As spring weather sets in, people are shedding their winter coats and taking to the outdoors. In every city I've ever lived in, I've sought out neighborhoods with public green spaces nearby. But not all parks are created equal. What makes some parks so full of life and activity while others sit desolate, shunned by all but criminals and the truly desperate?
Huge areas of green space surrounded by great museums, public monuments, and other institutions, like the National Mall in Washington, DC or the 843 acres of New York City's Olmstead and Vaux-designed Central Park, are undoubted treasures, but most cities are too built up by now to green that much space. And that's okay. When we are challenged to think creatively, truly innovative solutions can be found. For example, just by closing one street, a city can create a linear park. Getting around on foot or bike is much more pleasant when you're traveling through greenery -- and properly planned, it needn't create traffic nightmares for cars, either.
The most successful parks include at least some of the following features:
- Everyone is welcome. The best places are those where young and old, new people, neighborhood regulars, and the whole panoply of characters that cities have on offer can gather to rest, play, and reflect. Places where you can pass the time by yourself, with friends, or chatting with a convivial stranger; places where you can read quietly or let off steam.
- Safety and cleanliness. A great park has well-lit areas at night and as few hiding places as possible during the day -- people feel most relaxed when they can see and be seen. Food stands are welcome, provided there are enough trash containers and recycling bins. Clean restrooms are a must. Playgrounds should have soft surfaces underfoot, like cork or wood chips.
- Seating. There needs to be a mix of comfortable seating -- and if the chairs and benches are attached to the ground and can't be moved into the sun or the shade, there should be enough of them in enough places so that people can make a choice.
- Retreat. Tall trees create a canopy, offering both shade and a buffer from street noises. Lots of nature and green compels us to slow down and de-stress.
- Activities. Parks should offer a mix of activities, whether they are bird watching or skateboarding, pet walking, bike riding, roller-blading, rock climbing, fishing, or reading a book. Ideally there should be a playground for kids and, space permitting, fields for ball playing and other high-energy activities.
- Accessibility. A successful park is accessible from all sides. New York City's Bryant Park is one of the more successful outdoor places because it's so easy to enter and exit it -- and it's clearly visible from the street. Convenient parking and access by public transit is important too.
- Art. Public art always enhances a space. Whether it's permanent sculptures or temporary visiting exhibits. Mixing art, design and creativity is fun and educational. Performing arts -- concerts, plays, and films -- are wonderful attraction for parks as well, especially on warm evenings.
- Landscape. Space permitting, expansive lawns can be as welcome a feature as formal gardens; artfully planted copses of trees can make a downtown park feel like a rural retreat.
- Water. Water features, such as a fountain, a pond, or a waterfall bring another element of harmony and beauty. The sound of moving water is always calming.
With the help of Steven Pedigo, my colleague at the Creative Class Group, I've scoured the world for playgrounds old and new, large and small. All of them incorporate at least some of the above elements, but most importantly, a visit to any one of them leaves you feeling rejuvenated and refreshed.