Sunday, October 23, 2011

Designs of DC's Downtown Public Parks Discourage Public from Using Parks

Matt Yglesias often makes the case that, in a city where building height limits put a huge premium on ground space, some of DC's parks could be put to better use as homes & businesses:
New York City doesn’t have this problem, but Washington, DC and some other American cities really do seem to me to be plagued with excessive useless parkland. If you had a park featuring a playground no kids were ever on, or a basketball court that was never in use, people would be asking “what went wrong here?” That’s not to say that every park should have a playground. But every park should be used for something. If there’s not going to be any regular programming on your patch of publicly owned land, it makes more sense to sell it and let people put up buildings. Do an unusually wide sidewalk to make room for some extra trees and benches if you need extra trees and benches.

That’s not to say we should pave all the parks. But we should be thinking of something to actually do with them. Cities are full of people, and most of the country doesn’t have Southern California weather. There’s limited practical demand for just sitting around outside.
It's a short post, but Matt conflates two distinct questions:
  • What are DC's downtown public parks set up to do?
  • What's the optimal set-up for a downtown public park?
DC's downtown parks, managed by the National Park service, seem to be set up with three goals in mind:
  1. Appeal to a tourist's impression of what a park in DC would look like (majestic statues! pigeons!)
  2. Minimize cost of park management
  3. Minimize the utility of the park to DC's homeless population
I worked across the street from DC's Franklin Park for a year and while it was nice to look out at the trees in the summer, I never went there for a coffee break or to eat lunch. It just wasn't designed for that.

Post Office SquareBy contrast, I visited Boston's new Post Office Square Park for an event this summer and was stunned at how well it met the needs of the park's neighbors:
As of 2009 the square is almost entirely occupied by a privately-owned and -managed but publicly-accessible park, Norman B. Leventhal Park, named for the Boston building manager and designer who designed it. It sits above a parking garage, named "The Garage at Post Office Square." The garage lies 80 ft (24 m) below the surface, the deepest point of excavation in the city. Revenues from parking fund the maintenance of the park. The 1.7-acre (6,900 m²) park is a popular lunchtime destination for area workers. It features a cafe, fountains, and a pergola around a central lawn, and the management provides seat cushions for visitors during the summer. Designed by landscape architects The Halvorson Company, the park is also home to "125 species of plants."
"There’s limited practical demand for just sitting around outside"? I couldn't even find a place to sit down to get on my laptop. Whereas DC's K Street corridor parks have trees plopped in the middle, leaving the open areas filled with muddy, uneven grass struggling to grow, Post Office Square's trees line the edges of an inviting field. Wide paths are lined by wooden benches shaded by vines, cooling them on hot summer days. And the cafe tables were stunning - an outdoor table to sit & eat your lunch? Is there a public park space with tables anywhere in DC? I can't think of one (if you can, please post in comments).

So while I agree with Matt that DC's park space is underutilized, I'd like to see them at least make an attempt to meet users' needs before giving up & selling them off. And if the cost of that is letting a developer put a building on half of Franklin Park or build a garage under McPherson Square, let's do it.
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