We were in Bryant Park, sitting at a table that the man had moved into the morning sun. We were drinking coffee, chatting and watching a group of kids play some stick game (Google later told me it was Kubb), when I started to notice it. We went on to spend much of the day walking around Manhattan, stopping at so many parks that it became obvious.
Urban public spaces, specifically parks, are something Ottawa could do better. We like to think we have it mastered with all our green space and close proximity to Gatineau Park, but as nice as these spaces are, I’m not so sure they create the kind of landscape that makes people want to live downtown.
This was our first post-child trip to New York and so we spent much time just walking around, sitting and talking about how our surroundings compared to Ottawa from the perspective of city-dwelling parents. We asked ourselves, what was something that stood out as making Manhattan family-friendly?
There were a couple things, and a couple that made it not so kid-friendly, but we kept coming back to the parks and how some of them seemed to work for everyone.
Lately, I’ve been lauding our new neighbourhood park, but it occurred to me that as fun as it is for our daughter, it’s not a place I’m going to hang out at with a group of kid-free girlfriends. Many Ottawa parks have limited seating and brightly coloured and plastic-looking play structures – hardly inviting to someone over the age of 14. Even our parks without playgrounds are often mostly just grass and benches – a little boring kids and adults.
We tend to create separate and distinct kid spaces rather than incorporate everyone into our public spaces. Heck, some of our urban parks are empty! I have yet to see anyone in that temporary park at Rideau and Charlotte.
However, many of the parks we visited in NYC were filled with people of all ages – playing, chatting, drinking coffee, sharing a meal, saying hello, meeting up, laughing, crying. We walked through Washington Square Park after dinner and it had an energy that was so differing from any park here. It wasn’t just because there were more people and more tourists…
It was because these parks were not just places to visit but places to LIVE!
An urban parks needs to be an extension of the home. It needs to be more than a park. It needs to be a living room, dining room, playroom and even a quiet bay window.
We saw parks with tables and chairs (not just benches and picnic tables) that could be moved around, something I’ve always appreciated. Many play structures were made of wood, iron and more muted colours, which meant they blended nicely into the landscape, creating an almost secret hideaway for kids and a space that didn’t make adults feel like they’re hanging out in Peewee’s Playhouse. Some had spaces for lawn and sidewalk games, others had public art (some of which a little person could climb, hide under or shoot water from). There were lots of ledges and stairways to sit, balance and jump on; gardens and fountains to explore; and wide pathways for bikes and scooters. There were water fountains and nearby food vendors…
There were different areas and equipment within a park depending on whether you’re young or old, alone or with friends, craving noise or quiet, sun or shade. If you needed a snack or a drink, they were nearby. There was something for everyone.
My vacation observations are nothing new. Many of the same thoughts were laid out more than 30 years ago by urbanist William H. Whyte. He studied how people behave in cities and talked about the importance of location (near a busy street), movable chairs (here’s a video clip of his observations), sun and wind, trees, food, water and triangulation when it comes to public spaces. In fact, Bryant Park was redesigned in 1988 with Whyte’s help.
But let’s not kid ourselves; Ottawa isn’t NYC. We have about 1/10 of the population and more than double the space. Furthermore, many NYC parks receive private contributions and there is definitely serious inequity amongst neighbourhoods. That being said – Sparks Street take note – what if Ottawa designed parks (and public spaces in general) by taking a few more cues from Whyte and one of North America’s largest cities?
It wouldn’t be too hard…We could start by putting out some tables and chairs during the day…ones that could be moved into the morning sun!
Better public spaces would mean more people envisioning downtown as more than just a place to come for work and sometimes dinner, but as a place to call home and raise a family.
Thoughts? What do you want to see in an urban park?
P.S. A couple interesting and related reads from spacing.ca…