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Making Benches Work

This article has been adapted from the September 2016 issue of Parks & Recreation Magazine, the official publication of the National Recreation and Park Association. Through its pursuit of key issues, trends, and personalities, the magazine advances American parks, recreation, and conservation efforts. You can read the full-length article here.

This is the second post in a three-part series on park benches. Read the first post here.

When faced with citizen complaints and potential bench misuse, what are cities to do? Are park agencies simply doomed to be pummeled by anti-bench complainers and to then be criticized by outraged bench-lovers and park-lingerers when they remove the “problem”? Some cities have succeeded in saving their benches and maintaining parks that are safe and enjoyable for all, but it certainly requires creativity and resourcefulness, and no two cases are alike.

In the 1980s and ‘90s, when Baltimore’s Patterson Park faced the problem of inappropriate use of benches, they were steadily removed until none were left. This supposed fix didn’t actually meet park users’ needs; to the contrary, when users were asked in a 1995 survey what would make a “big improvement” in the park, 56 percent said more benches. Now, with the revived park getting much more visitation, the benches are gradually being brought back. The benefits are striking, according to Jennifer Robinson, director of Friends of Patterson Park. Patrons spend more time in the park, she says, and some are even putting the benches to use for strength-building. (That idea isn’t unusual; there is even an exercise book, 101 Things to Do on a Park Bench.”)  Not only did removing benches fail to fix the park’s problems, it actually did the exact opposite. Robinson feels strongly that the new benches were a factor in the park’s comeback.

But more isn’t all.

“Benches have to be located thoughtfully,” Robinson says. “They have to make sense with the flow of the park.” This means in areas of high activity (such as near playgrounds or sports fields), along pathways, and just inside park entrances. Putting them in well-trafficked areas helps ensure that they are used properly. There are now about 30 benches in Patterson Park – not enough, but an improvement.

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Benches thoughtfully located along a park pathway. Photo credit: Flickr user Pawel Pacholec.

The director of the Kansas City Parks Department, Mark McHenry, is even more explicit when he thinks about users’ needs, saying “Any feature that is traditionally put in a park, you’re going to want a bench to go with it.” In particular, he cites the need at dog parks (for owners to socialize), playgrounds (ditto, not to mention the quick snack or diaper change), and sports fields or courts.

In Pittsburgh’s Allegheny Commons, benches were removed from the central promenade because the community took issue with the noise and commotion that seemed to always hover around them. But the problem may have been more due to layout. With the benches directly facing each other across the pathway, groups often gathered on each side, talking loudly across the distance and making walkers feel threatened and uncomfortable. But the loss from the removal was keenly felt, and a new master plan calls for their restoration – this time in a new, staggered configuration that hopefully addresses the problem.

In the case of Norfolk, where many benches were removed from three different parks because of crime, the city first thinned the surrounding landscape, hoping that would solve the problem. In order to prevent sleeping, some places purchase (or retrofit) benches with obtrusive armrests at appropriate intervals. Both approaches can help, although the only true fix comes from a culture of heavy use, proper utilization, and the awareness that there are eyes on the park – including, every now and then, the eyes of rule-enforcing authority.

If It Doesn’t Have a Bench, Is It Still a Park?

This article has been adapted from the September 2016 issue of Parks & Recreation Magazine, the official publication of the National Recreation and Park Association. Through its pursuit of key issues, trends, and personalities, the magazine advances American parks, recreation, and conservation efforts. You can read the full-length article here.

This is the first post in a three-part series on park benches. 

Think about the last time you visited a park. What did you do? Did you just pass through, or did you stay a while? Did you bring a book, your dog, a Frisbee? Did you sit down? Or did you want to sit, only to find that your single option was the ground?

In 2013, the city of Norfolk, Virginia removed almost 70 benches from three small city parks. The benches weren’t in disrepair and they weren’t in a bad neighborhood. In fact, they were located in the revitalizing historic community of Ghent, and, if anything, were more than popular. Unfortunately it was the wrong kind of popularity. Following complaints of loitering, drinking, fighting, and even prostitution, the benches vanished.

3-carrying-bench-picture

Norfolk residents Carlton Pillar, left, and Gary Morton bring their own bench to a meeting about removals. Resident complaints had led to benches being taken out, but many others voiced outrage over the lack of seating. Photo credit: Hyunsoo Leo Kim, The Virginian Pilot

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Friends of the Parks Welcomes Obama Library to the South Side

On August 3, Friends of the Parks, an open space advocacy group in Chicago, announced that it will welcome the Obama Presidential Library despite misgivings about the location of the building.

Friends of the Parks Executive Director Juanita Irizarry stated that though the organization opposes building the library on existing parkland when there is vacant space nearby, “…the organization will not sue as it is our understanding that the site that was chosen apparently is not public trust land—unlike the proposed sites for the Lucas Museum.”

The group will continue to urge the library foundation to work closely with the surrounding community to address community benefit agreements, public access to the affected parks as well as regular communication with all stakeholders, and to maintain the design integrity of the historic park.

Read the full statement here.

Speaking for the Trees: The New Urban and Community Forestry Action Plan

“I speak for the trees, for the trees have no tongues.”

― Dr. Seuss, The Lorax

Tree1To be a tree in the city is very hard.  A tree that would live 80 years in the forest has a life expectancy of 20 years in the suburbs, and less than that in an urban setting where trees are often planted in sidewalk cutouts. Let’s face it; even if a tree gets planted correctly and watered, it faces a host of other environmental and human challenges ranging from storms, insects, air pollution, and low-quality soil to road salt and reckless drivers.

Thanks to the National Urban and Community Advisory Council (NUCFAC) and their newly released 10-year Urban and Community Forestry Action Plan, there is a clear outline of all the reasons we should nurture our urban trees. I recently spoke with Liam Kavanagh, NUCFAC’s Plan Chair and New York City’s First Deputy Commissioner for the Department of Parks and Recreation, about the plan’s goals.  Continue reading

Is Your Park System Fair?

Probably not. Maybe in the historically ethnic sections of town too many parks have broken-down playgrounds or a few too many weeds. Maybe over the past couple of years, dollars have been flowing heavily to the same few parts of town. If so, your city wouldn’t be alone in this. Many places are trying to do better. In Minneapolis, this has meant a revamped approach to park projects.

Since there is never quite enough funding to go around, the Minneapolis Parks and Recreation Board’s new 20 Year Neighborhood Park Plan includes a rigorous system to prioritize capital investment and large rehabilitation projects for neighborhood parks. The system is uniquely point-based, and also stands out in its emphasis on racial and economic equity. Continue reading