If you build it, they may not come: A story of empty parks

On March 5th, 2021, I delivered a short talk (~11 minutes) at the TEDxUSU event. In this talk, I highlighted what’s missing in contemporary park development and urban planning and called for a re-imagination of our parks and neighborhoods. Below, I share an extended version of the speech script.

Imagine a park you visit most frequently on a daily basis or weekly basis. If you don’t go to a park, just think about a park near your home. How does that park look like? What facilities or activities do you see in that park?

How much does the park you just pictured in your mind look like the one below? This is Lundstrom Park in Logan, Utah (a small college town where I currently live). I would say a typical American neighborhood park looks very similar to this one, which has huge turfgrass lawn with some tall trees, winding paths, all together providing a pastoral and peaceful landscape.

Lundstrom Park, Logan, Utah © Google Maps

Whether you are aware of it or not, your perception of a typical urban park is likely framed by the 18th-century English landscape painting, which is a prototype of the picturesque aesthetics. In the picturesque, gardening (or creating a park) should be an imitation of “beautiful nature,” so that any human work should be concealed. Visitors should be only able to see and feel the beautiful nature, not the works by landscape architects.

Landscape painting drawn by Humphry Repton

But here’s the problem: how do we define the “beautiful nature” when there are so many different versions of it depending on where you are and where you live? Why do parks look so ubiquitous across the country when the local nature is so distinctive from one another? Why do we import a certain version of the beautiful nature when building our own parks in our own city? And what’s wrong with that?

The problems with “imported” beautiful nature are multiple. For one, it is expensive. To create a peaceful haven for New Yorkers, the Central Park had cost over $14 million in mid-19th century, which was a significant increase from the original $5 million budget (Central Park Conservancy, 2017). It was mainly due to transform the rocky and swampy ground into a smooth topography and ultimately pastoral landscape we can see today. A recent national survey of park agencies shows that a typical neighborhood park costs $200,000 per acre (0.4 hectare) to be built, excluding land price. And a major portion of the construction cost goes to grading and greening; again, to mimic the imported version of beautiful nature.

Construction of the Central Park in 1862 © New York Public Library

Building a park is not the end of the story. To keep it green and give water to turfgrass and non-native plants, our parks require huge amount of water. The same national survey shows that an average neighborhood park costs $20,000 per acre each year for its overall maintenance. And we know that it’s not just a park. It is our single-family suburban neighborhoods spending excessive amount of water to keep its “beautiful nature” aesthetics. With the current pace of water use and population growth in Utah, it’s forecasted that the water demand will exceed the supply within 20 years from now (Utah Foundation, 2014). So this is not sustainable.

In addition, our version of neighborhood parks accommodates only certain types of activities. Most park agencies don’t allow for graffiti, protest, night life, or even regular commercial activities within their parks. Since the inception of urban parks in the 19th century, they have been only open to certain passive activities such as walking, jogging, or picnicing. So our identical and ubiquitous parks are not open to all.

Last but not least, the problem is that our neighborhood parks are empty. In spite of health, economic, social, and environmental benefits that a park can provides, we are not fully enjoying them. Recently, researchers surveyed almost 200 neighborhood parks across multiple U.S. cities and found that most of them were underused (Cohen et al., 2016). On average, there were only two persons per acre (like the below image), where cities spent about $200,000 dollars to build and another $20,000 each year to maintain. The rest of the green space is empty, where sprinklers are running every day.

An image of two persons per acre (= 5.5 persons per hectare)
© Keunhyun Park

As a behavioral researcher, I also conducted an observation of 30 parks in Salt Lake region, Utah using a drone (Park & Ewing, 2017; Park, 2020). The finding (2.5 persons/acre) aligns with the national average (Park, 2020). There were fewer women, and even fewer seniors. ­Out of 180 observations I made, parks were empty 26% (Park et al., 2020). No single person at the time I visited there. The below is an example of an empty park.

Margaret Park, Riverton, UT, USA © Keunhyun Park

So what do empty parks have in common? What’s the problem? Is it park itself or the surrounding community environment? The answer is both, as you could guess. Internally, parks were empty when they had limited types of facilities and were poorly maintained. So simply, it’s not a fun place to go.

Not only its design and maintenance, parks were also empty when they were located in a single-family residential neighborhood and when the park was only accessible by car, not easily by foot, bike, or bus. That’s why most parks in a typical American suburb are underused.

Land use diagrams of two empty parks that show exclusively single-family residential neighborhoods with no public transit access © Keunhyun Park

Jane Jacobs (1961), one of the most influential urban theorists, said that too much is expected of city parks. We should not simply assume that putting a new grassland can automatically complete our neighborhood. If you build it, they may not come, even including yourself.

After knowing the problems, you may wonder what popular parks have in common. What should we do? Before answering that question, let me share some numbers. Is 2 persons/acre typical in any urban parks in any countries? Sadly, that’s not the case. The user density of a neighborhood park in other countries ranges from triple to over ten-fold of that in the U.S., even including Canada and Brazil whose nation-wide population densities are lower than this country.

Park user density (persons/acre) in different countries (Source: multiple studies)

In essence, successful neighborhood parks have three characteristics, salience, intricacy, and accessibility.

Salience means that there are some distinctive and memorable features in the park. Have you heard of the word, Instagrammable or Instragram-worthy? A salient park is Instagrammable, attractive enough for photographing and posting on the social media. Salience can be also achieved through embracing the natural landscape, again, making the place unique and memorable, not identical everywhere.

© https://www.asla.org/

Another feature of popular parks is Intricacy or complexity, providing rich user experiences and accommodate multiple activities, not just passive uses. The below example is a neighborhood park in Greece providing rich user experiences through workout equipment.

© https://news.gtp.gr/

Outside of the park, parks with visitors throughout the day and throughout the week have different types of uses around the park, not just residential; there are grocery stores, libraries, schools, apartments, altogether providing intricacy in the built environment. And then, they are easily accessible on foot.

© https://www.asla.org/

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed many things in our cities, mostly in negative ways. But it has renewed our interest in parks, trails, and walkable outdoor environments because we still need a place to relax, exercise, socialize. So more than ever, we need a different approach. Do we really need identical parks in the identical neighborhood, that is expensive, unsustainable, inaccessible, and above all, empty most of the time? Instead, we can do it differently. You can attend a public meeting and speak up that we need different parks and different neighborhoods, that is salient, intricate, and accessible. Also, you can begin a small change with your own park, like your front yard, backyard, and balcony, by using native plants and water-saving landscaping.

The beautiful nature might be something that already exist in and around your town, not necessarily the one from the English countryside painting. Then, we’ll have a place that is used and loved. Again, I want you to re-imagine a park in your neighborhood.

Different versions of “beautiful nature”
(Source: https://www.mattandkaren.com; https://awesomebyte.com; http://candorimmigrationconsulting.ca; https://theculturetrip.com)

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