Right-Size your City Spaces to Maximize Momentary Respite

Travelling in South-East Asia as a visitor on foot with no formal roots, the large urban environments here can be at times unbearable if not undignified. Asia is not kind to those on foot, the sidewalk space typically reserved for those on foot like in other countries often faces stiff competition from motor vehicles looking for parking or for shortcuts around the throngs of traffic. In other times sidewalk space is often competing with the various street vendors. Add in the excessive noises, heat, and smells that you often come across, a few hours of this and a break from it all is often required.

Often when you look at a map for a place to get away from it for a second, you will often find there are only one or two large public spaces very far away. You are left with two choices, either pay up to get a seat inside a restaurant or walk 30 minutes to an hour to get to a park. Neither are favourable nor fair, on the one hand the city is saying they only care about your well-being if you have money to spend. On the other hand large public spaces are not fairly located or distributed in the city, they require concerted efforts to organize and large funds to build and maintain.

Map of Bangkok (Parks indicated in green)

Map of Bangkok (Public Spaces indicated in green)

Large public spaces are not a symptom reserved only for South-East Asia, this is a a problem synonymous with cities  across the world. While some larger parks or plazas are needed to afford the amenities that smaller spaces can’t accommodate like sports or festivals, they fail to spread the pleasures and benefits that public spaces can offer fairly.

The thinking behind public spaces is often misguided, I think most mayors and city planners think that people will spend hours in a park. People may do this from time to time with an organized BBQ or picnic with friends and families. This is all fine when we have the time to spare, but what about when we are in the hustle and bustle or daily 9-5 life? All we need is a momentary respite from daily life, a few minutes to rest and recharge your energy levels while you eat your lunch. I was recently reading Jeff Speck’s Walkable City where he put it nicely that parks are boring, a few minutes are enough for most people. Jane Jacob also has a lot to say about public spaces, mainly that they should be small and surrounded by a diversity of useful daily conveniences. 

So what is a solution?

I am currently reading Jamie Lerner’s Urban Acupuncture where he says something along the lines that large spaces make you feel like no one owns then, whereas small spaces make you feel like only you own them. The key word is small. Similar to moveable chairs, small public spaces allow you to be in the space and make it feel exactly perfect. They do not become overwhelmed with too many people, it is easy to control the environment. Small spaces also cost very little as they can be fit in the various left over space across cities and avoids the costs of acquiring land like large parks need. Often all you need is a place that offers shade, moveable chairs and tables and a view of the public life, it is very easy and low cost.

I was recently in New York City where my wife and I retreated to the Paley Park for a quick break. Paley park is the very definition of a great small space. It has moveable chairs and tables, a security guard and a refreshing waterfall at the end. Paley park offers a brief respite from Midtown New York City.

New Edmonton Park

New Edmonton Park

My hometown Edmonton has been having the right discussion regarding urban spaces. The discussion around these spaces is usually being initiated by the business improvement associations, such as the new downtown 105 St park/plaza. A survey was also circulated to revitalize another space on 124 St which used to be a former streetcar bay. In both cases the spaces are small and yet the discussion is resolving around maximizing their activities with some sort of cafe vendor anchor, public seating, urban gardening plots, dog parks and interesting environments.

Of course in the process of writing this, Asia has proven me wrong. They do know how to do small spaces correctly, as shown by the Chiang Mai examples above. This space in particular reminds me of strip malls back home, what an easy solution to such an eyesore. Move the vehicular parking to the rear to maintain access for driving while creating a local community space anchored by the existing businesses.

If space is in short supply, parklets are also another great way to bring small spaces to where the people are. Street parking is often provided in such abundance that removing a space or two per block won’t have any effect. For a few thousand or hundred dollars we can provide a small space of respite within minutes of walking and without the need to spend money, this is true equity. Vancouver has seen a boon in parklets in the last few years. Parklets are great because they add space right where the action is, at the often overcrowded sidewalks. 

If funding is limited this can still be done, the key is to think lighter, quicker, and cheaper, the New York Times Square conversion started off with Costco recliners. To ensure the success of these spaces start with a non-permanent treatment, use moveable chairs, tables, landscaping and barriers. Once it has been around for at least a year and you have an idea how people are using the space, then you can start making things permanent with higher quality materials such as concrete, water features etc. The worst thing we can do is to add in permanent changes that don’t suit the way people interpret or use the space. To start off all you really need is a few chairs and tables along with some shade, plants and paint. If the engineering codes say that these do not meet safety standards, then your city need new safety standards. 

City of Edmonton Green Shack for Summer Children Playground Equipment (Image Source: City of Edmonton)

City of Edmonton Green Shack for Summer Children Playground Equipment (Image Source: City of Edmonton)

You can use “green shack” similar to those Edmonton uses for the temporary summer sports equipment for children. These shacks or sheds can be a temporary and light way to store the chairs and tables overnight to avoid theft. You can hire someone, or find someone in the community willing to volunteer their time to bring them out and put them away every day. You can start with just one day a week on the weekend, and eventually expand  it into the rest of the week. Use large, heavy planters to liven up the space quickly and cheaply but attractively with greenery and shade. Like New York use strong adhesives or paint to add decorative surface detailings, and when you get the funding make these details permanent.  Let’s think about achieving the results we want to have but with the lighter, quicker and cheaper mind set. Small parks are one way to do this. The results can be spectacular with increased livileness and safety since more people are staying in the public space adding eyes on the street.

Bryant Park, New York

Bryant Park, New York

This is not to say that large parks are bad, when done right they can be a truly great addition to a city. For example Bryant Park, Washington Square, Madison Square park in New York City are all great examples of large urban parks. Part of the reason these are all great is because they follow the Project for Public Spaces rule of 10 activities. However for the case with Bryant Park it is subsidivided into different “zones”. You have a zone for games, a carousel, various cafes, mini libraries and it is flanked by the New York Public Library. Essentially Bryant Park is a large park that has been broken down into many smaller parks. However, that being said the major benefits for small spaces is their adaptability, affordability and ability to bring the small moments of respite to more people.

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