By Kathy Madden and Benjamin Fried

It is becoming widely apparent that Americans have rediscovered the value of public life, and that parks are at the core of this newfound appreciation. For proof, consider the heated debate over whether the Great Lawn in New York’s Central Park should have been used for a rally following the August 29 protest march at the Republican Convention. The debate revolved around basic questions like, “Who is the park for?” and “Was the park originally designed to accommodate large groups on its lawns?” What went unnoticed in the discussion was the common bond that united both those who saw the park as a forum for public expression and those who sought to protect the park’s landscape from overuse–namely, the fierce sense of ownership each side felt for this public space.

In 2003, anti-war rallies were held in Central Park, but this August protests were not allowed.

This kind of passion for places that foster public life grows stronger each year. Cities all over the world are revitalizing old parks, restoring historic squares, and redeveloping industrial waterfronts into lively new waterfront walkways. Citizens everywhere are working to create places where people feel they belong and where they can connect with others.

Are we settling for mediocre parks that just minimally meet people’s needs?

But sprucing up parks, and even building new ones, is no guarantee of having better parks. As communities strive to meet the burgeoning demand for quality public spaces, the most important question to consider is this: Are we great creating parks that people are enthusiastic about using? Or are we settling for mediocre parks that just minimally meet people’s needs?

How to create great new parks (and make old parks better)

To create parks that people love, we need to understand how public places actually function–to observe what attracts people to certain spots and repels them from others. And it is just as important, in terms of both design and management, to capitalize on the assets of the particular place where the park will be built, so that the strengths of the community become the strengths of the park.

That’s where PPS and the placemaking approach fit in. When the ideas for improving a park originate from the people who know it best–the residents and workers who use it daily–the result is a vision that is in tune with the needs and desires of the public. PPS elicits these ideas and translates them into a visual representation (see concept drawing below) that landscape architects, horticulturalists, event planners, and other professionals can use as a blueprint for their work. This process works best when there is intricate cooperation between public officials, park supervisors, planners and other design professionals, management teams, and dedicated citizens. Fortunately, as public enthusiasm for parks grows, we are seeing more and more inspiring examples of how these parties can work together to create great places.

One of the most striking examples is taking shape in Detroit, where PPS led the visioning process for Campus Martius Park, a new public space in the heart of downtown slated to open this fall. Located in Detroit’s historic center, at the intersection of five major streets, Campus Martius Park is the anchor of an ambitious redevelopment effort intended to bring in new businesses, housing, and street activity. “We’re dubbing it Detroit’s Town Square,” said Robert Gregory, Executive Director of Detroit 300. “It’s meant to be a major economic catalyst for revitalizing downtown.”

This concept plan for Campus Martius Park was the result of ideas generated at stakeholder workshops.

The initiative for Campus Martius Park came from then-Mayor Dennis Archer’s Office and the Detroit 300 Conservancy, a citizens group that brought in PPS to engage local stakeholders in the project. The result was a sweeping vision for Campus Martius as one of the world’s best public spaces–with a variety of destinations within the park, innovative programming, easy pedestrian access, and strong connections to surrounding neighborhoods and public transit. The design, by Indiana-based Rundell Ernstberger Associates, molded this vision into reality. At the same time the park was being planned, a comprehensive management plan was developed, which will be carried out by Detroit 300. This hand-in-hand coordination of design and management will help Campus Martius make a seamless transition from plans on a drafting table to a real place of grass, walkways and trees that invites people to enjoy themselves.

A similar place-based approach, focused on improving public spaces to meet community needs, is also being used to revitalize ailing inner city parks. Seattle is turning its attention to Occidental Park, a place that few people choose to visit even though it occupies a square block in the heart of downtown’s historic Pioneer Square district. City officials, including Mayor Greg Nickles, have recognized that the park has untapped potential to serve as the anchor of a dynamic neighborhood.

Nighttime movie screenings in Occidental Park were a big draw this summer.

This spring, PPS led workshops in Seattle to evaluate the park and develop short- and long-term strategies for improvement. City officials, eager to show residents that changes were afoot, acted quickly upon PPS’s recommendations to implement a series of experiments in the park over the summer. From small additions like chess and other games to large productions like outdoor movies and musical performances, the huge variety of experiments helped officials see which times of day and which activities were most effective.

The major events, including the “First Thursday” art market and a festival called “Discover the Klondike” that celebrated an 1897 gold rush, delivered a large boost in visitors. The adjacent Grand Central Bakery noticed the difference, attributing an increase in their sales to the new programming in the park. Now, the Parks Department is determining ways to market Occidental Park’s activities, such as identifying particular days of the week with specific events.

An important lesson coming from all these examples is that parks must constantly evolve to continue serving their communities.

Citizens in some cities seek to make already successful parks even better. Pioneer Courthouse Square in Portland, Oregon (see Six Parks to Learn From) is a case in point. Beloved by residents of Portland since its creation in 1984 on the former site of a parking garage, the square remains remarkably well-managed, with over 300 events per year. Yet the City and the park’s management entity, Pioneer Courthouse Square, Inc. (PCS), continue to pinpoint the park’s weak spots and turn them around. The park’s management has set a goal of boosting use in the winter and during Portland’s frequent rainy weather. PPS convened workshops this spring to evaluate Pioneer Square’s potential in all types of weather and seasons, and identified a set of relatively small scale changes that could increase its usability year-round.

An important lesson coming from all these examples is that parks must constantly evolve to continue serving their communities. The flow of ideas about how to make a great public place shouldn’t cease once the park is built, or even when the management plan is in place. As more park districts and management entities operate under the belief that re-evaluation should be an ongoing process, we will see a new pattern of parks continually getting better and better serving community needs. This is gradually replacing the depressing and all-too familiar pattern of parks steadily declining until they are in drastic need of repair and revitalization.

What happens when new parks fail–and why

So far we’ve looked at three parks in Detroit, Seattle, and Portland that point to laudable trends:

1) A recognition that parks are economic catalysts;

2) An understanding that utilizing community assets and analyzing user patterns are important tools in guiding design;

3) A new spirit of cooperation between the various professions that create and oversee parks; and

4) Efforts aimed at making sure successful parks continue to evolve.

We at PPS believe these developments indicate a broad upswell of support for the idea that parks must first of all be great public places. Yet as much as we welcome these new developments, we are concerned about another trend on the horizon that imperils progress in the field: the rise of new parks that value an almost fetishistic emphasis on design far more than how these spaces will meet people’s needs.

International media buzz and architectural awards create the false impression that these places represent design excellence.

Many newer parks, especially in Europe, appear to have been guided by the belief that design alone can produce a great place. Parc André Citröen in Paris and Parc Diagonal del Mar in Barcelona (see Five Parks that Need a Turnaround) both share an unhealthy, single-minded focus on the aesthetic dimension of their landscapes.

With a little analysis, these new parks could have achieved their aesthetic ambitions and functioned as welcoming places for people. But their perfect geometries and symbolic landscapes were apparently translated from plan to reality without much thought as to how people actually use public spaces. As a result, places meant to be edgy and exciting quickly become predictable and monotonous. When parks are designed as objects to behold rather than places that provide a variety of experience, park users find their options narrowed to essentially gazing at artistic flourishes. The “repeat business” of such places is small, and cities receive only a fraction of the economic and social benefits that would have accrued from truly great places.

At Barcelona's Parc Diagonal del Mar, people are forced into awkward positions without the option of moving their seating to converse comfortably.

Yet these parks are well-received, and even bestowed with honors, among influential designers, critics and authorities on parks. International media buzz and architectural awards create the false impression that these places represent design excellence, when in fact they are simply a newer, flashier version of the mediocre public spaces we know all too well. Will cities in Europe and North America continue to be seduced by this superficial style of park design? Or will they embrace the emerging “placemaking” approach that results in parks that please the local communities and visitors who find that their attraction does not fade after the first visit. That is the crucial choice about parks and public space that we face today.

Which Direction For Our Parks? was last modified: March 8th, 2012 by Project for Public Spaces