September 16, 2015

This post is an extension of a comment I wrote on Rachel Quednau's Why aren't parks open at night?

When we talk about parks in cities, I think it helps if we can classify parks into two types: Grand Parks and Neighbourhood Parks (Like a lot of things, I am making up terminology here, but I feel that it is often relevant to have terms to distinguish between these things.) When I am talking about parks, I do not mean greenspace, which is unnecessary filler. You can often tell the difference between a park and greenspace, because somebody loves a park enough, no matter how small it is, to give it a name.

Grand Parks are places like Central Park, Prospect Park, national parks, Chapultepec, etc. They can range from day trip destinations in your own city, or sometimes far-flung destinations that you pack up your family and head to another state to visit.

Beaverfork Lake in Arkansas. A popular place for locals to picnic and swim.

Yosemite National Park. People travel here from all over the world.

Chapultepec Park - the 'Central Park' of Mexico City.

Neighbourhood Parks are sort of places you expect to find up the street - kids can play there after school, people walk their dog there, you can stroll down there with a book:

A Neighbourhood Park in Arvene, NY.

A Neighbourhood Park somewhere in suburban Maryland.

John F. Collins Park in Philadelphia. Parks do not have to take up more room than the average urban lot. I enjoy the cavern feeling of pocket parks like this, a nice sanctuary from the surrounding environment.

When I was living in a suburban house we had a large backyard, so the Neighbourhood Park felt mostly irrelevant. If we wanted to read a book under the trees, we could do it in our own backyard. If we had a dog, we could take it for a walk down the street, but if we wanted to play catch, we probably would have done it in our own yard. Even when we had our own backyard, it was still nice to have Grand Parks around - places where you can go for a hike, a change of scenery, or a day out.

We have relocated to the NYC area, and are now renting a 3 bedroom townhouse in Hoboken, NJ. It's a very nice family-oriented area, but it is highly urban and virtually the entire city of Hoboken consists of either townhouses or mid-rise apartments. People here either just do not have yard, or it is a tiny communal courtyard.

So, if you have children, or you want to read a book, or lay among the trees, or throw a ball with your dog, you need Neighbourhood Parks. Central Park, as beautiful as it is, is useless for this purpose if you live 50 minutes away - you are not walking there with your book after work everyday.

That is why I think in an urban neighbourhood it is important that if you do not have a private yard that everyone has a park within a few minutes walk.

Elysian Park in Hoboken.

Even if you have a private yard, Neighbourhood Parks can still serve a purpose. They can be the living room of the community. If I am reading a book or doing work, I find it more relaxing to be among the light flutter of activity found in a public park than to be in absolute solitude. This is probably also why I prefer working from my office, even if I have the ability to telecommute on occasion - it is nice just to be in the presence of others.

Maxwell Place Park in Hoboken. I walk down here nightly with my wife.

Once we are able to classify parks into two types, Grand Parks and Neighbourhood Parks, I do not think it is inappropriate if a Grand Park closes on holidays or after dark - these places by law might be required to have rangers or medical, security, maintenance personnel onsite at all times, evacuation plans, etc. If the park requires paid employees to always be present, then it makes sense to close the park when the employees go home. This is similar to any other major attraction, like an amusement park or a zoo.

But, the most a Neighbourhood Park might need is someone to mow the lawn once a week and trim the bushes once a month. There is no reason for them to be constantly staffed, so there is no reason from them to close after hours.

A Neighbourhood Park should be considered less as a destination, and more as a part of the public realm (the living room of the city) as streets and squares are. Especially in urban neighbourhoods where people might walk through these parks to shortcut home after a late night at work or eating dinner, it is important to have them always accessible. If we are worried about safety - we can upgrade the lighting and trim the bushes back more. If we do not want our children playing in the park after dark, then that should be a rule we enforce in our family. But, should that affect the other families that love to stargaze at night or have candle light picnics? In my opinion, no. I think we should have some civic right to always make sure the public realm is accessible.

Parks are an important part of the cityscape, and a much prefered alternative to greenspace which are non-places.