Hundreds of serious park people gathered in San Francisco recently to play in our parks. It was all in the name of work: Greater & Greener, a conference on urban parks organized by the City Parks Alliance, was in town. SPS attended the conference to hear the conversation and meet the players. Here are some of the main threads under discussion, and thoughts on how these ideas might shape our practice .
Throughout the conference, speakers prodded at the notion of “park.” What exactly constitutes a park? Urban parks seem to allow for—and even demand—a more elastic definition. David Escobar-Arango, former city planner from Medellín, Colombia, spoke about the libraries, schools, gardens, and museums his city has built, all public space that they consider “parks.” These places have helped reclaim an embattled city for the people, and Escobar-Arango challenged attendees to think broadly, seeing parks as things beyond soccer fields and playgrounds—as “places for democratic encounters.”
Spain Library Park in Medellín, Colombia. (photo by SajoR, CC BY-SA 2.5)
Such thinking is already in evidence: there were talks about parks in ports, on landfills, along streets, and across bridges. People were talking about reclaiming abandoned city infrastructure for parks, as did the High Line in NYC, and inserting parks into still-used public spaces to create parklets out of parking spaces and feasting halls out of alleyways. Hiking and bike trail networks were presented as “linear parks” that create green, outdoors areas throughout cities, often connecting larger, more traditional parks. A tour showed off the Blue Greenway, a planned trail stretching 13 miles along San Francisco’s industrial eastern waterfront that will connect a dozen separate parks like a string of diverse beads. Many of the participants attended the Market Street Prototyping Festival, a trying-ground for ideas that may one day turn Market Street into an artery-length sidewalk “park.”
SPS lessons and opportunities:
- Our own campus has 1.5 acres of public space—are there advantages to thinking of that space as a “park?” What park-like elements would make it better public space?
- Parks containing leftover infrastructure provide great opportunities for public learning. Let's create ways for people to investigate the science and engineering inherent in the world around them.
- We build stuff, and built stuff sometimes clashes with the aim of wildland parks—but it’s quite appropriate in an urban environment. How can our work help make urban parks active, visually appealing, engaging, and sociable? How can we support the sort of experiments being done on Market Street and other places? How can a street become a learning park?
- We need to think of how our exhibits can work in a variety of public spaces: clustered (like in a playground), individually (like public art), or linearly (along a street or pathway); along a waterfront, on a sidewalk, in a shopping complex.
Guadalupe River bike trail in San Jose, CA. (photo by Yves Zsutty)
The importance of partnerships
“In cities, both ecological and political landscapes are complex,” said Michael Wetter of the Intertwine Alliance, and because of that, partnerships are critical to getting projects done. His coalition consists of more than 140 groups that work on parks throughout the Vancouver-Portland area. Such groupings are not unusual--almost every project featured at the conference was the result of public, private, and non-profit groups working together in complex interconnectivity.
Urban parks present unusual partner opportunities: Ports control much of the waterfront access in cities, and are active in parks creation. Transportation agencies can provide funding for bike paths and pedestrian trails. Developers see the connection between thriving public spaces and economic value. To create city parks, planners are orchestrating partnerships with overlapping agencies, multiple funders, advisory groups, and various other stakeholders.
Not the least important are the people who will ultimately use the parks, especially those in the immediate neighborhoods. Officials are looking for ways to bring local communities into the planning process. It’s not easy, but as the Port of LA discovered in the process of creating Wilmington Waterfront Park, involving residents can smooth relationships along the way and result in better, more vital parks.
The Port of Los Angeles, before and after Wilmington Waterfront Park was built. (photo: Port of Los Angeles)
SPS lessons and opportunities:
- We need to keep looking for partnerships to extend our reach and effectiveness. Think broadly about potential alliances: parks, ports, city government and planning, businesses, schools, artists, and others.
- Waterfronts are a particular opportunity as shipping patterns change, cities increase access to their waterfronts, and rising oceans pose new challenges.
- We must continue to develop and improve our public engagement skills, learning from the work we did on our skateboarding parklet and Ciencia Publica: Agua, and drawing on the expertise of our in-house Visitor Research and Evaluation group.
SPS staff planning a parklet with SF Boys & Girls Club youth.
More Greater and Greener topics to come in the next post:
Parks as places of democratic encounters
Addressing critical public issues
Place: human and natural landscapes