One of the most amazing things I witnessed in my tour of New York City parks was that there were no isolated spaces of green or concrete. They were no islands in the sense of being separate from the rest of the city. Prior to this educational tour, I thought of parks as places unto themselves that people go to for recreation or rest.
The parks I saw were integrated with their neighborhoods, creating definitive spaces—spaces that are inextricably linked to streets or to greenways that give the park a greater purpose.
An example of this concept is Union Square, one of NYC’s oldest public places, known primarily for having the first statue of George Washington on its grounds. Over several decades, Union Square deteriorated into an unsafe place for citizens. Drug dealers and other assorted criminals reigned.
The neighborhood reached a tipping point of frustration and decided to take action. People began with a very simple idea: a Farmer’s Market. Now in its third decade, the three-day-a-week market attracts hundreds of people to purchase products, many grown in upstate New York. The relationship between urban center and farmland is a healthy one. Many neighbors use the Farmer’s Market as their primary food store.
Union Square also formed a special business improvement district (BID) to fund its activities, which included cleaning up the park and bringing in additional features. They created a steady flow of people and drove out the undesirable elements in the process. Residents were pleased, as was the local business community. Crowds spilled over into adjacent businesses. Soon, a few restaurants sprang up as a result of the convenient access to high-quality fresh produce.
Looking at St. James Park here in San Jose, many people forget that it is not simply a matter of cleaning out undesirable elements to make everything alright. St. James Park should be seen as an integral part of the neighborhood, a place where residents have reason to regularly visit the park, walk it, play and relax in it. The park should also serve as a place where people who work nearby can go to eat lunch or socialize with friends.
As part of a larger plan for integration, having food within the park, even a small café, would do a lot to attract people daily. We can also create other reasons to visit this spacious regularly.
Entertainment, as part of a large venue such as Levitt Pavilion, or a smaller stage for lunchtime concerts and poetry readings can work. Events don’t need to draw thousands of people to be of value.
Activating the park will make it an integral part of people’s lives. This will drive out undesirable elements and make the park safer. It might be good to have a Farmer’ Market there, too.