Placemaking in Pocket Parks: Sustaining Authenticity in Urban Neighborhoods

Placemaking can help us identify and attribute certain characteristics to growing neighborhoods.

When we imagine urban green spaces, our mind’s eye may conjure up images of major parks — the likes of Central Park in New York City, Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, Millennium Park in Chicago, or our very own Olympic Sculpture Park here in Seattle. But often, the most beloved green spaces in cities have the smallest footprints: spaces outside our homes where we go to seek solitude, decompress, stretch our legs, let our dogs paw at the grass, or sit in the sun and enjoy lunch near the office.

When leveraged appropriately, these small but mighty spaces — often referred to as pocket parks and parklets — can be critical placemaking devices, inspiring local neighborhoods and communities and enhancing a city’s trademark personality traits.

Places of Delight and Respite

Even if not by name, we’re all familiar with pocket parks — the delightful little vegetated spaces tucked into and scattered throughout a city, sometimes between buildings or along a street. Often driven by density bonuses or local neighborhood advocates, these public spaces are desired, and sometimes mandated, in large part due to their studied benefits. Unlike larger city or neighborhood parks, which are intended to serve a broad variety of people, pocket parks are responsive to the needs and interests of the nearby residents, most likely to interact with them. Because each pocket park is unique to its portion of a district or neighborhood, they become part of the diverse quilt and important interstitial spaces that tell the story of each neighborhood, its culture, traditions and people.

With the onset of the pandemic, people have flocked to outdoor spaces, where interaction is often deemed safer — putting public greenspaces at an even higher demand. Small as they may be, these parks provide environmental functions, ecological benefits, and both physical and emotional wellness contributions, but they also have the potential to be fundamental placemaking devices.

When designed to feel safe and comfortable, even small green spaces can enhance a neighborhood’s sense of community. With the addition of seating and vegetation, roadside land plots, for example, can be transformed into usable, public space.

Placemaking can help us identify and attribute certain characteristics to specific neighborhoods. Referencing the decades-old, but still relevant work of William H. Whyte, social life in public spaces contributes to the quality of life of individuals and society. He argued that it was a fundamental responsibility to create spaces that facilitate social engagement and chance interactions. While Whyte — nor any of us — could have predicted the COVID-19 pandemic, his work rang painfully true as public, outdoor spaces became precious for all of us in so many ways, providing a change of scenery from our otherwise isolated situations and a chance to safely gather (at a distance). But even in more healthful times, these spaces have the potential to inspire meaningful community engagement.

“I end then in praise of small spaces. The multiplier effect is tremendous. It is not just the number of people using them, but the larger number who pass by and enjoy them vicariously, or even the larger number who feel better about the city center for knowledge of them. For a city, such places are priceless, whatever the cost.”

— William H. Whyte

The concept of authentic placemaking lies in its people-centered approach to the planning, design, and management of public spaces, including the democratic design process of important and meaningful public spaces that convert unwanted, remnant spaces into highly cherished and beloved areas that all can enjoy. This design process involves looking at, listening to, and designing for people who live, work, and play in a particular space, to discover and respond to their unique needs and aspirations.

Pocket parks in the Eastlake neighborhood of Seattle, Washington, add greenery and scenic views to dead-end streets and otherwise under-utilized spaces.

Accommodating the level of sustained population influx, such as that seen in Seattle over the past decade plus, can put a strain on the authenticity of the micro-communities that make urban living a diverse and varied experience. Adjustments such as zoning changes can dictate uniformity, rapid new construction can distract from cultural traditions, and competitive real estate can challenge equitable access to greenspace.

But one solution to the hegemony may be the pocket park.

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The Four Basics of the Pocket Park

Pocket parks can have a big impact on preserving a city and neighborhood’s authenticity, while improving equity through placemaking. They promote civic engagement and create welcoming gathering environments. Designing a pocket park for success can boil down to four basic yet critical features:

Seating. Simply put, add furniture. Given a place to sit and linger, community members will gravitate more naturally to the space. Basic furniture allows for a range of uses, from reading to dining to gathering in a group.

Movement. Pocket parks need to ensure some amount of adaptability. When users feel a space can be modified to suit their needs, they are more likely to rely on the space. This increases utilization rates and encourages social and civic engagement. Think of being able to move a picnic table to the sunshine on a cooler day to enjoy outdoor socializing or shifting it to the shade when the day is hot or moving two together for a larger study group or team lunch.

Connectivity. Ensuring connectedness between urban parks and other green spaces and pedestrian paths attracts residents in the immediate vicinity for what are otherwise considered “non-necessary” or optional activities. Necessary activities include waiting for a bus or running errands. Optional activities center on leisure or social engagement: taking a walk, having a picnic, bringing children to play. Optional activities only take place when users feel safe and have a space that aligns with their activity of choice.

Safety. A constant concern and hinging factor for these parks is public safety. Thus, referencing crime prevention through environmental design (CPTED) tactics as well as prospect and refuge theory, which evaluates elements that make environments feel safe, should be fundamental considerations.

Designing a pocket park for success can boil down to four basic yet critical features: seating, movement, connectivity, and safety.

Gathering is a primary human desire, and parks and greenspaces have long allowed for such community — playing directly into the creation of healthy, vibrant, growing cities. Whether these small spaces are used by individuals to sit and relax with a book or groups to gather and build relationships, small areas of placemaking are essential to reinforce a city’s unique personalities.

Keith Walzak, AICP, ASLA

Keith is the director of landscape architecture and urban planning at Cushing Terrell. Inspired by people and places, he is committed to improving the health and livability of communities. Keith specializes in sustainable community design, urban planning policy, community engagement, capital improvement programming, and project management with emphasis in sustainable urbanism, downtown and mixed use districts, transit-oriented development, multi-modal access, civic park and cultural arts strategies.