Jane in the Jungle: Jane Jacobs and Parks 101

Chapter 5 of The Death and Life of Great American Cities deals with parks, which coincidentally is something Provo is discussing lately. And since Provo is working on its parks, I thought I’d mention a few things Jane Jacobs recommends.

Over the course of the chapter, Jacobs takes on the idea that parks are generally good for communities. While she acknowledges the prevailing attitude that parks have a positive impact on their surroundings — an attitude I’ve heard in Provo many times — she also notes that parks often end up being vacant, then eventually crime-ridden community liabilities.

But how could that be?

Jacobs’ main argument is that an empty park is both boring and dangerous. And once a park becomes either of those things, people further shy away from it and the situation snowballs.

To arrive at this point, Jacobs argues that parks act less on their surroundings than the surroundings act on them. If a neighborhood is lively and active, its park will likely be the same. The reverse is also likely. She writes:

In cities, liveliness and variety attract more liveliness; deadness and monotony repel life.

More specifically, parks need continual, diverse use. A successful park can’t be occupied only by stay at home mothers with children,  for example, because that demographic has a particular schedule and particular needs. Instead, successful parks need stay at home mothers, kids, professionals, the elderly, teenagers, etc. who use the parks consistently throughout the day.

She also argues that good parks

1. Cannot be too common within a neighborhood

2. Need “intricacy,” or variety in landscaping, topography and use

3. A Center — for small parks that may be nearly the entire area — which should be the climax of the park experience

4. Sun

5. Diverse types of surrounding buildings

I think the last point is perhaps most pivotal because, at least in Provo, it’s the least followed. Jacobs is really arguing for density and mixed use structures near parks. In chapter 5, she specifically looks at different parks in Philadelphia and notes that while several parks were laided out in the city’s original plan, only one really succeeded. That park, she writes, was surrounded by

“an art club with a restaurant and galleries, a music school, an Army office building, an apartment house, a club, an old apothecary shop, a Navy office building which used to be a hotel, apartments, a church, a parochial school, apartments, a public library branch, apartments, a vacant site where town houses have been torn down for prospective apartments, a cultural society, apartments a vacant site where a town house is planned, another town house, apartments.”

The result, she says, is that different kinds of people are brought into proximity to the park for different reasons and end up constantly using it for different purposes — relaxing, eat, courting, reading, kite flying, etc.

Of course, that level of diversity is unlikely to happen in Provo any time soon, but as I pass the parks nearest my house I’m always struck at how they seem to get only sporadic use. In other words, I often see them empty or close to it. They also happen to be surrounded by housing, usually zoned for medium or low density.

We don’t need Jacobs to tell us that empty parks are a waste of resources.

But Jacobs’ observations help us see that there’s one way to significantly improve the parks we have: increase density and mixed use zoning near those parks.



Filed under community, Development, neighborhood

5 responses to “Jane in the Jungle: Jane Jacobs and Parks 101

  1. Pingback: City Builder Book Club » Week 4 wrap-up

  2. Pingback: “Urbanity and exuberance is not a frivolous aim,” Or, read a Classic Jane Jacobs Essay | (pro(vo)cation)

  3. “But Jacobs’ observations help us see that there’s one way to significantly improve the parks we have:increase density and mixed use zoning near those parks.”

    I think you’ve missed one major part of Jacobs, both in the chapter on parks, and elsewhere in the same book, and that’s her emphasis on the influence of commerce in parks. Commerce makes the city lively, and the parks are too often vacuums of it, even the sainted Central Park in New York City.

    Since Jacobs wrote, New York has taken her to heart. One park in particular is a great example of what you write, and what she advocated. Bryant Park around 1980 was a drug-peddling paradise, with broken-down benches and it was avoided by nearby office workers. The park was revised at a time when the city had no money, so it was desperate enough to try something new. What changed was the addition of a cafe to the park, and the creation of a business improvement district to harness funds from the cafe to be used to clean up and maintain the park.

    • So if I understand you correctly, you’re saying commerce in parks is a good thing? If that is what you’re saying I would agree, and as I pointed out in the post “More specifically, parks need continual, diverse use.” However, right now in Provo density is so low around almost all the parks — with the exception of perhaps Joaquin park — that commerce is unrealistic. I hope there is some in the future, but I think there are other things that need to happen first. I also strongly believe commerce, or at least retail, can’t drive development; it needs to arise in response to demand.

  4. There is little that makes me believe that Jane Jacobs would have believed in commerce IN parks. Bryant Park did not need a cafe or BID to be revitalized; yes, the city let it languish and these corporate entities seized it. But it should have been slowed down years ago, their involvement. It is now very much privatized and commercialized. It is a slippery slope.

    Thanks for this piece. I enjoyed it.


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