Jane Jacobs wasn’t bullish on urban parks. She preferred active sidewalks. In her classic urban planning (sociology?) book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, she noted that parks created “borders,” that often result in blighting or “slumming” along their edges. She attributed this circumstance to a lack of diversity of uses, a lack of density, and many other factors, and how they interrelated (her “organized complexity”). To Jacobs, parks were often one of many large single uses that eroded diversity of uses and created inactive borders, along with parking lots, over-sized businesses, and institutional campuses (including museums, universities, civic buildings). She prescribed various remedies to break-up the borders they created, and to inject activity into parks. She identified successful parks as well as unsuccessful parks but generally speaking, the successful parks benefited from their surrounding uses more than vice versa.
Much has happened in park planning since Jane Jacobs penned Death and Life. However, in many planning workshops and articles, parks, plaza, and other public space are still assumed to be catalysts for development or neighborhood betterment. In recent times, there does seem to be evidence for this, as written about by UrbDeZine’s own panelist Carol Berens in The New Eldorado. So when a park or plaza fails, it is typical to blame either the homeless or something intrinsic in the park design. While Jane Jacobs would agree that park design can help alleviate such failure, she would more likely view such failure as the rule (or at least common) rather than the exception. Moreover, she would look to the area surrounding the park – whether there is adequate diversity (of uses) and density to sustain the park.
Given these circumstances, it seemed a fair question to ask (even provocative and contrarian) some leading urban design thinkers: Are cities building too many parks and plazas in their downtowns? . . .
Carol Berens – Former vice president at the Empire State Development Corporation; Author (e.g., Hotel Bars and Lobbies (Mc-Graw Hill, 1996); UrbDeZine Panelist.
Spurred in part by her astute analysis, the nature of both cities and parks has changed greatly since 1961 when Jane Jacobs wrote The Death and Life of Great American Cities. The transformation has been striking with respect to the design and use of parks and public space in general. When she wrote, parks were separate from the city and seen as places where few frequented and many risked being mugged. Cities were places to leave for the suburbs for a better life when the kids arrived. At that time parks were passive, almost incidental urban places, and public space was often considered a burden, allowed to deteriorate by local governments for a variety of reasons. She wrote that stoops provided what parks lacked: “…enjoyment of leisure, each other and the passing city.”
Designers of good parks and miscellaneous open space today heed Jane Jacobs observations. Parks are now filled with bike paths and dog runs and tables occupied by computer-toting freelancers, and cities are expected to provide amenities to become even more livable. In New York, neighborhoods provide maintenance workers from its Business Improvement Districts to clean and remove refuse and give parks a cared for and tended atmosphere. While the addition of more parks is not always the panacea for cities, the important role of park design in terms of physical safety, comfort and use must be acknowledged.
Providing open space without necessary maintenance and appropriate programming does not benefit the community. Open space with a bare patch of grass that is not integrated into its surroundings is no longer sufficient to be called a park. But space that is visible to the neighborhood, fills a need, is maintained and above all, astutely programmed, will usually be successful and considered a benefit by the people who use it.
I’m sure Jane Jacobs would be shocked, as I continue to be, to see office workers and passersby eating and reading at city-provided tables at wide intersections in the middle of the city or see the choice of movies or concerts that fill parks during summer nights. Following her guidance, planners realize that for urban parks to be successful they must attract as many people as possible, ideally through design and events. It’s no longer an issue of “if you build it they will come,” but “if you build it you must actively program and maintain it.”
Howard Blackson – Urban Designer, author, and lecturer; Planning Manager at Michael Baker International; UrbDeZine Panelist.
Yes, good versus bad public space.
First of all, the US West is a difficult place to create any civic spaces. Our ubiquitous Jeffersonian grid laid out private lots to be bought and sold before the indians knew we were coming. So, carving out public space from private property and street rights-of-way is more difficult than planning for the public streets and squares found in Penn’s Philadelphia, Oglethorpe’s Savannah, and Olmstead’s Central Park utopian public ideas on the east coast. Most of our US west parks, such as downtown Seattle’s Pioneer Square and San Diego’s Horton Plaza are remanent parcels, and Portland’s Pioneer Courthouse Square, LA’s Pershing Square and Grand Park are full block development originally platted like every other private block. So, it is harder out west to get a square as they take great effort after the original platting fact to create. Little Italy’s (San Diego) Piazza Basilone and Santa Monica’s 3rd Street Promenade are examples of taking what you can get from the grid. While Balboa Park and Coronado’s Roundabout Parks are examples of our few purposely platted public spaces.
And, yes, I am rusty on my Jane Jacobs direct quotes but I agree with Mike’s (Stepner) synopsis … she preferred street interactions as our best tool to cultivate civilization.
As for San Diego’s public spaces, my thoughts are based upon my disagreement with our major regulatory document, the downtown PDO (planned district ordinance) and Open Space Master Plan, giving zero design definitions or standards for our parks.
For our private development, we have a myriad of regulations, setbacks, heights, square footages maximums, minimum spaces, and maximum step backs in order to insure that any new development is compatible and in character with the other buildings surrounding it. Conversely, our place spaces and places are green spots on a map. Undefined and open for any designer’s interpretation. Therefore, few of our civic spaces relate to the others. The results fit with the plan’s low expectations as a few spaces are very good, such as MLK Jr. Promenade’s quote monuments and the County Administration building’s Waterfront Park. And, some are just fine, such as the Childrens Museum’s jail house jungle gym, the Fault Line park’s treeless park, City Hall’s Civic Concourse Plaza, and Horton Plaza’s upcoming ode to Seattle’s Pioneer Square.
All of these places are necessary and good, so I wouldn’t trade any of them for private developments. However, the lack of program, pattern, linkages, and urban design best practices (see how many windows face onto our Concourse Plaza in the first 3 floors) create a disjointed smattering of spaces and places that could be arranged into a distinctive pattern and character recognizable as ‘San Diego,’ similar to Boston’s Emerald Necklace.
That being said, I think what you see is how San Diego feels about public space. That we prefer quantity over quality. Our standard park’s requirement throughout the entire city is 2.8 acres of park per 1,000 people. That is it. We want to be outside and we know being outside is important. But, beyond that quantity requirement for space, the quality is of little importance. Well, in the coming century that, like our architecture, will become more important as we continue to refine our local civilization.
Or we won’t.
Michael J. Stepner – FAIA, FAICP, Former City Architect City of San Diego; Professor – New School of Architecture; prospective UrbDeZine Panelist.
Yes! Jane did have a lot to say about parks. As I recall her concern was that parks do not provide the community engagement that she saw in her “ballet of her ballet of the sidewalk.”
Perhaps this was due in part to her battles with Robert Moses who built lots of parks, but many of the parks were in built-up minority neighborhoods. Asphalt lots with some play equipment and basketball hoops, the standard shot in every NYC urban jungle movie.
Or perhaps it was a very narrow definition of what is a park.
But I think now and perhaps even then, we look at parks differently. In the 1950’s, as I was told by someone in the city then, the policy was that we did not need a lot of neighborhood parks because people had back yards and could drive to the beach or the mountains. That is the reason many of our older neighborhoods are park poor.
That was a change in direction from the comprehensive plan by John Nolen who said every school yard should be a park with other parks scattered throughout neighborhoods connected by “green streets.” Nolen thought then, and our philosophy is now, that parks are important as places of social interaction and exchange, places where people can connect with nature, even if it is only a tree and some grass and a place to recreate.
Unfortunately our park standards in the general plan are based on metrics, how many acres per so much population in minimum of 5 acre and 10 acre chunks. In our low density suburban areas, some of this land is devoted to parking. The original criteria that these criteria evolved from included: design, maximum walking distance and time (5 minutes), and location. I spent 27 years at the city and 9 on the Park and Recreation Board arguing about this and change is happening.
There are many good examples of a new way of thinking about parks and there are also the bad examples. Among the good; the new County Waterfront park, the Fault Line park and the Park at the Park. But the Children’s Park with its dirt mounds and forest of trees and don’t-go-in-the-water signs is an example of what not to do. The park at the Children’s Museum across the street says “for museum users only.” And Ruocco park proves an artistic trellis does not a park make (of course these are only my opinions).
There are a lot of different types of parks and open spaces–plazas, promenades, parklets etc. Parks need to be designed with the users in mind, the context, and the location. And the adjacent uses need to be deigned to relate to or at least recognize the park is there.
A number of years ago I was part of a team retained by CCDC (downtown San Diego’s former redevelopment department) to do a park and open space needs assessment for downtown. There was a recognition that there was no way to serve the downtown population using the general plan park standards. We were to identify needs and suggest solutions. Spurlock Poirier did the park and open space plan based on this.
One of the benefits of the study was getting to spend billable hours in a park watching how people used a park. Pantoja park was one of our case studies. In early morning, joggers and tai chi, in mid morning, baby buggies and toddlers. At lunch, office workers and in late afternoon and early evening, families and more joggers. And a few homeless all day long. One of our proposals was to turn I-5 into a boulevard, it never made the final report.
I am not sure how useful any of this is. BUT we do need parks and public places for people to gather to connect with nature and to recreate.
Charles Moore asked “where will we gather when the revolution happens?”
Jan Gehl admonishes, “first the people, then the spaces, then the buildings. The other way around never works.”
And Richard Louv talks about the importance of public space:“What, then, is the measure of a great city or region? Its education systems? Its arts? Its business inventiveness? All of the above, but the most overlooked measure is a city’s dedication to public space.” (San Diego Union Tribune, November 28, 2008)
Richard Potestio – Principal of Potestio Studio in Portland, Oregon; Former Adjunct Professor Portland State University and University of Oregon; UrbDeZine Panelist.
I would draw some simple lessons from the parks and plazas in Portland.
The decision that must be made in the design of a public open space is whether the space is a park or a plaza. It cannot be both.
If the intent is to provide a respite from urban activity and hardscape, then a park may be desired. If the intent is to create a space for civic and social interactions and activities, a plaza may be desired. Parks, emphasizing plantings and trees are passive spaces, and serve the need for respite and retreat from the hardscape of the urban environment. They therefore do not support the kind of urban activities one expects or hopes to find in a dense central urban core.
For a plaza to work well, it must conform to a few basic urban design principles. If the plaza is to have a significant civic stature, and serve as a symbolic space, it must be located at the intersection of streets commensurate with its level of importance. It should have at least one major civic building fronting onto it. The location at a major juncture in the city street system ensures that people will enter/cross it in the course of every day activity. The presence of a major civic institution will give the space symbolic importance and meaning. These two conditions provide both the heart and soul of the space and give it vitality and purpose. Pioneer Square works precisely because it is located at the center of gravity of the city- at the intersection of major north-south and east-west transportation routes. And it has the benefit of meaning and memory. It was the site of the Central School and later the Portland Hotel, which was the center of social life for the city’s first century. It faces the Pioneer Courthouse, the second oldest Federal institution west of the Mississippi.
Equally important, and more difficult to achieve in the American auto dominated urban context is that the space directly connect to the framing buildings and their activities, and not be cut off by transit or cars. Traffic isolates the space and makes it a destination rather than a punctuation in the circulation paths of pedestrians. Pioneer Square suffers from this fundamental flaw— one all too common in American urban design. Rather than connecting to the buildings that frame and make the space, the square is surrounded by streets filled with cars, buses, and light rail trains. Hence the space is cut off from the ground floor spaces of buildings, disabling the interaction between inside and out that enlivens a European square. As such, it lacks a perimeter of cafes, shops and entry ways that would provide a constant hum of activity. The lack of incidental activity means the space is often empty or empty feeling. This emptiness is palpable and problematic, and in order to counteract it, contrived events are continuously scheduled for the space.
The space should be bounded by buildings tall enough to define it— the best buildings are deferential to the space. Pioneer Square is a space that is remarkably well defined by the flanking buildings, even though none were designed with that purpose in mind. They share a fairly consistent height, and are scaled to the area they enclose. Rather than the architectural gymnastics that many architects employ in the composition of facades, the best facade is simple and orderly. The facades surrounding Pioneer Square are uniformly white, be it brick, terra cotta or marble, and have similarly scaled architectural ornamentation and fenestration.
As we are learning from a new plaza a block from Pioneer Square, facades on framing buildings should not be composed primarily of glass. Glass is slick, reflective, and dark during the day… it interacts with light in a way that can be very detrimental to the nature and use of the space. Unlike a masonry facade, which can reflect a soft light into a space and provide a composition rendered with shadows, the reflective quality of glass works like a mirror, overwhelming a space with intense glaring light and disorienting reflected images.
A successful plaza must have a hard, open, and mostly uninterrupted surface such that it does not restrict or prescribe activities. Trees may be incorporated, but in a manner that does not overly shade the space or shield views to the buildings framing it.
Pioneer Square was revolutionary for its time in that it favored hardscape over soft. This allowed a myriad of events and activities to occupy the square without concern for destroying the vegetation. Hence the space works best for great urban celebrations, for political events and protests, and for festivals… but because it lacks the supporting perimeter of shops and cafes, it lacks the vibrancy of everyday activity that one would encounter in a square in Venice, Rome or Barcelona.
Martin Poirier – Principle of award winning landscape architecture firm, Spurlock Poirier; Member of the Harvard Graduate School of Design Alumni Council; Fellow of the American Society of Landscape Architects.
Although provocative, I have to say that this (question posed in introduction) is so far off base with current public realm and public park development. From an historic perspective, ask any real estate expert about what Central Park did for property values surrounding the park to see that a borderless park brings social, cultural, and economic value to a city.
The question basically asks for a dialogue on QUALITY vs. QUANTITY – and San Diego (downtown) has until recently done an abysmal job with both. The new parks downtown are showing exceptional use and spurring vitality.
Jane Jacobs’ thoughts on parks need to be, at least, countered by her own words on the vitality of streets and the importance of making great public spaces. Plus, a lot has happened in 50 years in park development. However, San Diego continues to be a straggler in advancing state of the art thinking in park development. Just look at the County Waterfront Park, Fault Line Park, and North Embarcadero to show the success of park space.
The main problem with parks that fail to energize a place is programming, operations, and maintenance – read GOVERNANCE and FINANCE. Great cities have the infrastructure in their governments for both. The downtown San Diego ONE PARK plan was addressing the missing pieces of governance and finance when redevelopment was killed and the funding for the completion of the project was pulled.
The San Diego condition for the all-important ‘long game’ of planning, parks, and open space development has been “cheap with no leadership.” We do not have strong civic leaders nor do we have the money to make San Diego the great city it could otherwise be. We do not have the political structure to support leadership. Between term limits and district-only elections, there is a systemic stranglehold on leadership for city making. City making is a decades long activity not a four year election cycle job.
Next tier problems are design flaws, but in the case of the poorly named Children’s Park, the failure there was lack of food/drink concession, no restrooms, no use of the pond as a place for recreation. When first opened it was swarmed with kids having a ball with their parents there for supervision – in other words it had ACTIVITY. Our timid civic leadership would not invest in the required restroom/shower or supervision to allow kids to use the pond. The County Park, on the other hand, has both – and food – and they are building a second set of those buildings in response to the tremendous volume of park users. Homeless people congregate where there is no supervision and no other human activity. The end result, no children in the Children’s Park. Note that Civic San Diego did engage the Schmidt Design Group to address those shortfalls, but alas no funding.
Little Italy is a thriving neighborhood because of the taxation on property owners that supports the maintenance, management, and operations of street and park activities. It took leadership from Marco LiMandri and the Little Italy Association to pull off the positive vote to enact the taxation. The Downtown Partnership, similarly, runs the Clean and Safe program that has a much larger area of downtown to cover, and could use more funding in my opinion. However, the Clean and Safe program provides ambassadors to supervise the streets and does a heroic job of maintaining the public right of way. Our City has not figured out how to step up its game to take care of public spaces. I fear that only wealthy neighborhoods will be able to tithe their citizens for the extra money it takes to be another Little Italy. San Diego needs a robust dialogue on how to serve the needs of its citizenry.
Funding the construction of a park is the cheapest part of the equation. Figuring out how to operate and maintain parks in perpetuity is the key to great public spaces.
Thus, the collective answer would appear to be that cities are not building too many parks or plazas — and in many cases, are not building enough. However, a park or plaza is not a benefit simply because it is a park or plaza. Design, location, context, programming, maintenance, unified planning, and other factors mean everything. Each of the experts above have offered some unique perspectives.
Much has been learned from and since Jane Jacobs’ milestone of urban understanding about park design and location but urban parks and plazas do still on occasion fail. Jacobs warned against planning on the basis of statistics or metrics (“disorganized complexity”), e.g., one park per so many people or per so many square miles. A successful public space depends on understanding the many interrelated elements in a neighborhood and successfully planning for them – including funding for maintenance and operations.
High Line photo by Carol Berens; All other photos by Bill Adams.