Supplement Feature - April 2020
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Finding Space for Parks

The Ins and Outs of Pocket Park Planning & Design

By Dave Ramont


While many cities are struggling with a lack of space, other cities are grappling with too much space as they experience an exodus of industry and residents. In Maryland, Baltimore has thousands of vacant lots which are difficult to maintain. Baltimore City Recreation and Parks (BCRP), considered an innovator in managing open spaces, has worked with Housing and Community Development and Public Works—along with community groups in Baltimore—to transform vacant lots into green spaces. Baltimore's Vacant Lot Restoration Program—started by the Parks and People Foundation—has provided training, technical assistance and site improvement funding for 23 neighborhood-managed open spaces.

In Michigan, Detroit also finds itself with thousands of vacant parcels as the city's population has shrunk by around one-quarter. These lots are expensive to maintain and generate no significant tax revenue. As groups and individuals around the city began to use these parcels for individual gardens, community gardens and even full-scale farm operations, the City of Detroit Recreation Department created the Farm-A-Lot program to help facilitate the reuse of vacant city-owned lots for agriculture.

The NRPA suggests that community gardens are a popular choice when creating pocket parks as they can help unite residents of all ages, provide productive outdoor activities and revitalize neighborhoods. Detroit's Farm-A-Lot program provides soil tilling services and free seeds to residents interested in using vacant lots in their neighborhoods for growing vegetables. Eventually, several other of the city's "green" organizations banded together as the Detroit Garden Network to assist residents with gardening issues. In addition to the obvious benefits of gardening, when community groups and nonprofits pay for their own gardening activities and upkeep, the city can save 100% on maintenance costs of the parcels.

Large urban centers are certainly not the only locales where pocket parks are being created. In Marshalltown, Iowa—a city of just under 30,000—Gallery Garden Park opened in 2017. A three-story historic building once sat on the park site until it was destroyed in a fire, resulting in complete demolition and leaving a vacant, undeveloped lot. When the land and an adjacent building—also damaged in the fire—were sold, the new owners restored the building and decided to turn the lot into a mini-park that would be open to the public.

Features at the new Gallery Garden Park include tables and seating; a sunken lower plaza with an evaporation pool; an upper plaza with an elevated water feature; a Live Wall vertical garden with 900 plants; elevated planters along the perimeter; canopy trees; steel pergola that supports overhead solar panels and conveys water to hanging flower baskets and elevated planters; and public art within the garden including sculpture and paintings exhibited year-round.

But the urban-style park was also created to implement green infrastructure elements and address stormwater management, helping to protect nearby buildings that were damaged by stormwater in the past. Don Marner is a professional landscape architect with Iowa-based Snyder & Associates, who provided civil engineering and landscape architecture on the project. "This project is very unique," said Marner. "Rain water is captured from the roof of the adjacent building, then stored in harvesting tanks that were buried on site, then this water is pumped to service the central water fountain and irrigation of the Live Wall and landscape plantings. A water line is not part of the improvements, meaning all the water for the site comes from captured storm water." Additionally, permeable pavers and a bio-swale rain garden with native Iowa plantings also promote water infiltration.