Five Parks that Need a Turnaround
By Kathy Madden
Very few parks are so bad that they cannot be revived. So when PPS comes across an underperforming park, we view it as a missed opportunity, not a lost cause. Given the proper attention, any park can become a vital place in its community. And missed opportunities can actually teach us as much about creating successful public spaces as the world’s best parks, if we play careful attention to what’s gone wrong.
A lack of management may be the single biggest reason why certain parks never fulfill their potential.
We present here a set of parks–some old and some new–that fail to meet the needs and desires of people who would use them. Each occupies a major place in the heart of their communities but add very little to the identity or quality of their cities. Taking a close look at the problems they share, clear patterns emerge which offer an excellent guide for how not to design and manage a park. Yet all of these parks could be significantly improved with some thought and attention given to fixing their shortcomings (see the “Opportunities” section following each case study below for our suggestions).
The first common mistake among all these parks is a lack of access. It sounds like simple common sense: For a park to attract visitors, people must be able to get inside easily. But a surprising number of parks are incredibly difficult to reach, whether because of high-volume traffic on surrounding streets or poorly conceived entrances.
Once inside a park, you need things to hold your interest. Many parks that could be spectacular public places offer virtually nothing to do — and as a consequence they’re thin, without the variety of activity common to the best parks.
Parks are frequently located next to major cultural institutions like museums, schools, and concert halls. Too often, however, these neighboring institutions have little or no presence in the park itself. To succeed as centers of civic life, parks must capitalize on the impact of nearby institutions, engaging them as partners.
Here at PPS we are fond of saying that eighty percent of a public space’s success is due to good management. Likewise, a lack of management may be the single biggest reason why certain parks never fulfill their potential. Good management is critical in addressing all of these problems, and without it the five parks described below will never be able to turn their missed opportunities into positive assets.
Pershing Square (Los Angeles, CA)
The bright southern California colors, strong architectural forms, and elegant palm trees of this square in downtown Los Angeles offer a first impression of aesthetic excitement. But the thrill quickly fades because there aren’t attractions to keep your interest. The square does host a small café that could function as an active focal point, but it is hidden from the street and is rarely open. With few places to sit and no natural circulation routes to encourage pedestrian traffic, it’s no wonder few people choose to linger in Pershing Square. In spite of its prime location, the square is further isolated because it is bounded by wide, busy streets without any retail activity.
With a few simple adjustments, Pershing Square could become a magnet for downtown workers, shoppers, and visitors of all ages. Reconfigure the café to create more of a street presence, then open it up with indoor and outdoor seating that can be comfortably used in the evening and all year-round. Expand the park’s presence in the community by working with area employers to sponsor tournaments under the palms (bocce ball and ping pong are popular choices and easy to set up). Widening sidewalks along the square’s outer edge and across the street would yield the dual benefit of calming vehicle traffic and accommodating public events. Activities like a farmer’s market or art shows on the streetside parts of the square would attract a much broader clientele.
The National Mall (Washington, DC)
Our National Mall should be a symbol to the entire world of how public space is essential to a democratic society. By virtue of its proximity to the nation’s most prestigious cultural institutions, including the Smithsonian Institute, National Museum of American History, National Museum of Natural History, and National Gallery of Art, the Mall is a part of most people’s visits to the capitol. But each of these institutions is self-contained with very little presence on the Mall. And the Mall itself is sorely lacking in basic amenities, such as benches or other places to sit, that would encourage tourists, government workers, and residents to spend time in a place that ought to be enjoyed as a national treasure. So while millions of people see the Mall each year, it is experienced mostly as a space to move through in between destinations, without a strong civic identity of its own.
The unparalleled collection of cultural resources nearby should have a much stronger presence on the Mall, with outdoor exhibits, festivals, and performances in constant rotation. And the 2.5-mile-long expanse could become home to numerous landmarks and focal points. For inspiration, look to Paris’s Jardin des Tuileries, another linear park in a world capital. The Tuileries, which connect the Place de la Concorde to the Louvre (along the same axis as the Arc de Triomphe), are anchored by two large fountains where children can sail toy boats. The wildly popular fountains are complemented by other amenities, including public art along all walkways (not confined to a “sculpture garden”) and a series of small cafés that expand and contract using awnings, umbrellas, heat lamps, and movable chairs to accommodate seasonal use. With the proper management, the National Mall could support an even greater spectrum of public use, fulfilling its role as a symbol of our democracy.
Logan Circle (Philadelphia, PA)
The spectacular Swann Memorial Fountain, designed by Wilson Eyre, Jr. and Stirling Calder (father of Alexander Calder), is Logan Circle’s great attraction. But only the intrepid few who manage to cross the speeding traffic of Benjamin Franklin Parkway can fully experience the fountain’s pleasures. Located on a crucial axis that connects Philadelphia’s famous City Hall to the Museum of Art, Logan Circle deserves to be part of a grand pedestrian boulevard, but is instead isolated by five lanes of vehicles. To make matters worse, the renowned cultural institutions that surround the Circle, including the Franklin Institute, the Philadelphia Free Library, the Academy of Natural Sciences, and the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Paul and Peter, have little connection to the park itself.
Transform Benjamin Franklin Parkway into a pedestrian-friendly boulevard connecting the Philadelphia Museum of Art to Logan Circle. Welcome pedestrians by dramatically narrowing roadways around the Circle (to two lanes in some places), slowing down traffic. This will change the atmosphere of the entire area and help Swann Fountain regain its standing as one of the city’s showpieces. When people feel comfortable walking in the area, other improvements can follow–like developing a small summer café that can be promoted as one of the city’s new attractions. In an encouraging sign of progress already underway, the Center City District is working with the prestigious cultural institutions around the Circle to make their assets more visible in the park. With these changes Logan Circle could very well become one of the best public places in the world — on a par with the Champs Elysées and the Jardin des Tuileries in Paris.
Public Square (Cleveland, OH)
Cleveland’s Public Square is surrounded by wide roads with fast moving traffic. Streets also divide the square into four quadrants, and few people want to dodge the cars and trucks in order to visit. So, there’s little going on there. The Square’s mediocrity is all the more frustrating in light of its promising location: Cleveland’s main street, Euclid Avenue, connects Public Square to Playhouse Square, the city’s theater district, and the Square fronts Terminal Tower, a beautiful old mixed-used, transit-centered development. Public Square’s saving grace may be the potential to use these nearby assets to reconnect itself to the attractive downtown.
The first priority should be to make Public Square more accommodating to pedestrians by narrowing intersections, reducing the number of vehicle lanes, and slowing down traffic. These steps are prerequisite to creating better connections between the Square and key places along its edges, such as Terminal Tower. These improved connections set the stage for increased coordination between neighboring property owners and the reintroduction of lively ground floor uses in all the buildings that face the Square. The finishing touch would be to program activities and create attractions and amenities to support this programming within each of the Square’s four quadrants.
The City of Cleveland, led by Mayor Jane Campbell, has already held a visioning session with stakeholders in the area to develop ideas for improving Public Square. We hope to see these ideas implemented soon.
Parc Diagonal del Mar (Barcelona, Spain)
This sprawling new park succeeds more as a habitat for frogs and migratory birds than as a sociable place for people. The park was supposedly designed with principles of environmental sustainability in mind–certainly a noble idea in theory. In practice, Parc Diagonal del Mar feels like it was designed by lawyers, a place where no spontaneous, unforeseen event can ever happen. Water is plentiful, but nowhere can you touch it. Seating is so awkwardly placed as to actually discourage social interaction. The park’s residential towers, set in empty plazas, belong to an entirely discredited era of urban design. In all, it’s a classic case of design run amok, where creating a place for human use was merely an afterthought.
Normally we say that any park can be turned around, but Parc Diagonal del Mar is a rare exception. If this park is to succeed, large swaths of it would have to be torn up and completely re-designed. That is hardly likely to happen any time soon. Instead, this park seems sadly destined to serve as a permanent cautionary tale, a primer in how not to design a public space.