Let’s explore Van Vorst Park
May 10, 2017

It is nice to be outside and among nature, among the birds, trees, and flowers. It is important that urban residents have access to nature. They way we provide nature in cities is through true parks and not greenspace. Greenspace is the non-place padding put between buildings to set them back from the street. Greenspace is bad because it artificially spaces things out around it, reducing the amount of destinations within walking distance. It can also burden private property owners if they are required by law to landscape and maintain their greenspace.

Outside the window of an apartment complex I used to live in. Note how much greenspace filler there is between the window and the curb. Everything was spaced out with greenspace and setbacks that there were only a few places within walking distance.

This kind of arrangement implies that the street is unpleasant therefore requires buffering from. Which is true if your street is a dangerous and noisy car sewer. When I see greenspace, I do not see nature. A strip of grass between buildings does not attract any kind of recreational or leisure use, nor is it untouched wilderness. Instead it is just manicured filler that requires the constant attention of labor, oil, and water to keep green and trimmed. I am more of the opinion that we should just build pleasant streets that require no buffering where owners get the most value by being built up against them.

A residential street in Jersey City. Even comes street trees. The lack of setbacks and dedicated greenspace in the neighbourhood brings just about everything in the neighbourhood into walking distance. Very close to Van Vorst Park, which we will talk about in a moment.

I’m all for incorporating nature into streets. Street trees are great for shade if the street is wide enough. You can incorporate a lot of nature into a street without greenspace.


Nezu district, Tokyo, Japan


Kas, Turkey


Waverly St, Philadelphia


Damstredet St, Oslo, Noraway

It is important for urban residents to have places they can go if they want to sit outside to read a book, eat lunch, throw a ball, run around with their dog, or just sit outside and enjoy the weather while listening to the birds. You cannot do these things on the greenspace between McDonalds and Best Buy.

Here is some greenspace in Hoboken, NJ. Not for your enjoyment.

The easiest way to tell the difference between a park and greenspace is that a park is important enough that we give it a name - which usually includes the word ‘park’. Let’s look at one such park - Van Vorst Park in Jersey City, NJ.


Van Vorst Park

There are two reasons I find Van Vorst Park to be an example of a good urban park; it is an active park, and it is an interesting place to be.

Van Vorst Park is full of activity, but not too much to feel crowded. A good park has the sounds of children in the background, of birds fluttering in the leaves, the soft sound of a fountain somewhere close. You can see families together, the elderly sitting on the bench, young couples stroll through, people of all ages laying on the lawn.

People enjoying the lawned area of Van Vorst Park.

Activity is important for keeping a park safe. Having a good number of adults is an effective surveillance network. Having more eyes around increases the likelihood of suspicious activity being noticed, which in turn I feel makes potential do-badders self-conscious and deteriorates bad behaviour. It is much harder to vandalize property, for children to bully each other, or to physically assault someone and get away with it while in front of the eyes of other adults, in contrast to a deserted place that attracts this kind of mischief.

Only a small percentage of urban residents at any one point will be at the park. Although activity in a park fluctuates as good weather comes and goes, I think the greatest influence of activity is the ratio of residents to park space. Too little park space, and either the parks become too crowded, or residents simply do not have a park to go to. Too much park space, and we have too little activity to fill it all with. The only thing worse than not having a neighbourhood park is having a dead neighbourhood park that lacks the natural surveillance of passersby, creating an environment where unsavory activity can get by. Dead neighbourhood parks are a blight on the neighbourhood by ruining its reputation and safety. While we do not want our cities to be crowded, too much open space without enough activity to fill it with is bad for a city.

I feel that Van Vorst Park works as it is relatively isolated from other nearby parks, making it the park for the neighbourhood. The next nearest neighbourhood park from Van Vorst Park is Hamilton Park, which is a 15 minute (0.7 mile) walk - some twelve blocks of apartments, row houses, and businesses dividing them. These neighbourhoods have a population density hovering around 27,000 people per square mile.


Van Vorst Park in the foreground and Hamilton Park in the background.

I am not going to attempt to calculate what an optimal range would be for the ratio of residents to park space. There are so many variables at play (the daytime population, the mixture of uses for the park at differing times of the day, and the weather.) Even if it were possible to calculate such things, I think it would be a poor substitute for visiting cities and neighbourhoods in person and developing an intuition for what works, because not only do we become detached from the experience the more we focus on the models than actually being there in person, but cities and human behaviour is more art than science as they are complex systems.

Parks need to be interesting to attract activity, otherwise people will simply spend their time elsewhere or stay at home. An interesting park is filled with variety and intricate details to capture our interest and reward exploration. Van Vorst Park is divided into several outdoor rooms. In one area, you will encounter a fountain surrounded by benches, and from the benches you can listen to the sounds of the flowing water while watching the birds bathe themselves and drink from one of the small bird baths. Behind that is a lawned area with a picnic bench - enough room for a family to grill and the kids to run around. Follow the paved pathway as it curves around different varieties of bushes and trees, and it will lead you to an enclosed dog area where some owners are running around with their dogs, while other owners are standing at the side and socializing with each other. Follow the path a little more and eventually you will reach a gazebo with children running up and down the steps. A little further and you will reach an enclosed playground next to another open lawn. The lawn was not perfectly mowed and was patchy in places, but in this varying and stimulating environment these imperfections added character, just as the varying shades of feathers on a bird adds character.

The fountain in Van Vorst Park.

The lawned area with the picnic bench.

A path that weaved around benches and trees as it took you between the various outdoor rooms of the park.

The gazebo in the middle of the park.

The variety of different settings that a park provides is important to hold the interests of park users. A park that is simply an open rectangle of lawn or otherwise minimally decorated offers nothing to capture your attention and nothing to explore, thus no reason to stay. A good park has enough activity to feel safe under the constant surveillance of other adults, without being crowded so that you can still hear your own thoughts, find a bench to sit on, or an open to area to lay down or play.

Greenery in cities is great, but let's build green parks instead of greenspace. To make our parks appealing, we should fill our parks with variety and intricacies that are visually stimulating, so as to create a place where people want to spend their leisure time, without making them too large or building too many parks that there is not enough activity to fill them with. Van Vorst Park meets all of these criteria and is an example of a great neighbourhood park.

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