The Death and Life of Parks

Why do certain parks succeed while others languish?  For the most part, they are all made of the same stuff and for the same purposes.  Grass.  Trees.  Playgrounds.  Maybe some water.  It is self-evidently good to have more open space and give people access to nature.  However, some parks, such as Sugar House Park and Liberty Park, are busy and lively all day, every day, pretty much year-round, while others (Pioneer Park, Jordan River Parkway, etc.) have their moments but, for the most part, are eyesores and spots looked on by many with suspicion and fear.  Is it because of the wealthiness of the surrounding area?  That might explain the difference between Sugar House and Pioneer, but it would not explain the success of Liberty Park, which is surrounded on a few sides by lower-to-lower-middle-class neighborhoods (although the Northeastern corner cozies up to 9th and 9th, a swanky area that commands premium prices).  Jacobs points out one reason why some parks succeed and others fail: the diversity of the surrounding uses.

Sugar House and Liberty Parks are set in communities with a mix of private residences, stores, restaurants, and schools.  In the early mornings, people use the parks for jogging and dog-walking.  Late mornings see stay-at-home moms taking children out for strolls and small groups of runners who have the time availability to exercise during this part of the day.  Local workers sit at benches and lay out under trees while enjoying lunch from local establishments.  The older residences make their way out in the early afternoons after the lunch traffic but before the workers get out for the day.  And all sorts of people enjoy these two parks in the late afternoons and evenings.  By the way, it is rare for specific, planned events to occur in these parks.  They attract people because the people are already there, and people like seeing other people.

It is a different story for Pioneer Park and the Jordan River trail.  Pioneer Park is surrounded primarily by a few restaurants, specialty stores, and hotels.  This creates a vacuum in the mornings until lunchtime, and then really for the rest of the day.  The transient residences of the local hotels generally don’t cross the street to the park.  Why?  Because they usually have better things to do while in the city, and the homeless people who have filled the vacuum are not very inviting of outsiders.  There is only one day a week in which Pioneer Park is lively and useful: Saturday mornings in the summers during Farmers Market season.  The planned event brings the people in droves.  But when the canopies are taken down and the produce is packed away, the park empties again.

The Jordan River trail is even worse.  Certain parts of it run through relatively wealthy areas, and joggers and families use the trail and its little pocket parks sporadically depending on weather and amount of leisure time (holidays and good weather bring the people out, at least to the neighborhood areas).  Otherwise, the trail is dead and, in some parts, pretty dangerous.  At least the homeless people in Pioneer Park are friendly (if a little strange) and in the open where a significant police presence and watch what is going on.  On the trail, however, there are spots which are completely hidden from homes (which are the only uses that surround it) and anyone else who is not on that particular part of the trail at that particular time.  Lots of shady stuff reportedly goes on in these hidden parts of the trail.  These parts are hidden because no one (of good intentions, anyway) has any reason to be there.

As Jacobs points out, parks are not inherently good just because they provide a break from urbanity.  Invariably, parks built where people have no particular reason to go become some of the most dangerous spots in a city.  And parks in the most dangerous neighborhoods where people have every reason to go often become the safest parts of those neighborhoods.  It is not about the park.  The park is incidental.  It is about the people.  If people have reason to be there, the park will succeed.  If not, we would likely be better off paving it over and building some reason for people to be there.