Supplement Feature - April 2020
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Finding Space for Parks

The Ins and Outs of Pocket Park Planning & Design

By Dave Ramont


In a perfect world, every neighborhood would have plenty of green space set aside with play equipment and areas for relaxation or exercise. But for many reasons, particularly lack of space and budget, this is simply not feasible—especially in crowded urban areas. That's when pocket parks might be a viable option, and we're reminded of the old adage, "Good things come in small packages."

Pocket parks—sometimes called vest pocket parks—are small outdoor spaces, often no more than a quarter of an acre and often located in urban areas surrounded by commercial buildings or small residential lots. Any unused space might make a suitable pocket park site, including abandoned alleyways, vacant lots, rooftops or public land where roads intersect. Sometimes developers deed or donate small, unusable parcels of land to municipalities so they're not liable for the taxes, and these sites can be transformed into beneficial green spaces.

In Europe after the second World War, materials, capital and labor were in short supply. So, when it came to restoring sites that had been laid to waste into needed park space, smaller was better, and ingenuity and imagination were front and center. These small spaces were a great success, and the concept spread, eventually coming to the United States by the 1960s.

The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF) is a nonprofit organization connecting people to places, educating and engaging the public to "make our shared landscape heritage more visible, identify its value and empower its stewards." The TCLF defines vest pocket parks as "Small parks, frequently less than three acres, inserted into interstitial spaces to provide an open space experience of respite from the city. Design elements include hard surfaces, moveable furniture, water features (often to drown out the noise of the city) and potted displays of annual plantings. Some are privately owned and managed by foundations, which open them to the public for designated hours."

"The vest pocket park revolution kicked off in New York City with Paley Park, which opened in 1967," said Charles Birnbaum, president and CEO of TCLF. "The idea was 'introduced' four years earlier in 1963 in an exhibition at the Architectural League of New York. Vest pocket parks such as NYC's Paley Park, nearby Greenacre Park (1971), John F. Collins Park in Philadelphia (1979) and the Waterfall Garden in Seattle (1978) were all part of an effort to reclaim cities by transforming vacant structures and lots in bustling cities into intimate public spaces where people could find respite and passive enjoyment."

Paley Park was conceived as a prototype for privately owned public spaces, and was initiated by former CBS Chairman William Paley, offering city dwellers an intimate park experience. The one-tenth-acre park is bounded by buildings on three sides and set back from the street, enclosed by an iron fence and featuring a 20-foot high wall of water at the back, which is backlit at night. There are honey locust trees, moveable chairs, marble tables and annual plantings in containers. Two side walls are covered with English Ivy. A food kiosk is located at the entrance, and an iron gate limits nighttime access.

"The design of vest pocket parks is usually and deceptively simple," said Birnbaum, explaining that when Landscape Architect Robert Zion designed Paley Park, moveable tables and chairs were quite innovative, symbolizing freedom and civility, perhaps inspired by French public landscapes. "Other landscape features that are often part of these designs include water for animation, light reflectivity and the potential to muffle the sounds of the city, in addition to site-specific designs for light standards, trash receptacles and perhaps moveable planters for ever-changing seasonal color displays."

Unlike community or even neighborhood parks, pocket parks are not intended to serve an entire city or community, but rather to cater to the needs and interests of the nearby users for whom it was originally intended. Oftentimes, community groups spearhead pocket park projects as they seek more green space in tight urban confines. Since vacant spaces can be unsafe and unsightly, this is a win-win for cities and residents alike, and cities commonly partner with private entities or purchase sites outright with the agreement that community groups or foundations will maintain the park, in addition to contributing to design and operation. "Although maintenance for many of these sites may vary," said Birnbaum, "parks like Paley, Greenacre and the Waterfall Garden are overseen by private entities."

Since these small spaces can't provide all the features of larger parks, cities or parks agencies can assist community groups in identifying just what amenities might be most useful to the core user group in that area, and develop an implementation strategy. The size and layout of each space is different, and user needs are diverse. Some groups desire play space for young children, while others may prefer an area for holding small events, bringing guests or simply enjoying a peaceful lunch break. All these options must be weighed out before the design stage.