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
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.