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Placemaking and Activation: How to Create an Urban Oasis
By Aleta George
Bay Area residents with the time, money, and means to travel have access to a vast playground of open space and parks in which to recreate and rejuvenate. But not everyone can get to the open space that surrounds us. Therefore, the amenities of open space and parks — fresh air, opportunities for exercise, views that please the eye and spirit, and a place for people to meet — are needed in cities, too.
The current trend in regional planning is to concentrate the bulk of new housing within city centers, and is expected to continue as the population in the Bay Area grows. With this progression, it’s important for planners and developers to provide parks and open space for city-centered residents.
“Most people don’t want to live a city that’s completely paved. A livable city means to walk on dirt, run on grass, take a stroll, and see squirrels, birds, and insects. They don’t want just a built environment, but a natural environment as well,” said Eli Zigas, a policy director at SPUR.
But you can’t merely plop down a patch of lawn in an urban area and call it a park. To keep parks safe and desirable for everybody, they require activation. The adage, “Build it and they will come,” doesn’t necessarily apply to parks and open spaces. Park managers and planners have found that they need to apply activation and placemaking to teach people how to use their parks.
Traditionally, park maintenance has meant sending in a crew to “grow, blow, and go,” said Angel Rios, Jr., director of the Parks, Recreation, and Neighborhood Services department for the City of San José. “San José has become a huge, fast-paced city, and we’re finding that people are hungry for opportunities to stop the clock, take a pause, have some fun, and meet people,” said Rios, who manages 51 community centers, 200 parks, and 57 miles of trails. “We use the infrastructure [of parks and trails] as our playground to build community,” he noted.
When Rios and his team discovered that people in lower-income and high-need communities weren’t using their local parks, they launched Viva Parks to repopulate a select number of existing parks. They brought in a mobile rock-climbing wall, bungee jumping, movie nights, and food trucks. The first couple events saw roughly 40 people, but by the third event the crowds had increased to 800. “Viva Parks exceeded our expectations,” said Rios. “It also taught us that people don’t know how to interact with their parks, and need to be incentivized to reconnect with them,” he added.
Bringing Parks to the People
For decades, the Trust for Public Land (TPL) has been providing open space and bringing parks to people. “Our goal is to ensure that every child has easy access to a safe place in nature. That includes creating close-to-home parks, particularly in and near cities where 80 percent of Americans live,” said Mary Creasman, the national nonprofit’s California director of government affairs.
TPL works with communities to build new parks and revitalize old ones. Every park looks different because each one is designed based on the needs and wants of the community through a process TPL calls “creative placemaking.”
Boeddeker Park in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood is within walking distance of 50,000 people in dense, urban housing, mostly single-room dwellings. Boeddeker Park was a rundown, fenced-in, paved-over place used by drug dealers until TPL collaborated with community members to rethink and redesign the park. They also worked with the San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department, the YMCA, and the Boys and Girls Club to plan and implement regular programming for afterschool students, seniors, and families. The restored and vibrant one-acre park has been open for two years and features gardens, a lawn, a full-sized basketball court, fitness equipment, and a new, state-of-the-art community center. The park is the largest open space in the Tenderloin, and “basically transformed that area,” said Alejandra Chiesa, TPL’s Bay Area program director.
The recent renovation of Richmond’s John F. Kennedy Park serves as a successful new model of how to transform a park quickly with lots of local volunteers. Spearheaded by TPL and steered by community members, the planning and design process took six months and culminated in a workday when 600 volunteers planted and mulched the gardens, and created art on trash containers and sidewalks with mosaics and paint. It was a success, said Chiesa, but more activation is needed to keep the nearby seniors, students, and church members using the park.
“One of the reasons that people don’t use parks is [a lack of] safety,” said Chiesa, who explained that “the ongoing challenge is the same for other urban parks. Parks need to be active, in use, and safe.” The way to do that is to bring people and programs to the park for positive activities on an ongoing basis. “Parks shouldn’t just be designed for construction, but for how they are going to be used,” she said.
People to People
Rios views open space and parks as a bridge. “I didn’t sign up to run a traditional parks and rec program — I signed up to lead a strategy that would push the limits of making an impact in our community by using parks and trails as a conduit to connect people to people,” he said.
Rios says his work is driven by a quote from Mother Theresa: “If there is no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.” He believes that parks and open space can play a part in helping to reestablish that connection.
“I know I run the risk of sounding overly romantic or touchy-feely, but at the end of the day, when you look at what makes people tick and what people are hungry for, it has become clear to me that Mother Theresa had it right,” said Rios. “Once people reconnect with that sense of ‘we belong to each other,’ it becomes the very definition of community. I believe that’s when the best community work gets done, because now you’re advocating for what is best for the city rather than for your own special interests,” he added.
“Parks are an essential service, not just a luxury,” said Chiesa.
And with thoughtful activation, they can also help turn a neighborhood into a community.
Aleta George covers open space for the Monitor.