The Stroller Effect: Safety in Parks and Trails

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.

SFMimeTroupe.St.James

A mime troupe entertains a crowd at St. James Park.

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.

James P. Reber is the executive director of San Jose Parks Foundation, a veteran nonprofit entrepreneur and experienced special event planner and producer. He can be reached at [email protected] or 408.893.PARK.

11 Comments

  1. > I call it the stroller effect. …. People’s behavior at festivals and others large events is heavily influenced by the presence of families.

    Great idea!

    Why not hire mom’s with strolllers to drive around problem parks.

    It will save on cops AND ultimately reduce the city’s long term pension expense.

    Also, make the medical marijuana sellers hire stroller moms to patrol their premises and keep the pot head riff raff in check.

    Instruct the stroller moms on how to put a length of chain in their diaper bags which they can use to swing at the disorderly.

  2. James doesn’t visit San Jose’s parks much… The homeless have plenty of strollers! A few have kids in them, but most are used to transport their belongings and stolen goods to and fro.

    The reality is that the parks used for venues are only trash and bum-free because 2 days before, armies of workers come in and fence it off then clean up. The criminal element and squatters wait in the periphery and re-invade within hours of the event leaving.

    James is a well paid government executive whose self-empowering missives are printed without journalistic investigation or verification. Read this opinion with the same grains of salt deserved of Sparky Harlan, Raj Jayadev, the library director 1%, Rufas Reed and his clan of liars.

    • I used to visit Saint James Park every day with my children until the homeless moved in and pushed us out. I don’t dare bring my children to the playground anymore after finding a needle in the play structure, and seeing half-dressed transients on the swings. Our playgrounds are not for children anymore, not even Ryland Park where the homeless leer at children playing in the pool, and I will not risk being accosted while walking a trail with my children. My fear is real:: my wrist was broken 2 years ago by a homeless woman on a downtown sidewalk who tried to steal my purse.

  3. Mr. Reber, can you tell the readership how many Park Rangers the City employs, per square mile or by population versus other cities?

  4. If you rewind the clock 18 months, Los Gatos Creek and it’s bike trail was a story of two very different tales. The upper section from Meridian Ave into Los Gatos heavily frequented by runners, cyclists, Mom’s with strollers. In the Lonus to Auzerais stretch, a very different atmosphere, a bike trail virtually empty, litter strewn with dozens of Homeless living along the creek or next to the bike trail. At our trail recruiting events, many a housewife would approach us asking if that area of the bike trail was safe. One of the key reasons conditions have improved is because the Community has taken a leadership role vs. waiting for one of our resource strapped agencies to solve the problem. We have held 37 individual cleanups and removed 58 tons of trash from this creek. Neighborhood monitoring teams pass on information of problems versus ignoring. We still have much to do here.

    If your local Park/Trail/Creek’s standards have declined and is no longer perceived as a safe place for “Mom’s with Strollers”. The local neighborhood needs to band together and make a difference. This is a time for action.

    • The trail isn’t really a trail downstream from Meridian. It’s lines painted on the street. Sure the steep sided streambed makes trail construction problematic- but a trail that remains true to Los Gatos Creek could be engineered and built cantilevered boardwalk style. A continuous trail that follows the creek all the way to it’s confluence with the Guadalupe would probably be popular among runners, cyclists, and strollers too. A little brush clearing by the Conservation Corps kids, SCVWD actually doing the job for which they’re handsomely paid and conducting daily patrols and rousting of any hint of a homeless encampment BEFORE it gets established and we might be onto something.

    • We plant flowers in Saint James Park, and the homeless sleep in them, or tear them out. Every time we seem to make progress, things fall back to the way they were, and residents stay away even longer.

  5. You might be onto something here James, because to me it just falls into the realm of “common sense”.

    So basically you have family events, with a security presence? Not complicated either :)

  6. Have you seen the San Pedro Square Marketplace on a weekend night? Heavy security presence! But, do we really want to live in a police state? Does police presence really make us more safe, or does it fill us with dread?

  7. My girlfriend does not go to Hellyer Park anymore because she got assaulted in broad daylight.