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.
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."
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.
Marner points out other sustainable features as well. "The pergola supports solar panels, which provide shade for the patio and also provides electricity for the central water fountain and lighting of the pocket park." The 32 photovoltaic panels produce 7,000 watts of electricity, making the site a net-zero impact.
In fact, based on Snyder & Associates' master plan, the project received a grant for the implementation of the green infrastructure elements. "A grant was secured from the Iowa Economic Development Authority," said Marner. "The owner also paid to cover cost. The city of Marshalltown also participated, assisting with costs associated with storm sewer improvements in the parking lot."
Park visitors now enjoy relaxing outdoors, eating lunch or visiting with friends. It's a common site for high school senior pictures or wedding photos. The Gallery Garden has been incorporated into community festivals and hosted graduations, weddings, birthday parties, fundraisers and other private events. The owners have presented to groups and visitors on the storm water management details, and interpretive signage details sustainable park infrastructure components.
"This pocket park is privately-owned, but available to the public," said Marner. "The owners are very committed to downtown viability and the community, and are extremely excited about how the community has embraced this project and space. I believe there will be more opportunities to re-create public space in downtown areas and this project is an example of how a successfully designed space can be an attraction and bring people together."
"Present-day landscape architects continue to innovate," said Birnbaum, "but I think that one of the core ideas of many of the early and influential vest pocket parks remains true: employing simple designs that maximize flexibility, ease of maintenance and passive enjoyment. Places for repose and relaxation in the city are as central to the work today as when vest pocket parks were ushered in as a new idea more than a half century ago." RM
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