How does time and light affect our urban parks?
During the day, Spokane, Washington’s Riverfront Park is filled with children and their parents on the giant “Radio Flyer” statue/playground equipment piece, cyclists and runners on the paved paths, elderly folks watching the geese in the Spokane River which runs through the middle of the park, teens playing sports in the open fields, and a plethora of curious tourists.
However, after sunset, the park attracts a multitude of teen groups of two to eight individuals each. Some stroll and chat about the movie they just saw together at the theater across the street, some show each other skateboard tricks, and some simply loiter, as teens tend to do in downtown areas after dark.
Typically, parks in America “close” for all practical purposes at sunset. However, this informal closing time finds fluidity through the seasons and rarely detracts headstrong visitors.
This population shift in Riverfront Park, and hundreds of thousands of parks across the world, is directly related to time and the presence of light. But this crucial presence of light is not limited to just natural light. Mindfully placed artificial lights can welcome visitors to parks after dark as well, as they have in NYC. You’ll notice in the article’s photo that the walkway is well lit in NYC, while the entire park is eerily dark in Spokane (below).
These photos were taken in precisely the same place just 2 hours within each other. The park went from vibrant to dismal as soon as natural light diminished and there was no artificial light to support the visitors’ safety.
Perceived safety is just as important as factual safety, as oftentimes perceptions and opinions are all a tourist or new resident has to rely upon when choosing to take the long way around a park, or to simply shortcut through.
The U.S. Department of Defense’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services has created a fantastic guide for identifying, improving, and managing both dilapidated and thriving urban parks. A free PDF document, “Dealing With Crime and Disorder in Urban Parks” by Jim Hilborn defines the signs of a perceivably safe park in this short list:
- Parents take children there;
- Females go there as often as males;
- Elderly people regularly visit the park;
- Workers have lunch or take breaks there.
Hilborn suggests these as signs that a park is considered risky:
- People go through the park as quickly as possible;
- Drunken people hang out there;
- Young males dominate the setting;
- It is littered with syringes and beer bottles;
- Younger children don’t play there.
Heavily reminiscent of Jane Jacob’s thoughts on urban parks in her widely cherished book, “The Life and Death of Great American Cities,” Hilborn describes the importance of who he calls, “natural guardians:”
"Natural guardians can help to ensure park safety. These guardians are just ordinary citizens going about their daily routines in the park. A guardian is someone whose presence serves as a reminder to potential offenders that someone is noticing."
At times, the power of anonymity can turn ugly when a city-dweller witnesses something illegal or immoral taking place without interfering. Be it at a park, bus stop, or grocery store - we should all be looking out for one another.
Do you agree with the attributes Mr. Hilborn suggested? In what ways does your nearest park excel or fall behind?
Credits: Data linked to sources. Photographs taken by Aascot Holt in Riverfront Park, downtown Spokane, Washington, USA.