By Larry Houstoun

America has produced a few signature urban parks of gargantuan dimensions: Washington, D.C.’s Rock Creek, Brooklyn, New York’s Prospect, and Chicago, Illinois’s Grant parks are notable examples.

In the past century, America’s foremost urban designer Daniel Burnham challenged Americans to think big because he believed only such projects have “the magic to stir men’s minds.” The products of such planning offered a taste of the countryside into harshly crowded industrial cities, places largely devoid of natural amenities.

Local governments and their populations have changed markedly in recent decades. Whole neighborhoods have been newly occupied with people seeking diversity in their living experiences, including convenient places for recreation, relaxation, and entertainment. Burnham’s admonition, like many urban outdoor facilities, is obsolete.

Today, many small parks better serve urban populations than a few very large ones. Small parks generally fit into the urban fabric without displacement. They are typically accessible on foot or by bike. Arranging for neighborhood sponsors and volunteer cleanups are easier where there is widespread use by neighborhood residents producing a sense of collective ownership.

Small parks, because of their size, offer easy access by residents, workers, and visitors. This urban generation wants sites to be attractive, useful, and nearby.

New York City decades ago probably created the model of what is often called a “vest pocket” park: Paley Park in midtown Manhattan has all the essential features—fountains, places to people watch, onsite food, and good maintenance. Paley serves as the relaxation site for one of the densest concentrations of people in North America.


Planning Objectives

Here are what the objectives should include in planning new or renovated small parks:


1. Identify population concentrations without usable urban space within 10-minute walks.  

2. Realize that potential recreation land should not be used for vehicular parking.

3. Realize that every local government should have an up-to-date outdoor recreation plan, recognizing changes in demographics and recreation preferences.

4.  Set realistic goals for park creation and operating costs; measure changing conditions.

5.  Involve resident advocates and like-minded organizations in planning and financing.


New Resources

An important new resource for planning, managing, and financing urban open space development and operations consists of business improvement districts (BIDs). These self-financing entities are best known for sidewalk cleaning and programs to strengthen downtown economies. There are more than 1,500 in the United States and Canada, generally operating as nonprofit corporations but with local government involvement.

BIDs, once largely engaged in helping overcome fear, are increasingly engaged in new activities, adding beautification and fund to their agendas. BIDs make public spaces more appealing to more people.

Two Philadelphia BIDs and another nonprofit, for example, have produced almost a dozen small parks there, using previously ignored urban space for recreation. With seating and landscaping, these new facilities add greatly to the appearance and convenience of their commercial centers.

Each new facility is unique. Some are tiny slivers (“parklets”) where streets intersect on angles, capturing a half acre of leisure space where there had been nothing before but concrete and parked cars. Another, perhaps two acres in size, provides grassy space above converging transit lines.All meet the first test of popular urban open space; they are convenient to use because each is in the midst of concentrated populations.

BIDs bring these resources to the table:


  • Shared financing for various projects to improve the appearance and utility of public open space.
  • Private sector participation in planning and management.
  • Crews to keep the public domain clean and attractive.


A Look at Some Small Parks

Because there is no standard off-the-shelf definition of small parks and plazas, for the purposes of this article, they:


1. Fit into the existing urban fabric without demolition.

2. Exist near concentrations of residents, shoppers, and employees.

3. Improve real estate values of nearby land.


Here are examples produced by two Philadelphia BIDS—Center City District and University City District, plus the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (PAFA).


1. Parklets. University City District has created three of these small parks, substituting landscaping, seating, and rest spots where cars once parked. While small, typically less than half an acre, these facilities vastly improve area appearance and bring park space closer to users.

2. Dilworth Plaza. The largest BID-sponsored park, a totally redesigned Dilworth Plaza, is now scheduled for completion in 2013. It is a two-acre traditional park with lots of grass and room for celebrations and special events. Next to city hall and converging transit lines, it will replace open space defined there almost entirely by large granite pavers. In its new form, skating will be available during winter months. Center City District is the sponsor.

3. Collins Park. Inspired by Paley Park, this small park improves pedestrian routes and encourages more walking in the shopping district. This half-acre facility was restored and enhanced the by Center City District, adding food for the first time.

4. Café Cret. At one acre, Philadelphia’s Café Cret draws crowds to a new and popular eating place in an area that had long been pedestrian free. Center City District is the BID sponsor.

5. Sister Cities Park. This vacant and little used “park” space has been transformed into weekend play space with as many as 40 children at supervised play. Special events include family yoga, soccer shots, art in the park, story art, kids’ concerts, fountains, and sailboats on the pond. Other attractions are sponsored by nearby institutions, including the Academy of Natural Sciences and the Franklin Institute. It is a Center City District project.

6. Porch. Those favoring sunbathing, reading, or studying in a comfortable place can visit the reconstructed three-fourths acre “Porch,” formerly a parking area next to Thirtieth Street Station. This has become a pedestrian “facility” offering food, tables and chairs, 38 trees, entertainment, a farmers’ market, mini golf, and concerts. Thirtieth Street Station parking spaces had been transformed by al fresco lunches and snackers. The Porch is a University City District BID project.

7. Race Street Pier. A former working pier on the Delaware River waterfront, the Race Street Pier has been redesigned with entertainment, picnic space, trees, and dramatic views of the river and its traffic. Part of the pier structure itself has been opened, revealing the type of structure formerly required to load and unload ships.

8. Lenfest Plaza. This area occupies a section of a normal street, linking two buildings, part of the Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts (PAFA). A large sculpture dominates the plaza that links two buildings of PAFA.


Common Features

The Philadelphia projects, regardless of their size, reflect contemporary park design—in other words, most have places to eat, including sunny and shady spots with tables and seating and onsite food. They are centrally located and enhance pedestrian movement. They are attractively landscaped and reliably maintained. Considerable imagination was applied to selecting new uses for old urban space.

But there are other features that deserve attention and possible replication elsewhere. These new parks are often constructed on land previously used for parking or other purposes no longer needed. The Porch next to Thirtieth Street Station is one such example; another is Lenfest Plaza that links two museum buildings, replacing a lightly used street.

BIDs serve these projects in important ways, including financing, programming, and organizing support from local governments, foundations, and other nonprofit organizations. The roles of other participants may be as complex as constructing Dilworth Plaza, which had to be coordinated with two active subway lines and shutting down one of the city’s heaviest used traffic lanes.

These small parks improve property values, add new urban destinations for pedestrians, and put more people on city sidewalks. Each one contributes significantly to urban beautification, and several parklets replace blighting conditions. They add interest to the streetscape and convenience for pedestrians. Most important, they build popularity among users.



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