COVID-19: The Recovery will Happen in Public Space

Community Defines a New Model for A Park

Dec 31, 2008
Dec 14, 2017

Davis, California

After a successful citizen-led campaign to expand their downtown park into what had been an adjacent parking lot, the residents of Davis, California designed a multi-use park with several unique elements, a large farmers market as an anchor, and extensive programming. As a result, Central Park has been named "the best place in Davis" by the readers of the local newspaper. On market days it regularly attracts well over 5000 people.

Project Background

When Central Park was laid out in 1935, Davis was a small agricultural town in California's fertile Sacramento Valley. In the center of town, located between city hall, the downtown business district, and the university, the one-square block park was landscaped with a grove of sycamore trees, several horseshoe pits, a playground, a picnic area, a lawn, and a WPA-style brick restroom.

Residents of Davis used the park regularly and with vigor. Political rallies in the sycamore grove were common, local organizations held barbecues and events in the park, and the university fraternities and sports teams held pep rallies and events there. A large farmers market was established in 1974 on a street alongside the park and became the town's major attraction.

In 1985, the Davis City Council issued an RFP to develop the parking lot adjacent to the park. An ad-hoc group called Save Open Spaces (SOS) submitted a proposal to expand the park into the lot, but were rejected. "In fact, we were completely shut out of the process," said Maynard Skinner, former mayor and chief organizer of the SOS group. In December, 1985, the council leased the lot to a developer who proposed a shopping center and a multiplex cinema there. As the project went into environmental review, SOS began an earnest campaign to limit development of the lot to an extension of the park by ballot initiative.

On June 3, 1986, against the wishes of the council and the mayor, the ballot measure for the park passed overwhelmingly. The following year the city council agreed to redevelop the site as an extension of Central Park and hired Co-Design, a local landscape architecture firm that specializes in using community input to develop a master plan.

Co-Design principal Mark Francis, also a professor of landscape architecture at UC Davis, notes that an extensive community process was essential to providing them with a better understanding of the existing site and its "sacred places," as well as in formulating the needs and hopes of the residents of Davis for a larger park. Francis led numerous walking tours and workshops, conducted observations of how the park was being used, built models and simulations, and developed community surveys in an effort to better incorporate Davis residents' ideas. He notes that one of the most useful methods he employed was a design workshop that was held in the park near the farmers market on a busy Saturday, because it allowed for a much broader segment of the community to participate.

Because of their extensive participation in the planning process, residents were able to construct a picture of the park as a community place. They emphasized water features, a teen center, gardens, and space for indoor and outdoor gathering. One important benefit of the community involvement was that it actually helped to limit the number of program elements in the new park. "The master plan," said Francis, "allowed us to defend against council members' pet projects by providing us with a popularly-endorsed blueprint." The plan remained flexible enough to incorporate new ideas if they seemed compatible.

The master plan was approved by the city council in 1988. A street that separated the existing park from the new lot was replaced with a wide, sloping lawn that extended well into the new space and back into the park's original sycamore grove. The market was brought off the street and incorporated into the park. An open-air pavilion, the only permanent market shelter in California, was built to house it and other activities that might take place in the park on non-market days. Next to the market is a plaza with shade trees and movable seating. A "Heritage" oak tree is surrounded with decking, and just beyond it lies a picnic area which includes an artist-designed water basin with several pipes and spigots so that people can get a drink, rinse their hands and feet, or wash off produce.

On the opposite corner from the market is a teen/community center, and a public garden which was planted by community members. In between the teen center and the market is a large at-grade fountain, which local children call "the beach." On hot days, which are numerous in Davis, kids and parents bring towels and picnics, and spend the day there, playing in the geysers that spring up from the fountain's level surface. A playground is connected to the fountain area, as well as to the teen center. A pedal-powered carousel ("very Davis," says Francis) built with in-kind donations and powered by volunteers, is popular with young children, and pays for itself with a small fee.


Davis Parks Director Bob Cordrey estimates the cost of the expansion to this point as being just over $1,000,000. The current maintenance budget is approximately $53,000 per year. The market association paid for the deck around the oak tree, but capital and maintenance costs are mainly funded out of the city budget, although SOS organizer Maynard Skinner offered to cut the grass himself at one heated budget meeting before the park was actually built. At the ribbon cutting for the new park, a city official showed up with a push mower and offered it to Skinner, who promptly set out to fulfil his promise. Skinner was elected to the Davis City Council in the next election.


The market has expanded its operations as a result of the new location. A series of programs that take advantage of its role at the center of Davis. It holds regular events on Saturdays, the other market day, including Pig Day-where pork products are featured and people dress like pigs-cooking contests, craft fairs and holiday markets in the winter. "The market is the guts of the park," says Randii MacNear, the market manager. Less dogmatic, but more philosophical, is Maynard Skinner, who said simply, "the market and the park are inseparable."

Perhaps the best day to witness the power that the market lends to the park is on Wednesday evenings, when the market sponsors a "Picnic in the Park" Described as "Woodstock on Wednesday nights," the picnic attracts thousands of families to the market and lawn to buy produce, eat together, and listen to music. One recent count estimated 4,000 people in Central Park on a Wednesday evening last summer MacNear estimates that more than twice that number regularly attend the market on Saturdays, and in the summer it can swell to as many as 7,000, which is well over 10% of the permanent population of Davis.

All ages use the park, and not simply on market days. The addition of the fountain and carousel has led the local newspaper, The Davis Enterprise, to call the park "A child's paradise." The paper also lists the park as "the best place to have a picnic" from a reader's poll, and the market is "best place" to meet friends, also calling the twice-weekly event "the place to see and be seen."

Lessons Learned

Phase III, which is slated to include a cafe and public restrooms, has yet to be built, primarily due to the success of the park as it is and because the cafe has faced opposition from nearby merchants fearing competition. However, Francis would like to see the entire plan realized; "People don't always understand that making a good park is an evolving and ongoing process," he notes, adding that many little things could be done to improve the park if the plan were revisited periodically.


Davis Farmers Market Association 530-756-1695; Department of Parks and Community Services, 530-757-5626; Mark Francis or Cheryl Sullivan, MIG/CoDesign, 530-756-0172

Photos: Mark Francis, CoDesign

(Spring 1999)

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