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Small Investments, Big Payoffs from Parks, Public Spaces

Patterson Park, Baltimore.

Should small projects be the big attention getters of those trying to remake their cities? Citing the success of Bryant Park in New York, Campus Martius in Detroit and Discvovery Green in Houston, Andrew Manshel suggests just that in City, saying:

Small changes are appealing for many reasons. They’re cheap, for one thing. Also, what works can be easily expanded, and what doesn’t work can be as easily terminated or altered. One successful food concession can become two; an unsuccessful stall selling local crafts can be replaced; a planter made from a material that discolors or chips can be replaced with a better one. Contrast that with grand schemes, which can attract broad opposition and be subject to complex political, logistical, and financial obstacles. Once an elaborate design has been committed to, backing away from it—or even altering it—becomes both politically and mechanically complicated. Further, planners have a limited capacity to predict how people will respond to their designs. The larger the project, the more likely unintended consequences become, and the more difficult it is to change course.

Above all, small ideas for revitalizing urban areas work, as the success of Bryant Park and its emulators has demonstrated. Why? Because, as Whyte (and Jane Jacobs as well) understood, people in public spaces respond to thousands of subtle visual and aural cues, and successful places manipulate these cues (often without premeditation) to provide familiar assurances of comfort and well-being. The cues prompt a person who encounters a new place to predict a positive experience there—above all, that he will be safe. The most important cues transmit a sense of order and social control. And the best new or restored spaces, like Bryant Park, Campus Martius, Discovery Green in Houston, and most recently the High Line park on Manhattan’s West Side, provide their patrons with the premonition of an enjoyable experience. Those engaged in the work of downtown renewal and urban revitalization should always remember that truth. It will help them identify, and integrate into their projects, the helpful small ideas that can make cities more enjoyable places.

More or less, investments in parks and public spaces are economic development.

In some neighborhoods, it can mean revitalizing an existing park. This would be the Bryant Park model, or perhaps the story of Patterson Park in Baltimore, in which the Patterson Park Community Development Corporation took to renewing the 155-acre park at the neighborhood’s core and drew home buyers by doing so.

In other areas, it can mean creating a new park to spark investment. This would be the Campus Martius model. Think of all the cities with parking lots ringing their downtown. Could investments in parks reorient these central areas as new compact neighborhoods?

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