Chasing Pavement: Why Cities Are Big on Pocket Parks

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JoAnn Greco

Chestnut Park, Philadelphia

With open space so dear, U.S. cities are clamoring to repurpose empty lots or irregular pieces of land into publicly-accessible recreation spots known as pocket parks. So called because they fit into small areas, no one expects to find, say, an ultimate Frisbee game going on in a pocket park. But it seems reasonable to assume that a space intended to provide relief to urban dwellers would contain some greenery. Instead, recently unveiled projects tend to be concrete-laden, chair-and-table affairs that are certainly expanding, if not challenging, our definition of a park.

"Some people would say, there's no trees, how could it be a park?," says Peter Harnik, director of the nonprofit Trust for Public Land's Center for City Park Excellence. "We are confined by our narrow vocabulary."

In San Francisco, the Pavement to Parks program has produced such quizzical results as Naples Green, where, despite the name, the overriding color tones are brown and gray. (A bunch of woodchips, crushed rock and granite pathways do not a Green make.) "I do not regard the program as being successful in providing actual park space," says Meredith Thomas of San Francisco's Neighborhood Parks Council. "Rather, I think it has been modestly successful in providing public gathering spots."

Critics maintain that city residents already have plenty of pavement to gather upon. That's why parks departments should be fostering "a richer connection to the non-human world," Thomas says. "Actual parks function as an urban oasis, a place to disconnect from concrete and plug into grass and trees."

Here's a look at some of the latest pocket parks and how close they come to accomplishing those goals. See pictures above.

Chestnut Park, Philadelphia

The best of the lot, with a high green-to-gray ratio. If you squint, you just might be able to convince yourself that you're not in a city.

Havenhurst Park, West Hollywood, Calif.

Having some open space to go with new development is great in theory, but adding more concrete and metal sculptures isn't exactly bucolic.

Blue Triangle Park, Indianapolis

Give this pocket park credit for some real trees and shrubs, but there's not much opportunity to experience them from the plastic lawn chairs tossed into the no-parking zones.

Parkman Triangle, Los Angeles

A smattering of dirt might lead to an encounter with an insect, but Mexican feather grass, succulents and rock don't allow for much reclining (although we appreciate the low-impact on water use).