Passing Time in Urban Parks

The picture above is an aerial view of Volkspark Friedrichshain in Berlin, Germany. I once stumbled upon this place while wandering the city. I remember being delighted by all the winding trails and secret meadows I found there. There were placid little duck ponds hidden away from the main paths, trysting places for the teenagers to fool around in, occasional statues and fountains. I went on a Sunday, so the park was teaming with people. Berliners seem to use the park for afternoon jogs and walking their dogs. Sometimes you’d see a pairs kicking a soccer ball around or playing Frisbee. The most common activity was just laying in the sun, not for the sake of getting a tan—the Northern European sun is too feeble for that and almost everyone was clothed anyway—but just to be outside, among people. I recall thinking that this park seemed very foreign to me, and that they way people were using the space felt very novel. It is unusual to find parks like Friedrichshain in the United States, with manicured landscapes made to resemble an idealized version of nature. If Americans wish to visit the wild, we get into our cars and drive there. Cities I the United States do tend to have little parks where people can have cook outs on the weekends and walk their dogs on grass to get them to shit. These parks are pretty often under maintained and they aren’t particularly well planned either. They always seem to open and exposed, never enough trees and usually no bushes or interesting flora. I’ve always found that American parks are designed to accommodate a specific set of prescribed activities. They tend not to be places to lay around an loiter. When one goes to a park in the United States, it is usually to play sports, or ride around in a paddleboat, or do something that you wouldn’t otherwise be able to do in your own backyard.


This next picture is of the north section of Humboldt Park on Chicago’s west side. With its lagoon and spacious grounds, it could be a very beautiful and bucolic place in the middle of a dense, big city neighborhood. Its designers could have planted dense forests, and they could have carved labyrinthine paths into them like with Friedrichshain. Of course, because of the suspicion everyone in Chicago has for one another and the general anxiety about petty crime, the park is left exposed and only lightly wooded so that it can be easily surveilled. For some reason, all of the interesting spots around the lagoon have been plowed over and made into ball fields. I count seven baseball diamonds and five more diamonds for softball. There is also some sort of ballpark on the left for competitive league play. Continuing to add to the inventory, there are four different playgrounds, four tennis courts, a soccer field, a boathouse, two sand volleyball courts, and the stocking shaped pit in the upper left I believe is an ice skating rink. This is not a place where people go to simply sit and relax. People convene here to play sports. They are keeping busy attending to the performance of an activities. The only people I’ve ever seen lying down in Humboldt Park are the homeless men who live there.

Crowd-made Walkways

I took the photo above at Commons Park in downtown Denver. Years ago, this space was a rail yard. More recently it was converted to an open space park with handsome landscaping and an irrigated grass lawn. This particular part of the park has a nice, wide-open space with paved sidewalks circling the parameter. It seems the sidewalks were designed to form a circuit that people could walk on their lunch hour. As you can see, most people choose to cut through the open field than to walk around it on the sidewalks, so much so that they’ve actually worn trench into the earth that runs from one entrance to the other. The parks people responsible for maintaining the place must have decided that foot traffic was beginning to damage the grounds because they’ve posted a sign reading “PLEASE USE SIDEWALK.” Of course this has succeeded in nothing more than splitting the path at its one side. The allure of the more direct route just proves too tantalizing for people.

Obviously the circuitous sidewalks in Commons Park were a miscalculation on the part of the architects who designed this space. People walk through this park to get to work. It’s the one of the only ways you can enter the downtown area by foot from the Highlands neighborhood. Certainly there are plenty of people who visit the park to relax and will stroll from walk to walk, as they were meant to do. But there are also thousands of people who are just trying to pass through the area as quickly as possible. The designers forgot to account for this prime use scenario of maximum expedience..

It’s a shame that you don’t get to find out how people are going to use a park until it’s already built. You can’t blame the architects for failing to account for every individual demand placed on the park by its visitors. But now that the path has been trodden and the new route an emergent reality, I think you can begin to fault the city for insisting that the plan continue to be followed rather than accommodating the wisdom of the crowd when it turns in another direction. There’s really no good reason not to install paving stones into the footpath and maintain it as an alternative path. Either the grounds people responsible for Commons Park are too thick to reinterpret the space, or they are stubborn and refuse to adjust their original plan. A better idea would have been to leave the whole place unpaved for a year and then observe how the foot traffic distributes itself across the landscape. That’s actually how public ways were planned before the age of mechanized transportation and our modern predilection for pavement. When Dartmouth College first opened in the late 18th century, the school did nothing at first to demarcate paths from one building to another. When winter came, the school gardener marked the paths students tracked in the snow as they went back and forth to classes. Then the following spring, he cut trails from the tracks. Consequently, Dartmouth today has a terrific snarl of paths and walkways. While the arrangement may not appear symmetrical, it has plenty of practical purpose.