Why do some parks succeed as lively public spaces while others fail? This is one of the questions people ask PPS frequently, and we’re always encouraged by it. As more communities actively seek ways to create great parks, it seems inevitable that the quality of our parks will improve.

With the importance of parks growing in the public consciousness, now is the right time to revisit the question of what distinguishes great parks from all the rest. Of course, there’s no magic formula that yields a perfect park every time. But the true standouts, the parks that define the identities of their cities, tend to share certain elements that together explain a great deal of their success. The more great parks PPS observes, the more these elements leap out at us.

We offer here a list of six truly outstanding parks. Each example highlights particular strategies for achieving greatness and illustrates how these different strategies interact and enhance each other. As more cities search for ways to improve their local parks, these are six parks we can all learn from.

Jackson Square (New Orleans, LA)

The lively and walkable “outer park” draws people into the “inner park.”

Jackson Square is the centerpiece of New Orleans’ French Quarter. Bordered on one side by the main street of the historic district and surrounded by a mix of uses–including restaurants, retail, offices, residences, and a church–the park manages to retain its grace and calm amidst all the surrounding activity. In fact, the park’s periphery, or “outer park,” is what successfully integrates the inner park into the city fabric. The attractions available on these adjacent streets are what draw people to the area, giving the park a steady flow of users. And the lively character of these streets and sidewalks makes people want to stay and linger: Three of the park’s four bordering streets receive little or no vehicle traffic, and the park’s multiple entrances allow people to come in from all sides. Thus, on Chartres Street, people drawn to the fortune tellers, street performers, and musicians often find themselves wandering into Jackson Square to enjoy its serene pleasures.

The calm interior of Jackson Square is supported by the bustling activity on its edges.

Pioneer Courthouse Square (Portland, OR)

The square attracts people in different seasons thanks to its integration with the transit system, sophisticated management, and diverse funding sources.

Pioneer Courthouse Square is a great park even though there’s not one blade of grass growing there. Known affectionately as “Portland’s Living Room,” its creation cannot be separated from the fundamental role played by Tri-Met, the city’s transit agency. Planned concurrently and seamlessly integrated with the Metropolitan Area Express (MAX) light rail system, the Square’s role as transit hub makes it the nerve center of downtown Portland. The Square’s popularity is further enhanced by the 300 separate events it hosts each year. Frequent programming is made possible by the efforts of the nonprofit Pioneer Courthouse Square, Inc. (PCS), which manages not only events but maintenance, security, and promotion of the park as well. PCS employs a staff of six and is funded by an innovative combination of sources.

Integration with Portland’s light rail system is one of Pioneer Courthouse Square’s main assets.

The city of Portland covers the cost of security and landscape maintenance. In-park tenants such as Powell’s travel bookstore, Starbucks Coffee (reputed to be the largest-grossing Starbucks in the country), and food and flower carts pay rent to PCS. Income is also generated from sponsorships and special events. This steady and diverse revenue stream boosts the capabilities of a sophisticated management team, which is constantly evaluating the park with an eye for ways to make it even better.

Central Park (New York, NY) and Prospect Park (Brooklyn, NY)

Superb management maintains these flexibly designed gems that accommodate activity during all seasons.

These two New York City parks go hand in hand as examples of both the public/private management model and the craft of Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux. Both parks faced dire troubles in the dustbowl days of the 1970s, and both were revived beginning in the 1980s thanks to the pioneering efforts of the Central Park Conservancy and the Prospect Park Alliance. The organizations now coordinate the efforts of thousands of donors and volunteers, enabling the implementation of complex restoration projects, capital improvements, maintenance programs, and event schedules.

When the first major restoration projects were completed in the 1980s, it allowed the parks’ spaces to work their magic, accommodating a staggering variety of activities at all times of year. Take Prospect Park’s celebrated Long Meadow–a rolling stretch of grass and paths winding from one end of the park to the other. This feature alone simultaneously hosts picnickers, kite-flyers, dog walkers, little leaguers, strolling observers, cricketers, Frisbee tossers, and huge, informal soccer matches. Even in the middle of winter you’ll find people out walking or cross-country skiing. In other areas of the park, volleyball games and drummers circles share space with family barbecues and outdoor markets, and this only scratches the surface of the activities fostered by Prospect Park. It truly offers something for everyone.

Prospect Park’s landscape is flexible enough to accommodate a variety of uses, including its well known drummers circle.

Plaza Hidalgo (Mexico City)

Flexible design enables a wide assortment of amenities to act as focal points throughout the park.

Adjacent to the Iglesia San Juan Bautista, this park is an important center of community life in the Coyoacán neighborhood of Mexico City. The church is an oft-visited site for both residents and tourists, but the park is the real glue that holds the area together. Although the design consists of a formal set of linear paths, Plaza Hidalgo functions quite flexibly, allowing visitors to circulate freely between different sections of the park. On a typical day, one side of the park throngs with people at market stalls; in another area, they congregate around some benches and a small fountain under the shade of trees; and elsewhere, vendors sell fresh lemonade and ices. These artfully placed amenities act as focal points, which create activity throughout the park. Rather than dictating where people can go, these linear paths act as connections between the various amenities.

The crowd at Plaza Hidalgo is enthralled by a performance.

Boston Public Garden (Boston, MA)

Excellent attractions provide a strong identity for the city.

The signature attractions of the Boston Public Garden provide a compelling identity that is not only associated with the park but with Boston itself. Located in the heart of the city, each path in the Public Garden appears to lead to the central lake, where people of all ages climb into the famed Swan Boats for a ride. And the “Make Way for Ducklings” sculpture, which honors children’s author Robert McCloskey, leaves an indelible mark in the memories of children and families. In fact, we’ve heard stories from parents who make a habit of taking their children to the Garden every day so they can greet each duckling by name. These two attractions form the core of a well-known image that draws people like a magnet, a key to the overall success of the Garden as a public space.

The swan boats are a beloved and easily recognized asset of Boston Public Garden.

Strategies for Achieving Great Parks

Through nearly 30 years of observation and analysis, PPS has identified nine strategies that help parks achieve their full potential as active public spaces that enhance neighborhoods and catalyze economic development. The parks profiled in this article provide excellent examples of these strategies in practice.

  • Use transit as a catalyst for attracting visitors
  • Make management of the park a central concern
  • Develop strategies to attract people during different seasons
  • Acquire diverse funding sources
  • Design the park layout for flexibility
  • Consider both the “inner park” and “outer park”
  • Provide amenities for the different groups of people using the park
  • Create attractions and destinations throughout the park
  • Create an identity and image for the park