Pocket Parks (Boise Edition)

I’ve written before about pocket parks — those small, quiet enclaves of green trees and grass and shade carved out from cityscapes that can brighten the lives of the people in the surrounding neighborhood — so I’ve got to call out Boise, Idaho for a pretty cool example of the pocket park concept.

The C.W. Moore park is just a few blocks from the core downtown area of Boise.  It’s a beautiful little park, and it’s got some features you don’t see in most parks.  For one thing, it’s got a functioning water wheel in one corner — and what person taking a break from the hurly-burly of life wouldn’t enjoy watching a slowly moving, mesmerizing water wheel and hearing the sound of the rushing water?  The water wheel is an important touchstone for the city’s history, too, because Boise is located in an arid region and water wheels and water systems helped to make Boise green and habitable.

The park also includes other links to Boise history.  Around the park you will see the name stones and date stones of former Boise schools and buildings — you can see part of the Central School name stone in the photo above — as well as a former building entrance arch, a carriage stone, a locally quarried limestone block, columns and streetlights from Boise’s past, and a building turret.  It’s all a pretty cool way of linking the park to Boise’s past in a tangible and interesting way.  Kudos to the Boise Park Department for taking the pocket park concept to the next level.

Pocket Parks

In 1962, a plot of land that was going to be developed into an apartment building was acquired, instead, by the City of Columbus. Covering about half of a city block on Beck Street, the city named the spot Beck Square Park. To the locals who watched the parade of pooches in and out of the park — often without sufficient owner attention to their societal obligations as canine consorts — it was colloquially known as “Dogshit Park.”

Then the City of Columbus teamed up with the volunteers from the German Village Garten Club, and “Dogshit Park” was transformed. Renamed Frank Fetch Park in 1985, after a former president of the German Village Society who had promoted the creation of the park, it is now a beautiful garden and neighborhood gathering spot that is enjoyed by German Village residents — and their dogs, who are more respectful of the grounds than they apparently used to be.

“Pocket parks” like Frank Fetch Park may have a small footprint, but they can have a big impact on the nearby community. I wish the City of Columbus would resurrect its 1962 approach, buy one of the surface lots downtown, and convert it into a small park. The increasing number of people living downtown would surely appreciate a Frank Fetch Park in their midst.

On The Commons

The old ball game didn’t end well for the Indians, but Russell and I have enjoyed our trip to Boston nevertheless. After leaving Fenway Park we walked around Boston and visited the Boston Commons and the Public Garden, both of which were packed with people. Families, tourists, people leaving work, joggers, people reading on the grass on a sunny day with a delightful breeze — all were drawn to the green space.

It made me realize, again, what value there is to cities in having downtown parkland where people can gather. And a few fountains and monuments don’t hurt, either.

The Value Of A Park

Living near Schiller Park — a sprawling, 150-year-old green space that covers multiple city blocks and is home to mature trees, picnic tables, lots of shade, a duck pond, a rec center, tennis courts, a playground, an outdoor basketball court, and a stage where the Actors Theatre of Columbus performs on summer evenings — has really shown me the value that a park brings to a community.

German Village has a very strong and distinctive neighborhood feel, and Schiller Park is a big part of that.  The park  is constantly in use, from the joggers and dog walkers who circle it in the early morning hours to the mid-day basketball and tennis players and parents pushing their kids ever higher on the swings, to the late afternoon birthday parties on the picnic tables beneath huge shade trees and people reading books on benches or playing fetch with their dogs.  You see the same people over and over, which of course reinforces the feeling of community, and you take pride in this beautiful patch of green that draws people like a magnet.  German Village without Schiller Park wouldn’t really be German Village at all.

In the American neighborhoods built before 1900, parks were of course part of the design — because green space and parkland were traditional in the countries of Europe from which many Americans of that era immigrated.  I’m sure the German immigrants who gave German Village its name never gave a second thought to putting in a large park, because it was just expected and obvious.  

At some point after 1900, though, the builders of suburban communities saw parks as less necessary, whether it was because they figured people would be driving around and not interested in walking to a park, or because they concluded that the acreage of a park could be more profitably devoted to still more houses.  As a result, many suburban communities are seriously park-deprived.  

It’s too bad, because a nice park really makes a difference and brings a lot of value to a neighborhood.

On The Old Commons


Established back in the early 1600s, the Commons remains a popular gathering spot for the people of Boston — and its tourists.  Along with the Boston Public Garden, located right next door, the Commons provides a merry-go-round, a frog pond, a towering memorial to the Bostonians who fought in the War Between the States — and some of the shady, grassy spots that city dwellers crave on a hot summer day.

The Parklet On Our Block

IMG_1105At the west end of our block of Gay Street, next to the intersection with High Street, a kind of wooden module sits on the street adjacent to Cafe Brioso.  It’s pill shaped, and with its unfinished wood it looks like something you might find on a Fourth of July parade float or as the project of a high school wood shop class.  The outward-facing side of the object has a pink-paint-and-green-shrub “PARKT” sign — with the pink letters spelling “art” — and some plants along a ledge at the top.

It’s called a “parklet.”  The sign on the object explains that parklets are intended to “creatively and temporarily transform parking spaces into open public spaces,” where people can sit, relax, rest, and watch the street life go by — and sure enough, the parklet on our block features benches and stools.  The sign adds that parklets are “a new dynamic that will generate more interesting and engaging public spaces for Columbus, Ohio.”  The sign identifies corporate and community sponsors that presumably underwrote the cost of building and moving the parklet and occupying a parking space.

“Parklets” are an interesting idea that, if the results of my Google search are to be believed, started in San Francisco, where they are part of a “pavement to parks” initiative, and have been adopted by some other cities, including Columbus.  The parklet on our block looks as if it has been designed to be picked up, put on a flatbed truck, and moved to a new location where more public seating space is desired.

I’m all for increasing public seating space in our downtown, but I’d like to see Columbus take the next step and acquire some of the surface parking lots that are found downtown and turn them into pocket parks.  A parklet is a nice idea, but an actual park with green trees, shaded walkways and seating, and perhaps a fountain would be even better.

We’ve got some downtown green space — like the Statehouse lawn, Columbus Commons, the Scioto Mile, and the Topiary Gardens — but the section of downtown north of Broad Street is pretty much parkless.  (I don’t count Sensenbrenner Park, which is mostly concrete.)  With more people moving downtown to live, they will be looking for places to jog, work on their yoga poses, or just sit and read a book as the breeze ruffles through the trees above.  Even a small chunk of new green space, like the Ohio Police and Fire Memorial Park at the corner of Third and Town, would be welcome.

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At The Ohio Police & Fire Memorial Park

IMG_0926There are lots of parks tucked here and there in downtown Columbus.  One of the least visited ones is the Ohio Police & Fire Memorial Park, located at the corner of South Third and East Town streets.  That’s a shame, because it’s a nice little park, with a small memorial square and statue, lots of shade trees, and blooming shrubs that, come springtime, look like someone draped a bright purple carpet of flowers on the bushes.

The Greenways Take Shape

IMG_7456It’s been a while since I’ve been down to the Scioto Riverfront in downtown Columbus.  Kish and I stopped by today to take a peek at the status of the Scioto Greenways project, which is an effort to narrow the river and return it to a more natural channel — and, in the process, recover some much needed green space and downtown parkland from the former, wider, river bed.

I think it looks pretty good, although you can’t actually enter the new areas right now.  I’m assuming the chain fencing will be removed and access will be allowed when the grand opening occurs on Tuesday.  The river looks better with the green borders.  The question is, will downtown workers use the new areas?  I’m guessing they will.  People tend to like water, and in land-bound Columbus the Scioto River is just about the only option.

Savannah’s String Of Pearls

 
I’ve got to give credit to the planners who designed Savannah’s historic district.  Every few blocks, running parallel to the Savannah River, are pretty little squares — like a string of pearls running through town.

  
Each square is a little patch of peacefulness, with its own distinctive features.  Some have fountains, some have statues, some have huge live oak trees — and one has a basketball court and another is a concrete slab.  I like the green, shady, mossy ones best.

  
If you lived in the old town part of Savannah, I expect you would have a favorite square — one where you might go to drink a cup of coffee and read a book and do some people-watching on a warm spring day.  You would enjoy the deep shade and the wet smell of the earth and appreciate the far-sighted city planners who graced Savannah with its lovely squares in the first place.  

  
Has there ever been any city dweller, in the history of the world, who has been heard to complain that their city has too many parks or green spaces?  I’d love it if sprawling Columbus had more of Savannah’s squares.

  

Planning For Parkland

The Columbus Downtown Development Corp. is hoping to create more parkland in the downtown area.  If it happens, it will be a good thing.

The plan is to put the parkland in the area around COSI and where the Veterans Memorial Auditorium now stands.  Vets is supposed to be torn down and replaced by an amphitheater and a different kind of veterans center.  At the same time, the damming on the Scioto River as it sluggishly moves through downtown is to be changed to allow the river to return to its more natural, narrower, more swiftly flowing state.  The narrowing will create an opportunity for additional parkland.  And, a third part of the plan — a 50,000-foot “indoor adventure” structure operated by the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium — will be built just south of COSI.

It’s an ambitious plan, and, in Columbus, ambitious plans often are greeted with skepticism.  The urban landscape is dotted with plan and concepts that have never become reality, and Columbus is no exception.  When a planner says their vision is of Columbus’ version of Central Park — which is a bit of an overstatement in any event — the question of whether the project will get off the ground becomes even more compelling.

Still, the idea of more parkland is a good one.  The future of downtown Columbus is as a residential area, not an industrial center. People like parks and playgrounds in their neighborhoods, and urban dwellers also like things to do within walking distance.  That means parks, theaters, restaurants, bars, and other potential entertainment venues.  A plan that provides parks, an amphitheater, and a downtown aquarium fits those needs.  Putting those sites on the west side of the river in the Franklinton area also makes sense.  In Columbus, as in other cities, the river is a real dividing line, and most downtown workers don’t venture over the bridges.  That needs to stop, and putting some real attractions in Franklinton will help.

Columbus is changing, and most of the changes are for the better.  Adding green space that makes downtown living more attractive will accelerate the positive trend.

Walking The High Line

The other day we visited The High Line park, located on Manhattan’s west side. It is one of the coolest, most interesting parks I’ve ever seen.

The High Line is a park built on an abandoned, elevated freight line.  When you walk the park you are strolling along a path several stories above the ground.  The railroad tracks — which are still visible in certain parts of the park — have been supplemented by walking paths, the areas around the paths have been planted with different greenery and grasses, and at different points the park features unique bird feeders, seating areas, and plenty of good photo opportunities, including fine views of the top of the Empire State Building in the distance.  It is wonderful to be able to walk unimpeded by surging traffic and rocketing yellow cabs and jostling crowds and appreciate the interesting vistas offered by this little corner of New York City.

The High Line winds its way from New York’s meatpacking district to West 30th Street, moving past businesses and residential buildings.  You stroll past rooftops, warehouses, billboards, office spaces, backyard grilling areas, and other urban scenes.  It is a whimsical journey, to walk so far above the streets of New York, and at least some of the people who live in the neighboring buildings — including the folks who put up the painted window scene at left — have recognized it and treated it as such.

What a great idea this park was!  It took what was a rusting, derelict structure reflective of urban blight and converted it into a gem of a park that attracts visitors and attention to the neighborhood and has brought restaurants, bars, and residents to the area.  The High Line is owned by the City of New York and maintained and operated by the Friends of the High Line.   If only every city government and civic group were as creative and far-sighted in deciding how to deal with aging city structures!

Civic Money Well Spent

Last weekend Kish and I visited Chicago’s Millennium Park for the first time.  I had high expectations because I’ve heard a lot about it, and those high expectations were fully met.

The fountain at Wrigley Square

Millennium Park is a 24.5 acre park located on the site of the former Illinois Central Railroad rail yard and parking lot, in an area between the Loop section of downtown Chicago and Lake Michigan.  The park, which took years to build and opened four years behind schedule, was dogged by artistic and aesthetic controversies and cost overruns.

At the time it opened, some predicted that the cost overruns and controversies would soon be forgotten after people got to experience the park and its many spectacular features.  I think those people were right.  Since its opening in 2004, Millennium Park has become one of Chicago’s most visited attractions, as well as the site of concerts, festivals, and many other activities.  When we visited there last weekend it was hopping.

A side view of "The Bean" at the Cloud Gate

The location of the park is inspired.  By putting the park at the site of the old rail yard, Chicago’s leaders and city planners subtracted a downtown eyesore and added a beautiful green space area that provides a great perspective from which to view the rest of the city and the impressive Chicago skyline.

And the features of the park show what can be done when a city and private entities work in partnership.  Millennium Park started as a smaller concept, with a smaller price tag, then grew in scale and cost as private benefactors and contributions were attracted.  Ultimately, the entire project cost $475 million and was funded through civic money and substantial private contributions from individuals, corporations, and foundations.  The result is a world-class combination of architecture, gardens, bridges, cool shaded areas, and fun stuff for just about everybody.

One of the "face fountains" at the Crown Fountain

The thing about Millennium Park that was most impressive to me was that it already seems deeply woven into the fabric of life for Chicago residents.  Sure, the architecture of the Pritzker Pavilion is striking, but it wouldn’t mean much if people in the community weren’t using and enjoying the facilities — and it sure looks like Millennium Park is used and enjoyed.  When we were there, we saw a number of wedding parties getting their pictures taken at Millennium Park landmarks.  We saw kids jumping and playing in the Crown Fountain, waiting for its iconic faces to spew out water.  We saw people with strollers walking past “the Bean” and enjoying the gardens.  I’d be confident in guessing that the people of Chicago are very happy that Millennium Park is there.

I’ve always thought that well-planned parks and fountains make a hugely positive contribution to a great city.  Chicago’s Millennium Park certainly supports that theory.

On The Scioto Mile

2011 has been the year of downtown parks in Columbus.  Earlier this year, the Columbus Commons opened on the site of the old Columbus City Center.  Now the Scioto Mile has joined the Columbus parks parade.

The Scioto Mile is a thin strip of brick and stone walkways, flower beds and flower pots, fountains, and seating areas that runs along the Scioto River as it arcs through downtown Columbus.  The area sits atop the Scioto River flood wall, well above the water itself, and is an effort to try to reintegrate the river into the downtown area by making the riverfront a more attractive destination.

In Columbus and other cities, city planners long ago made it difficult to get to the body of water that was a big part of the reason the for the city’s location in the first place, by putting heavily trafficked roads or walls or sports arenas or fences in the way.  The Scioto Mile is an effort to reverse that approach.  Planners apparently realized what the rest of us have known all along — people like water and are drawn to it.  (Read the first few pages of Moby Dick if you don’t believe me.)  The muddy Scioto is not as striking a body of water as, say, one of the Great Lakes or the Ohio River, but it is nevertheless pleasant to sit nearby and watch as the water meanders past.

I appreciate the effort and thought that went into the development of the Scioto Mile.  I particularly like the inclusion of table areas for the brown bag lunch crowd and the swinging benches, which would be a pleasant way to spend a few minutes on lunch hour.  The tables have checkerboard imprints and are just waiting for some serious chess players to show up.  The fountains and planters also are attractive additions.  From the signs appearing at various points along the Scioto Mile, it looks like the project has had significant corporate and foundational support.

Although the park is nice, the jury is still out on how much it will be used.  The closest buildings to the Scioto Mile are government buildings and office buildings, without any restaurants, bars, or food areas in sight.  If the hope is to make the Scioto Mile a bustling place, some kind of food and drink options will have to be part of the mix.

Lunch Alfresco At Columbus Commons

One of the mini-gardens at Columbus Commons

Today was a beautiful day, with bright sunshine and the temperature in the ’70s.  So, JV, the Conservative, and I decided to stroll down to Columbus Commons to see if we could scare up lunch and check out the capital city’s newest park, now officially open.

The only lunch option at Columbus Commons was a burgers/hot dogs/fries place in one of the permanent structures at the south end of the park.  There was a decent crowd there — not overwhelming, but not bad — and we had to wait for a while to place and then retrieve our order.  The food was fine, and it was very pleasant to be sitting outside at one of the circular tables along with our fellow downtown Columbusites, chowing down and enjoying the view of the downtown buildings.  The tables are all collected in a gravel-topped area at the south end of the park, allowing you to look north across the lawns of Columbus Commons to the center of downtown.  It is a nice view.

As we ate, I noticed people coming to the park from all parts of downtown, which is a good sign.  The only disappointment was that no food trucks or street food vendors were to be seen.  If Columbus Commons is to be a success, alternative food choices are a must, and food trucks and food carts are the easiest way to achieve that goal.  Perhaps the word will get out that potential customers are there, and that will attract the vendors.

The carousel and part of the eating area

The park looks good, although I’m still skeptical about the ability of many stretches of exposed grass to stay bright and green under the withering July and August sunshine.  The landscaping is attractively done, and there were a number of people sitting on benches adjacent to the landscaped rectangular mini-gardens.  Security was visible, and the one apparent panhandler who showed up hit the road when the security guy made his rounds.  The attention to security was encouraging, because people need to feel safe when they frequent this park.  No one is going to want to sit and eat outside if doing so exposes them to aggressive begging for money.

It looks like they’ve given thought to some unique touches to help give the place its own character.  The carousel is the principal initiative in that regard — although unfortunately it was shrouded today — and they have set up a small reading area with book carts, which is interesting.  They also were working on a performance area at the north end of the park, and as we left they were rolling in carts of beer for some party that seemed ready to get underway.  It appears that portions of the lawn areas can be rented and roped off for functions.

It’s way too early to weigh in on whether Columbus Commons will be a success.  So far, though, so good.