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Small Quality Urban Places
Publishing date: 12.11.2010
Recognizable places and reference points with identity, for the larger society. A preface to Caroline Simons’ Small Urban Spaces: Programming for Good Tot Lots Italian edition, Maggioli 2010
Small urban parks should be more than places merely to sit or play. They should also be scenes to look at from afar, whether walking down a street, looking out a window, or catching a glimpse out of the corner of one’s eye. That is, good small urban parks could contribute to the interest, variety, and attractiveness of neighborhoods. They could be an affirmative force for counteracting blight and slum generation…Vest-pocket parks, in short, not only could perform a practical recreational function but they could also contribute to the preservation of the city as a place in which to live as well as work.
Whitney Seymour North Jr
These words are contained in a text from 1969 that constitutes a fundamental reference work for the subsequent policy of “small open urban spaces” in New York, and by way of example, of many other cities in the United States: Small Urban Spaces: The Philosophy, Design, Sociology and Politics of Vest-Pocket Parks and Other Small Urban Open Spaces. It was a book written by the first president of New York’s Park Association; one of the first activists and promoters of pocket park policy 1, who contributed to the realization of the first “vest-pocket parks”, built in New York in the mid-1960’s.
This work 2 makes ample references to this text, and it is not by chance that it is entitled Small Urban Spaces:Programming for Good Tot Lots.3
However, the fact that these two terms, “small urban spaces” and “tot lots” are used together in the same title is not in itself an obvious matter. I think, rather, that the principle interest of this work lies in the very commendable choice of the author to join together the two ideas.
Why couldn’t a children's playground also be conceptualized simultaneously as a “small urban space”, such that it is attractive to others besides children and their guardians?
In not doing so, are we not also wasting an opportunity? This is particularly the case in urban areas of greater density, often deprived of quality, that is, of a legible urban organization that makes them truly recognizable places and reference points with identity, for the larger society that inhabits them.
Why could one not envision a space that, aside from being for children, parents, and guardians, may also be thought of and designed as, and most importantly, lived as a place of gathering and rest, for others of the neighborhood?
Consider a place for a senior citizen to pause along their way, who, aside from being pleased at the sight of children at play, would be able to “break up” a journey that might otherwise prove to be too long or tiresome.
A space to gather and meet, a “place” at which to observe appointments, a space in which to rest, read a book, and escape temporarily from an urban ambience that is often not only nondescript, but disagreeable and “disorienting”. 4
This potential liaison, while not explicitly affirmed by the author, nonetheless comes to light be it in the choice of literature consulted 5, or, undoubtedly, in the results of the interviews 6, reported in an apposite matrix, and in the author’s own developed observations.
The inspiration that prompted the author to confront such a theme, as she herself states, came through the observation that present in playgrounds in the Mid-Cambridge area 7, there were, along with herself, other people without children 8. Reflecting on this observation, she further concluded that if “these small urban spaces can play an important role not only in the lives of toddlers who play in them, but also in the lives of all neighborhood residents, they can become even more valuable spaces in dense neighborhoods”.
The next question is: what may be done so that such areas may become “ attractive to individuals other than children and parents.”
After having made a summary report of the information contained in the literature on small urban spaces and on the characteristics of public playgrounds for children, the author identifies, according to particular criteria 9, three play areas for children in a Mid-Cambridge nieghborhood that are to be the focus of her attention.
That which appears evident immediately is how the three areas, though situated within the same built environment and very near to each other, were able to be used in very diverse ways. One of the areas was highly utilized and had, in some cases, a problem of relative overcrowding, while the other two became systematically underutilized and often not visited at all.
What are the features, the author inquires, that attract a greater measure of residents to Cooper Square, instead of Maple Avenue Park or Wilder Lee Park? In this case, all the areas were not only situated within a small vicinity, but also very similar in their dimensions. 10
The author maintains that the literature does not give us a clear answer, even if the fundamental elements that it brings to light correspond, upon examination, in large measure to those that emerge from the results of the same research. In the synthesis of the author, the principle themes confronted that of playground equipment, of dimensions, of the relationship of sun and shade, of security, and of management. The study demonstrates “a large overlay between the attributes identified in the literature reviewed, and those that people perceived as being good qualities in the three tot lots studied.”
And yet, these are not sufficient: the author indicates how the texts on playgrounds do not furnish any particular information other than that which directly concerns the furnishings for play, and the problems associated with the psychophysical development of children. Nor, she adds, do other points of information, beside these indicated, appear in the literature on Small Urban Spaces.
In researching the question of why there was a profoundly uneven distribution of users in the three tot lots examined, the author was moved to identify, through direct observation and review of the interview results, those characteristics that she calls—with an expression perhaps a bit emphatic—“the attributes of goodness”. Here it may be inferred – even if the author seems only to suggest it - that “goodness”, as a qualifier applied to consciously designed urban spaces serves as a global term, incorporating various measures such as quality and beauty, but perhaps more importantly describing their successful integration in a given project.
What are, then, the reasons behind an obvious preference for one place over others? The question itself certainly poses a challenge, yet the very real fact of the inequality of use observed in the places studied is so evident that it begs asking. The question is undoubtedly an interesting one.
The response that the author deduces from investigation and from her own observations is one that entails, in a clear manner, themes that touch upon the correct analysis of context and the “wisdom” of design of public open spaces, both from the perspective of “functional programming”, and, perhaps above all, of the quality of the environment and the spaces that express it. Such “attributes of goodness” would be the furnishings, the relationship to the surroundings, the design of the space, the social function, accessibility, vicinity, and the frequency of use.
In the conclusion of her work, the author (aside from demonstrating how the observation of unequal distribution of tot lot users identified in the study may furnish a basis for future research) underlines, almost cautiously 11, a truth that may appear banal but nonetheless takes on considerable weight when one considers the many anonymous “green areas” distributed throughout our cities: “the quality of the space influences the use”.
I believe, therefore, that the reading of this text may be useful to those who design and plan open public spaces in urban settings (whether this involves playgrounds, green squares, small gardens, etc.) because of the uncontestable fact that the vast majority of our urban green spaces (built according to prevailing local and regional codes) are sadly deprived of cultural investment and good design.
Furthermore, as the evidence indicates, the reality of the situation is such that many of our “green spaces” seem to be sorely lacking not only of the characteristics of quality identified by the author, but also of those same, often quite ordinary 12traits indicated in the extant literature on these themes.
I hold to and fully share the affirmation found at the end of the second chapter: that cities “need to budget for the monitoring and evaluation of their existing open spaces prior to considering the creation of new ones.” I believe that there can be no doubt, in fact, that even the cost of cutting grass can be considered a waste of public funds in those “green spaces” that, as often occurs, end up substantially or significantly underused.
At this point I would like to propose an intelligent reflection that the author, quite correctly, “expresses aloud”. Unfortunately, it is a thought that would seem to imply unequivocally (and obviously not only in our own country) a waning of effort, even in the attempt of investing cultural energy into the design and planning of Small Urban Public Spaces. Such is the case for these, despite being easily recognized as spaces that represent one of the most precious resources in which to build—often within hastily constructed neighborhoods—new “urban focal points”.
In fact I believe that the demand for public open spaces “of quality”, that is, those capable of serving as places of reference for a community, of being “societal infrastructure”, is one that is strongly felt. Furthermore, I believe that at the heart of the oft-voiced demand for “green spaces” there is often a more complex request: that of quality public space; a demand that does not quite succeed in expressing itself coherently and is often received by administrators and civil servants incapable or unwilling to interpret it. I will let the author speak on this point: “Landscape architects are getting more involved in the design of recreation areas, but the budget allocated for the implementation of playgrounds is usually not enough to pay professional design fees. As a result, other professionals such as play equipment manufacturers and contractors are called in to design and execute playgrounds leading to the standardization of these spaces, uniformity, and a lack of creativity. Moreover, cities often work with only one or two playground equipment manufacturers, creating tot lots with the same play equipment, even the same color and layout”.
I believe I can conclude this brief foreword with an observation of how the lack of attention, too often felt in these themes, is particularly grave, most of all—here I let the author speak once again—if it is thought that:
“these spaces are treasures in dense urban neighborhoods and to neglect the design, improvement and maintenance of these spaces is to disregard the well-being, as well as the everyday life of urban communities.”
1 Pocket parks (or vest-pocket parks as they are often called) are a new typology of public urban space, generally “user generated” or brought about by the initiative of the local residents. They are typically found within densely constructed urban enclosures, upon small unbuilt lots or those which have been opened to use by demolition of pre-existing structures. The first pocket parks were created in Harlem in 1965, on the 128th block of West Street. The frontage, which opened directly onto the sidewalk, corresponded to that of a small building lot; the facade was approximately six meters (20 feet), by a depth of 30 meters (100 feet). The dimensions of this “lot-sized” park were therefore rather modest: they did not surpass, in their initial development, an area of more than 180-200 square meters (2000-2150 square feet). Between 1997 and 2001, a revival or reinterpretation of this typology was experimented with in Lyon, within the cadre of that city’s most well known public space projects. Even these little projects were coordinated by Jean Pierre Charbonneau and were proposed as a highly effective means for transforming public spaces at the “2015 Eco-Metroplole” initiative in Copenhagen. About this matter: Peterson, Vest-Pocket Parks in Harlem (foreword by Giampiero Spinelli)
2 Concerns a thesis, presented by Carolina Natividade Simon as her Partial Fulfillment of the Request for the Degree of Master in City Planning, at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2003:Small Urban Spaces: Programming for Good Tot Lots.
3The National Recreation and Parks Association defines a “tot lot” as the smallest type of park intended for the use of children under the age of 12 years. The NRPA suggests that these parks should serve a usage radius of one half mile relative to the surrounding residents (about 800 meters).
4. Who among us has not gotten lost at least once, been unable to orient himself, or has found it impossible to identify any “reference points” among the formless periferies that usually characterize our cities?
5. The author, in fact, in indicating the type of literature that she consulted (which had also served as a reference for composing her questionnaire) refers, on one hand, to texts such as Small Urban Spaces: The Philosophy, Design, Sociology and Politics of Vest-Pocket Parks and Other Small Urban Open Spaces by Whitney Seymour North Jr., New York University Press, 1969 - the fundamental text that contributed to the great development of the the Small Open Spaces' Movement in many cities of the United States -, and, on the other, to more recent works, specifically dedicated to the planning of playgrounds.
6. It is doubtless (the author says so explicitly) that such a limited number of respondents to her questionnaire, whose data was elaborated upon in an apposite matrix, only 47 in all, does not permit one to generalize excessively on the subject. Nonetheless, the ensemble of arguments forwarded by the author is convincing in the recognition that a “place” correctly designed attracts not only more children and parents, but is also generally frequented by other persons independent of children.
7 Mid-Cambridge, where the author resided at the time of writing, is one of the six neighborhoods of Cambridge in the state of Massachussets, a city only administratively separated from Boston (seat of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology) of which it constitutes a south-western extension
8. “For two years I have walked by these tot lots, and mingled with parents and children. I had noticed others like me (with no children) benefiting from the shade, flowers, and nice atmosphere these spaces provide. If these tot lots were able to attract people other than parents with children, could others be designed to accommodate other neighborhood residents as well?”
9. These criteria are the following: success, in terms of capacity to attract, the number of visitors; concentration, the strong connection or nearness among them, within the same neighborhood; and that which is called affiliation, which is, in fact, that the three areas would not be managed in differing ways but would all come under that of the Department of Public Works of the City of Cambridge, and would be, therefore, freely accessible to all.
10. The author observes, in fact, that these “three tot lots, within less than five minutes walking distance from each other, are managed by the Department of Public Works and each one itself covers less than 0.2 acres”. The area of 0.2 acres corresponds to approximately 800 square meters (one acre being equal to 4,046.873 square meters).
11.“Whether people would have concentrated on one tot lot if all three had similar play attractions is uncertain at this point.”
12. One cannot consider petty the advice expressed by Hercules Silva at the beginning of the 19th century in his famous book Dell’arte del Giardino Inglese (On the Art of the English Garden), in which he says that “a public garden should have some shady parts at every hour of the day, and still others joyfully exposed during the winter”. It seems interesting to me to observe how Hercules himself, surely being aware of the somewhat obvious nature of this advice, felt it necessary to express it nonetheless.
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