As part of my work for San Jose Parks Foundation, I spend time with neighborhood associations and community groups discussing San Jose Parks and Trails. A great deal of energy and angst is devoted to discussion of personal safety and security for people in parks and on trails. It is a very important issue and one that is of concern to citizens everywhere and to those of us who promote, protect and advocate on behalf of parks and trails.
My basic view is that an unkempt park is one that will eventually dissuade people from using it. Untrimmed grass, overgrown brush and garbage lying on the ground are clear signs that a park or trail is neglected. People react to these sometimes subtle signs and begin to avoid using the park or trail in question.
To be more specific not all people avoid these ragged-looking parks and trails. Healthy males, especially athletes, will sometimes continue to use these public assets, but will spend as little time as needed. Women, families and kids will cease to frequent these places. Therein lies the real problem. Once a park or trail is abandoned by families and children, it begins to become marginalized and eventually can become dangerous.
Initially, the problem is one of keeping the park or trail looking clean, but eventually such spaces take on a different character. Homeless people will sometimes take over a space, knowing they will not be disturbed. Eventually—and this is the real danger—abandoned parks become havens for criminals. It is a cycle that has been documented throughout the United States.
Many people think the answer is law enforcement. This is an answer for some criminal behavior, but there are not enough police anywhere to keep criminals out of abandoned, unused parks and trails. The answer is actually quite simple. A successful public space is one that is inhabited comfortably by children and families. Drug dealers, low-level criminals and people who hide in the shadows cannot tolerate a space where there are normal citizens enjoying life, whether sitting on benches reading books, tossing a Frisbee, kicking a ball or just taking a leisurely walk.
I call it the stroller effect. I learned this many years ago as an event producer. People’s behavior at festivals and others large events is heavily influenced by the presence of families. Remove kids and parents and the incidence of fighting and loud obnoxious behavior increases, especially if alcohol is available.
This is why it is vital to the overall safety of citizens in parks and on trails that we keep our parks and trails clean. We also need to create reasons for families to use them. This means including playground equipment, programming family-friendly activities and entertainment. The atmosphere at St. James Park this Summer has been a prime example of this principle.
Yoga has not only brought peace to its practitioners, it has calmed the whole park. Happy Hollow animals, Jazz, drumming, games and food trucks have brought kids and families into the park and changed it. I look forward to more of this.