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Building a Park November 15, 2009

Posted by gordonwatts in life, Seattle.

Hi. My name is Gordon, and I’m 43 years old, and I’ve never been to a town meeting. I guess my kid finally made me see the light of day, admit I had a problem, and attend.

Ok, I know, not such a big deal. I suspect that most people haven’t been to town meetings. I don’t mean the political things where you talk to a candidate – rather I mean the town meetings where very local issues are discussed – like safety, zoning, and… parks.

Seattle has allocated almost 3 million bucks to turn a street into a park. The idea is to shrink the 2-lane street down to one late, and use the reclaimed space for a “strip-park”. This will be right around the corner from my house and run 5 blocks. This is a very cool idea – there is nothing like this around my house. I regularly take my kid down to the Sculpture Park to play – and that is a good distance. If they make it possible for kids to hang out in this park, well, that should be a real improvement. The idea reminds me of things they try to do in Europe – small cities have lots of small parks littered about. J-mo and I and Paula got a lot of use out of them.

But the real reason I went was safety. There is one section of the street that is prone to drug deals. On it there used to be a park. It totally failed and was taken over by drug dealers, their clients, and homeless who, for whatever reason, didn’t want to take advantage of the local housing opportunities. The result was that no one that lived in that area used it.

They re-made that park into a dog park. I’m not sure why, but it works. Maybe it is there are people. Maybe that there are so many dogs running around it all the time. Whatever – the drug dealers have all been pushed out onto the street. A pain for pedestrians, but their numbers are smaller. So – if they do this park right, they will hopefully reduce their numbers even further.

And if the park is done right, perhaps it will attract more people to the area – which will make it even more safe. Certainly, if it becomes a destination for folks…

The town meeting was something else. It was clear that the overriding concern was safety. Almost everyone had a comment about it. And the meeting facilitator had a lot of trouble getting people to talk about the design of the park. Lots of comments along the lines of “No Park Benches!”, with the sub-text – that is where the homeless & drug dealers will hang out. Ugh. If the park is designed from that point of view then it will definitely not be enjoyable. Sort of the way Fermilab went over-board and put in Kerberos for their security making it one of the most difficult labs to interact with.

Even though I went to talk about security, I ended up making only design comments. They had a mouth-full… And… well, I felt a little sorry for them. Also, and please don’t take me wrong, this is an urban environment – it seemed like some people wanted an environment much like the idyllic suburbs. Something I don’t think is possible (nor totally desirable – after all, there is a reason to live in an urban environment). And a park with no-place to sit? 😦

Something else, more related to the themes of this blog, occurred to me as I sat listening. There have got to be other cities that have done things similarly – and some must have succeeded and others failed. Have there been studies of what works and what doesn’t work in a situation like this? While it isn’t all science, I bet there is some useful studies that could be done to provide guidance.

My favorite comment at the meeting was the cigarette butt one. You can’t smoke in bars in Seattle. And bars aren’t allowed to put cigarette butt trashcans outside the bar. A community group said they picked up 4 trash bags worth of butts over a one block area of one of the popular bar streets. 4 trash bags!!!! Of butts! Ohhh, if I were only John Stewart, I’d feel a great riff coming on…