Parks and Squares
July 26, 2015
For a long time, I've been asserting that the basic building blocks of
the Traditional City are Narrow Streets for People, amounting to
perhaps 80% of all streets by length; 17% Arterials and 3% Grand
Boulevards. Most of the remainder is private space, in the form of
building footprint and outdoor private space such as yards, courtyards,
gardens, etc. Also, Traditional City design often includes some parks
and squares, which are public spaces for people that are not streets.
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Parks are mostly naturalistic (vegetation) and squares and
plazas are mostly paved. How much of the total surface area should be
given to parks and squares? Many cities are quite successful with very
little public open space, notably the classic Italian cities. Venice,
to take one particularly extreme example, has hardly any parks at all,
although there are a number of squares.
Most of what few green areas you can see appear to be private
In the case of Venice, the waterways add a naturalistic element, while
the fact that the entirety of Venice is both car-free and bike-free
means that the whole city is For People, and thus serves something of
the role of a park. What we find is that, when a city is beautiful (in
practice, this means a lot of pleasant Narrow Streets for People), then
people have less need to go somewhere to "escape the city," whether a
park or somewhere out of town.
On the other end of the scale, a large amount of surface area devoted
to parks or squares sounds nice, but it means that there is less and
less land that is used for building footprint and other urban uses --
which is to say, all human activity that takes place outside of parks
and squares, mostly living and working. A simple way to think of this
is in terms of land value. How much is an acre of prime real estate, in
Manhattan, Tokyo, Paris, Hong Kong, London etc. worth to a property
developer? This value is what we are giving up by having a park or
square, instead of buildings.
Unfortunately, almost all of our urban areas in the United States, from
low-density Suburban Hell to the highest-density highrise districts,
tend to be rather harsh, ugly and unfriendly to people. By "people" I
don't mean only a male adult in a business suit, but also a mom pushing
a stroller, or a four-year-old walking, or a seventy-year-old woman.
This tends to exaggerate our desire for parks -- somewhere that is
comfortable for people, including all ages and genders. This desire is
well-founded, but I would caution that it should not get so out of hand
that we decide to devote an overly-large amount of surface area to
parks. That would result in a very beautiful place where nobody could
live, since there is no space to live on. (In practice, it would be
As a guideline, I would postulate a rough number of 20% of total
surface area given to public parks and squares. We would also have
about 10-20% of surface area as streets, and thus 60%-70% as private
property, which will also include privately-owned (but possibly
publicly-accessible) patios, plazas, gardens, yards, courtyards, and
other such outdoor spaces.
Central Tokyo from above. Note that the Emperor's Palace (center right)
is mostly not open to the public.
Paris from above. This distance tends to make smaller parks invisible.
As we think about parks, we have to address the really poisonous notion
of "green space" which has polluted City Design thinking over the past
several decades. The term "green space" is rather fuzzy in general use.
In practice, it can certainly include formal parks, but what it really
tends to mean is some kind of surface area covered with vegetation that is not a park
. If it was a
park, then we would call it a "park" and not have a separate term,
"Green space" is a new invention. The basic purpose and format of
"green space" is to serve as a buffer between some sort of automobile
infrastructure (Arterial street or parking lot) and some place where
human activity takes place -- like an office, residence, or, for that
matter, a park. I've talked about "green space" extensively in the
past. A park is not "green space." It is a park.
2009: Place and Non-Place
I often say that a park should have
, and the name should
include the work "park."
This is only linguistics, but it tends
to illustrate exactly what I mean. For example, the rather large
expanse of grass in the center of the superhighway offramp is certainly
"green space," but it is not a park, and nobody could call it a park
with a straight face. Also, that greenery surrounding the parking lot
at WalMart is not a park. We understand that a park is a destination
for people, and for use by people. Green space is not a destination
(which is why it has no name), and if you actually tried to do
something there, you might get arrested.
"Parks" can range from tiny urban "pocket parks" of only a few hundred
square feet, up to extremely large wilderness areas, like "National
Parks." Also, parks should be designed
for their intended human use. This "design" might mean leaving most of
it in a naturalistic state, like Yellowstone National Park, or, for a
small urban park, it might mean a lot of artificial elements like
manmade waterfalls and pavement, and precise organization of trees and
shrubs. But, it does not mean just a flat square of mown grass. If you
could hire Frederick Law Olmstead, the designer of New York's Central
Park, and say: "Fred, we love your recent work, and we want to pay you
$300,000 to design our new
park," and he came back with a flat square of mown grass, what would
you think? The reason you hired him in the first place was to get
something like Central Park, which is quite lovingly and beautifully
designed. (A flat square of mown grass is a typical format for "green
Today, we tend to call these people "landscape architects," but I sense
that that word is itself a problem. I like the word "park designer."
Because, a park designer designs parks. They don't architect the
landscape. I think a lot of "landscape architects" spend a fair amount
of their professional time basically fluffing up some "green space,"
and wouldn't really know what to do if they were asked to design a real
Urban parks (as opposed to wilderness areas) should have clear
boundaries. You don't just have some sort of vague transition to some
other place. Sometimes, you get some greenery which is a sort of filler
element, and just sort of peters out. No. A park is a Place, and thus,
it needs to have a clear transition to some other place.
I think that parks should be enclosed. In other words, they should not
be bounded by streets. You only need one point of access for a park, or
maybe a few for a large park, so you don't need thousands of feet of
street frontage, like buildings do. Also, I find it is quite unpleasant
to have a park bounded by Arterial Streets full of automobile traffic.
And, there is hardly any need to surround a park with Narrow Streets
for People, as you can just walk in the park. Thus, it makes sense to
surround the park with privately-owned buildings. These can be
separated from the park with fences, possibly bolstered by a wall of
dense trees and bushes. Or, buildings can possibly open onto the park,
something in the manner of the "condos on a golf course" model that is
I think that it makes a lot of sense to surround a park with high-rise
buildings. The buildings should open right onto the park, with no
pavement in between. Highrise buildings tend to go well with wide open
spaces, such as the very wide Arterial-type streets typical of 19th
Century Hypertrophism (Manhattan), for the obvious reason that if you
put highrise buildings close to one another, it gets very dim at street
level and people's window views are entirely obscured. I am NOT talking
about the "tower in a park" pattern characteristic of 20th Century
Hypertrophism ("Corbusier"). The typical problem with that pattern, in
the first instance, is that the tower is not in a "park" at all --
whatever greenery exists doesn't have a name, and the name doesn't
include the word "park" -- but rather Green Space. (Often, there is no
greenery at all, but rather a parking lot.) For one thing, if you were
designing a park, you wouldn't put a tower in the middle of it, but you
can certainly put them around the outside.
September 23, 2012: Corbusier Nouveau 3: Really Narrow Streets With
August 26, 2012: Corbusier Nouveau 2: More Place and Less Non-Place
19, 2012: Corbusier Nouveau
Here we have some highrises in Florida, and some kind of vegetative
filler ("green space") at the base. Would you call that a park? Does
anyone who lives there call it a "park"? Does it have a name, which
includes the word "park"? Even with thousands of residential units in
these buildings, do you see one single person using this space, as they
would use a park? Most of it actually consists of rather large
automobile roadways -- it is not even For People, but for automobiles!
I wonder which "landscape architect" is responsible for this useless
mess. This is classic 20th Century Hypertrophism. DO
NOT DO THIS.
However, you can see that you could take the same land area, and the
same buildings, and with the space here wasted on roadways and
vegetative filler, make an actual, real-life Park For People, so that a
mom with a toddler could just take the elevator down and spend a
pleasant afternoon sitting in the park right in front of their
building, instead of having to get in their SUV and driving to a real
We get close to what I mean with New York's Central Park, which has
tall buildings all around.
However, Central Park in New York is ringed with large Arterial
roadways on all sides. You have to cross a wide avenue of traffic to
get from the residence to the park. I find this quite off-putting.
Also, the proximity of several lanes of traffic on all sides makes
Central Park feel like less of a refuge For People from the noise of
the 19th Century Hypertrophic City than it could, especially if you are
within a hundred meters of the edge. By surrounding a park with
buildings, you create a barrier from traffic noise, and a sense of
This is much closer to what I mean. This area qualifies as a real park,
although I find that it still smells a little bit like "green space" in
some of its design details. I wonder if it has a name -- a name
independent from the name of the development as a whole -- and if the
name includes the word "park." Could you take the elevator down and
spend a pleasant afternoon here with your toddler? I think the answer
is yes. Note how the highrise buildings open right on the park, with no
parking lots or roadways in between.
This development is called "Central Park." It is in New
You see what I mean? When people use the word "park," in their names,
they just naturally make parks.
In the "don't do this" file, we also have this:
Here we have something that is potentially quite nice, including some
big mown grass areas which kinda suggest a park ... Alas, we again have
the buildings surrounded by parking lots, and the green quadrangles
surrounded by automobile roadways. Also, that blank grass can hardly be
called a "park," although it would be soooo easy to get a real park
designer and make something of it. I'm pretty sure that blank of grass
on the right does not have a name, and certainly not one that includes
the word "park." Also, note that despite being surrounded by thousands
of apartment units, there is nobody and nothing in those grassy areas.
With a little effort, you could make these areas into something like
the "Central Park" development of New Delhi. But, you have to make the
effort. This is in Moscow, Russia.
Although I am perhaps overemphasizing the idea of highrise towers and
parks here -- you can also have parks with two-story single-family
detached residential developments, and the same basic principles apply
-- nevertheless, let's look at another example. This is the Gubei Gold
Street project in Shanghai:
Here we have some highrise buildings surrounding a people-only space
... which is sort of parklike ...
But, it is not actually a "park." We know this because they don't call
it a "park," they call it a "street," namely, Gubei Gold Street. They
also call it a "promenade."
This area is not really a street ... not really a square ... and not
really a park. Although the overall result is generally much better
than a lot of other examples I could identify, there is a strong sense
of "just filling up the space with pleasant stuff" that I get here. If
you just made it a park, and called it a "park," somewhat like the
Central Park development in New Delhi, I think you would get a better
result. I suggest "Gubei Park." And you could even promenade (verb)
one end to the other, if you like.
Really too much pavement here for a successful park, in my opinion.
But, that's because they weren't designing a "park." They were making a
"promenade." And what is that supposed to mean? The word itself is
filler. And even if you were actually making a "promenade," does it
need to be two hundred feet wide? Or maybe twenty is enough?
The "promenade" (yes that is what people call it) at the Bund,
Shanghai. Twenty feet wide.
While there is quite a lot of attention to detail here, I think there
is some big conceptual error.
Note that there is actually a space on the left of the map which is
actually labeled a "park." Note that this area does not get any
pictures or description at the website link. It looks like it is called
"open space park," which is not really a name, but rather a functional
label. It it no wider than the "promenade," and fronts a major Arterial
roadway. I think it functions more like Green Space, as a bufffer that
nobody is actually supposed to go to.
Unfortunately, so many "landscape architects" have been designing this
sort of vague filler crap that I think they are actually somewhat
design an actual park, with a name that includes the word "park." We've
seen these kinds of filler elements in various overly-wide pedestrian
"street" situations, like this:
22, 2015: Narrow Streets for People 3: A Shopping Center Example
This is a shopping center, the Woodbury Common development north of New
York. This is really supposed to be a "street," but it was made much
too wide for its purpose, so the "landscape architects" started to add
all kinds of filler elements to break up the barren expanse of
pavement. This is not a park. For one thing, there is no clear
boundary. The park-ish part just mushes into the street-ish part.
Here's another example of failure, in a U.S. shopping center. We have a
nice large area, which certainly could be made into a park. But, it is
not a park at present. It is not quite a street, and not quite a
square, either. It is a strange space with a bunch of weird filler
elements, whose purpose is unclear. We can be quite sure that this
space does not have a name that includes the word "park." There is no
clear boundary here,
where there might be a "park" or a "square" or a "street." It is just a
mush of landscape filler.
March 15, 2015: Narrow Streets for People 2: Subtleties of Street Width
So, not like that. Just Make A Park, with a name that includes the word
"park." Hire a Park Designer to help you.
While we have these actually quite large and valuable areas wasted on a
jumble of pointless filler elements, totally wasting our opportunity to
make a nice Park For People, you can make a genuine park out of a quite
Here is Chestnut Park, Philadelphia. Note that it has a name. The name
includes the word "park."
It is very small. But, if I were to claim this is NOT a park, you would
think I am nuts. Obviously, it is a park, even though it is perhaps two
thousand square feet in size. It is maybe one-hundredth the size
of the "promenade" at Gubei Gold Street, but this is a park, and that
is not. It even got a writeup in Landscape Architecture Magazine:
The entrance to Chestnut Park. It has a clear boundary. You know
exactly when you are in the park, and when you are not. Also, note that
it is enclosed. We do not have Arterial roadways on all sides. This
adds a lot to the feeling of "refuge," a protected space For People.
This is especially important for a small park.
Also in Philadelphia, the Girard Fountain Park. The size is about 610
square meters, or 0.15 acre. It has its own page at Wikipedia. A fine
place for an event.
I seem to have more to say about this topic than I thought. Let's
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