Supplement Feature - April 2020
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Finding Space for Parks

The Ins and Outs of Pocket Park Planning & Design

By Dave Ramont


The National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA) offers some tips for communities or groups looking to develop a pocket park in their neighborhood. Community commitment and making sure the decision-making process is inclusive will help to create cohesion among potential users. Keep neighbors informed of the process and seek out individuals who may have a certain talent that might be useful, such as experience with plants or trees. Groups may want to form a committee, appoint leaders and divide responsibilities when it comes to planning and ultimately working on the project.

Of course, a site must be chosen and improvements discussed and agreed upon. A landscape architect may need to be engaged to develop a site plan. It's easy to overreach when it comes to designs, so it's important to keep expectations realistic and give careful consideration to how much the neighborhood or group can actually take on in terms of maintenance and upkeep. Therefore, implement a maintenance plan and put it in writing. Schedule work days in advance, and consider a project manager to oversee. Ongoing communication and engagement is crucial to the future success of the park. Discussing NYC's Greenacre Park, Birnbaum said that "As a result of the superb ongoing care and management provided by the Greenacre Foundation, the original design intent…remains beautifully intact today. In 2004 we honored the Greenacre Foundation with our annual award for Stewardship Excellence."

Funding needs to be secured, and public-private ventures are common, as is involving outside partners such as nonprofits, local businesses, city organizations, individual contributors and philanthropic entities. Each partner's role should be spelled out. Investigate funding resources such as grants, money from businesses, corporate sponsorships and the use of in-kind materials. Of course, short-term funding for things like startup costs and equipment must be considered, but don't forget to save for long-term costs like maintenance, repairs and liability insurance.

The Parks and Green Spaces Levy Acquisition Fund in Seattle provided $24 million for the acquisition of neighborhood parks in up to 20 identified areas throughout the city, including the Ballard neighborhood where Gemenskap Park opened in 2018. Gemenskap is the Swedish word for community, fitting since this was a community-initiated project. The park provides open space for the neighborhood by converting a two-block gravel parking median and portions of the existing concrete roadway into new park space with green infrastructure and safety improvements for pedestrians, cyclists and vehicles. Environmental concerns were addressed by converting existing storm water treatment from piped conveyance into on-site biofiltration.

According to Rachel Schulkin, communications manager, City of Seattle/Seattle Parks and Recreation, the Gemenskap project was funded by the Parks Department through a community grant process—the Opportunity Fund. "This funding came to the Parks Department through our 2008 Parks and Greenspace property tax levy. The Opportunity Fund provided $1.1 million and our department paid another $1.8 million to acquire the property. The project converted two blocks of public right-of-way into a small pocket park.

"Neighbors have great pride in this community-grown park," said Schulkin. "Currently Seattle Parks and Rec staff maintain the park—mow, pick up garbage, irrigation repair, weed, remove graffiti, etc. There is a Friends of Gemenskap group that holds a weeding party two times each year, with volunteers weeding throughout the year. There is a bio-swale in the park. The park is largely used by neighbors as a gathering space and a spot to rest on a walk with your dog."

Schulkin goes on to mention another mini-park project recently undertaken by Seattle Parks and Rec. "We recently completed Urban Triangle Park, which sits in the heart of the Amazon Towers and has been quickly embraced as a delightful piece of open space to take a break, enjoy fresh air and sunlight, and stop and take a rest from a busy day."

Urban Triangle Park redevelops a former rental car site and serves downtown businesses and residences. An alley existed between the park property and an adjacent tower development site. Seattle Parks worked with the developer to vacate the alley and create a seamless and coordinated design with the adjacent properties, bringing mutual benefit to both parties. The nearly quarter-acre park now features an open lawn, seating edge, lighting, ADA access, landscaping, places for vendors and other park elements. A custom play structure references historical structures in the neighborhood.

"Seattle has experienced an enormous amount of growth in the last five years, and the density of many parts of the city have increased dramatically," said Schulkin. "Pocket parks provide necessary green space respite for these growing 'urban villages.' We continue to seek to acquire more park property, yet with the rising cost of land in Seattle, it is increasingly difficult to afford large park parcels. Yet we find that we can do a lot with small parks, and that they are incredibly important to the ecosystem of a growing city."