A Tale of Two Parks: Jane Jacobs’ Theories In Action

“The Death and Life of Great American Cities” by Jane Jacobs reads like a series of small essays regarding city life – what works, what doesn’t, and why.  If you have never heard of Jane Jacobs or “The Death and Life…” get up to speed.

In chapter 5, she takes on the role that parks play in creating a dynamic and diverse community.  She starts the chapter off by stating:

“Conventionally, neighbourhood parks or parklike open spaces are considered boons conferred on the deprived populations of cities.  Let us turn this thought around, and consider city parks deprived places that need the boon of life and appreciation conferred upon them.  This is more nearly in accord with reality, for people do confer use on parks and make them successes – or else withhold use and doom parks to rejection and failure.”

After reading this chapter I started to think about how her theories relate to parks here in Regina and realized that I could do a simple comparison of two parks within the downtown.

Victoria Park is widely considered the gem of Regina’s downtown – the heart, the soul, the place to people watch.  It hosts events such as Folk Fest, Taste of Regina, and the Farmer’s Market.

Two blocks south of Victoria Park is Central Park.  It is 1/2 the size of Victoria Park, much quieter and features different uses – a ball diamond, deck shuffleboard, some picnic tables, and gardens.

I don’t mean to compare these parks in terms of better or worse – they are different.  But it is interesting to think about these parks in terms of Jacobs’ ideas.  She suggests that we determine the success of parks by what we surround them with (what we give to them, not what they give to us).  It makes sense that parks with varied uses around them will be more lively and populated – the underlying theory being that at any given time different groups of people will be using the park resulting in a continuous flow making it more lively, safe, and interesting.  At the bottom of page 96 in the book you can read Joseph Guess’ description of Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia on any given day the whole chapter is here).  Jane Jacobs goes on to state:

“In short, Rittenhouse Square is busy fairly continuously for the same basic reasons that a lively sidewalk is used continuously: because of functional physical diversity among adjacent uses, and hence diversity among users and their schedules.”

When looking at both Victoria and Central park in Regina, Victoria Park is the exemplification of this idea.  The uses that directly surround the park include the Central Library, two churches, the Masonic temple. residential apartments, government offices, the Sports Hall of Fame, office towers, a barber shop, the Hotel Saskatchewan, and several restaurants, lunch spots, and cafes… it really is a no-brainer that this park is so vibrant.

To contrast this, Central Park is quiet most of the day due to the lack of “diversity among users and their schedules”.  The uses around Central Park, like that of most parks in the city, are almost entirely residential with the exception being a stained glass studio and some government offices.  To generalize, people leave in the morning to go to work and come back at the end of the day (or the opposite for those coming to work at the offices), but throughout the day there is little action there.  To its credit, the one thing that Central Park has on its side is the diversity of age of residents.  There are a few retirement complexes that border the park which means that there is a higher chance that people will frequent it during the day, however this still does not make up for the lack of diverse uses that would no doubt increase general use.

Jacobs also stresses that parks that are not encouraged and fostered into being diverse places can become undesirable and whether due to perception or reality are seen as unsafe.  I know that I feel safer in Victoria Park at night than I do in Central Park simply because of the likelihood that people will be passing through or be around (at 6pm on Friday afternoon I saw 6 people coming, going, and sitting in Central Park compared to the nearly 3 dozen that I saw in Victoria Park).

So how do we work with parks that currently exist to make them more diverse, enjoyable, safe spaces if there aren’t a multitude of uses surrounding them?  Hosting community programming (sports activities, seniors reading groups, new mother’s knit and chat circles), offering places for daycares to bring children, encouraging schools to use parks as a place for recreation but also learning, or allowing vendors (lunch and snack carts) to set up temporarily during lunch hours.

The success of some of these ideas will depend on the types of neighbourhoods and uses currently present (i.e. a food cart in a suburban residential park likely won’t be as successful as it would in Central Park where there are some office buildings present), however suffice it to say that we could all do a better job of “conferring use and appreciation” on our parks to help them become the community connectors that they were intended to be.

Have thoughts about your neighbourhood park? What works and what doesn’t?  Let us know!

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A Tale of Two Parks: Jane Jacobs’ Theories In Action

4 thoughts on “A Tale of Two Parks: Jane Jacobs’ Theories In Action

  1. This is excellent! I’ve been reading Death and Life recently and it has made me appreciate the vibrancy of my local park (Grange Park in downtown Toronto) and the neighbourhood that supports it.

    1. Thanks Heather Ann! It is really interesting to start making those connections and seeing how these theories really do play out! A great site that tries to take urban texts and reinterpreting them into a current context is txturbia.com

  2. Couldn’t agree more with the article. Friends of Dieppe Park, in Toronto, struggles with a surrounding neighbourhood that is all houses, no business or offices to speak of. this means the park is only used as specific times and for very specific reasons – leaving bereft of animation 80% of the time. Here’s a link to a posting which outlines our difficulty. http://myurbanfabric.wordpress.com/2012/02/19/is-dieppe-park-today-as-good-as-it-gets/

    1. Thanks for the info! This is an issue for many city parks and something to be taken into consideration when trying to revitalize or improve the condition of them – the aesthetic and ‘quality’ of the park really does relate to its surrounding uses.

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