning, forced to navigate an obstacle course just to get through.
By contrast, many older parks offer a simple network of walkways, providing a variety of routes for those who are just passing through. Such fleeting moments in an otherwise hectic day may be the only time that some city dwellers get to experience the pleasures of a park.
After years of neglect and misdirection, there may at last be some rays of hope for the future of urban parks.
New York’s renovated Bryant Park and Boston’s Post Office Square have been runaway successes among a new generation of parks, largely because their designs respect the basics outlined here. They’re effective models which can and should be emulated in other cities. By contrast, Los Angeles’ redesigned Pershing Square and San Francisco’s new Yerba Buena Gardens, while welcome contributions to the public realm of their respective cities, seem overdesigned and cluttered to the point of dysfunction.
As planners, designers, citizens and local governments take a renewed interest in public spaces, I offer them all a bit of advice before they get back to their drawing boards: Get out and take a walk in a “good” park. Look at the elements that cause it to work so well. Talk to the people who use it and find out what features they value most. And while you’re there, don’t forget to smell the flowers.