by Lee Springgate

Director, Bellevue Parks & Community Services
City of Bellevue WA

all rights reserved

Theme parks, recreational vehicle parks, industrial parks, residential parks, ball parks, office parks, retirement parks and public parks have virtually nothing in common with each other than the word park. The word has been appropriated by the private sector because it has historically connoted a peaceful, tranquil, beautiful space that people are attracted to intrinsically. The very fact that the name is attached to its polar opposite in order to attract customers is vivid testimony to its extraordinary appeal. Ironically, just as the private sector has usurped this uniquely public idea for commercial purposes, local government has increasingly redefined the term to mean an area that provides space for specific recreation activities. Quite often this space is set aside for organized, scheduled recreation that can only be utilized by designated users at certain times of the day, week or year. Aesthetics, informality and universal access take a back seat to the pragmatic needs of special recreation interests, i.e. softball, soccer, baseball, recreation centers, basketball, skateboard, tennis.

National and state parks and those older, large scale urban parks designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and his assorted disciples are aligned with thousands of years of park history, originating with the Persians, Chinese and Greeks and refined by the Italians, French and English. These “public” spaces are accessible to a very broad range of users, preserve critical natural resources, offer a natural respite from the pressures of urban living, and provide a wide range of benefits to significant numbers of people. They attempt to protect and restore natural systems, while concurrently offering informal and unstructured recreation opportunities. The significant majority of space is unscheduled and unprogrammed. Recreation facilities frequently penetrate park sites, but, by definition, constitute a minority of the space and are strategically located. The visitor to the site sees, feels and experiences a park, and the recreation components are secondary and incidental. Conversely, recreation complexes devote the majority of space to recreation facilities that serve specific beneficiaries.

Legitimate urban park and open space systems emphasize connectivity, multiple benefits, aesthetics, resource protection and universal access. Recreation facilities should be accommodated, not allowed to overwhelm and dominate park space. When this does occur, the space becomes transformed into a landscaped recreation complex designed to respond to specific recreation constituencies.

In our opinion, urban communities are best served by parallel systems: a park and open space system, and a recreation system. The park and open space system has a resource and public good orientation and the recreation system has more of a demand and merit good orientation. The park and open space system should preserve riparian corridors, urban forests, viewpoints, waterfront, wetlands, farmlands, historic sites and community landmarks, while concurrently providing flexible and accessible recreation space. Ideally, these vital natural spaces should be connected via trails, parkways and open space corridors and become the backbone of an enlighten park system. The recreation system is more geographically dispersed, demand based and eclectic. Responsibility for meeting this recreation demand is shared with school districts, private clubs, community organizations and a host of non profit agencies.

To summarize and reiterate, (1) urban communities should strive to provide parallel and complementary systems and (2) park sites should not be confused with recreation sites. Because the majority of emerging urban and suburban communities have failed to address this fundamental difference, a distressing state of confusion exists among decision makers and the general public. If, God forbid, a park design fails to include the prerequisite number of recreation facilities, then a significant percentage of the population is persuaded that it is not a bonafide park site. The sad consequence of this misconception is a dearth of genuine parks being built today and a conversion of many older parks into recreation complexes. In our opinion, this is an unacceptable development and genuinely diminishes the role that park and open space systems should play in enhancing everyone’s quality of life.

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