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What Makes a Great Park Space?

by Kevin F. on October 16, 2014

With the weather turning cooler, one of my favorite things to do is spend an autumn afternoon in a park.  There’s nothing better on a cool fall day than being outside, feeling a little closer to nature, and enjoying the day.  This recently got me thinking:  Why do some parks succeed as lively public spaces while others completely fail?  We’ve all been to a park that is bustling with activity and full of life.  Seeing all of the people out enjoying themselves and taking in the day is a great thing.  There is a definite energy there.  A feeling that makes you want to stay and enjoy the surroundings.  But why is this?  What about the space makes us feel this way?
In recent years, parks have grown in the public consciousness.  People realize they are an important part of any thriving community.  As more communities are seeking to create great parks, it only seems logical that the quality of our parks will improve.  With that in mind, what makes some parks stand out from all the rest?  As we all know every community has different needs, every site is different, and every project has its own unique details.  However, the parks that are truly successful tend to share certain elements that at least help to explain their success.  These are the parks we all want to create or simply spent time in.  These are the parks that are used almost constantly; the ones that help to define and give an identity to their area.
Here are a few qualities that I think are important in a great park:
Must be accessible and available to its users
A park is no good if it’s not accessible by multiple means of transportation.  Some of the most successful parks are urban parks that have transit access near it.  But no matter where the parks exists, if you cannot, walk, bike, run, or drive to it, it’s probably not going to be successful.  When designing a park (or choosing a site location for one) think about the access.  Is there access in place? Can it be developed as part of the project?  Is it feasible to create access?  It’s also important to remember that many of the users are there to walk, bike, run, skateboard, etc.  So, if the park cannot be accessed by these means, it limits the types of users that will be present.
Must have a variety of amenities and attractions for different users
There are so many different activities that can happen in a park.  Often times the activities are determined by its location within a community or geographic location.  Assume people of all ages will be using this amenity.  Some examples may be a playground, an amphitheater, a fountain, or simply a quiet garden space to reflect and spend some quiet time.  Everyone will want to use the park in a different way, so the more options they have the better.
Need to create an identity for the park
Any memorable space has an identity or an image.  This is essential in how we perceive the environment around us.  Parks are no different.  Whether it’s a bustling urban park or a quiet suburban retreat, there is an identity that we associated with every space.  Whatever your parks identity, it must be visible to the user and reinforced throughout the design.
The space must be flexible to different uses
Flexibility is another important factor that must be considered.  Some spaces within a park are not really flexible:  For example a playground or an interactive fountain are pretty much the same all the time.  However, it is important to incorporate flexibility into the park.  A simple large open space is an example.  This space could be used for concerts or large gatherings at times, but also for simple quiet reflection or a place to run and play at other times.  Having multiple “flex” spaces can allow for a great deal of adaptability in the park.
It must attract people during different seasons
Everybody loves to go to the park on a nice spring or summer day, but what about other times of the year?  Attractions for different seasons can help to make a park the center of activity throughout the year.  For example, a fountain that doubles as an ice skating rink in the winter.  What about a hill that can be used for sledding when it snows.  Even something as simple as mature trees or plant material that people like to view as the foliage changes in the fall can be a big attraction.
Must consider the layers or zones within the park
Many parks, especially those in urban locations have multiple layers or zones within the park itself.  A busy park in the middle of downtown would likely have an edge that reflects the street; lots of people, movement and activity.  But it’s also important to have an “inner” or “quiet” zone within the park with less activity where people can go to be alone or reflect.
Must be usable for all ages
This one may seem obvious, but to be successful a park must have a diversity of ages that it appeals to.  There should be activities for children, as well as adults.
Next time you’re spending some quality time with nature in your favorite park.  Take a few minutes to look around.  See what it is you like or what makes it special to you.  You may just find a good source of inspiration for your next great design.
Tagged parks, public, space