The Urban Park
Is Springfield ready for Union Square Park?
August 6, 1987
The original subhead on this piece was, "Parks are like marriages—good looks are not enough to make them work." The setting for this particular park was downtown Springfield but the problem of how to make public parks work well is universal in urban America. The new park here described did not work well, as it turned out, and was converted into a ornamental plaza fronting Springfield’s Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum—which on most days is just as empty as its predecessor.
“We already have kids playing over there," exclaimed a Springfield city zoning administrator, sounding a bit like a man who's just finished assembling a birthday bicycle and is relieved that the wheels go around. "There" is the yet unnamed "urban park" nearing completion on the block south of the restored Union Station boutiquery in downtown Springfield. Those kids in the park confirmed the need for it. (Their patronage was involuntary—they are shepherded to the park each day from a nearby day care center—but their enthusiasm for its playground seems genuine enough.) Downtown Springfield since the 1970s has been transformed into a residential district, becoming home to hundreds of old people and young singles, plus thousands of part-time residents in the form of white-collar workers.
These new publics have few public spaces in which to gather for rest or play. While there is a sizable amount of green space in downtown Springfield, most of it serves ornamental rather than recreational functions; public relations, not public amenity, is its goal. There are a handful of park-like public plazas downtown but they are (with one exception) uninviting and underused.
No such fate seems likely to befall this new park. The design is the work of the landscape architects of Scruggs & Hammond, Inc., an award-winning firm based in Peoria. The work was done with the advice of Springfield planners, city officials, downtown merchants (including developers of Union Station), even (via polls) downtown residents and workers. (Remarked a local planner of the process, "Who would have thought a government agency could be so practical?") As sod-layers and bench-installers finish their work, it is time to ask, will it work?
The result is a handsome design, formal (even a bit staid) and rather more expensively equipped than most. Twin paved walkways curve up from the two south corners of the block, forming a semicircle. A broad esplanade intersects that semicircle in midblock, where stands a ground-level pool and water fountain. Flanking that central fountain, set in the middle of the esplanade, are two raised pools, also with fountains. In the north corners are recreational areas—children's play equipment and picnic tables off Sixth Street, shuffleboard courts and horseshoe pits off Fifth. There is abundant lighting and shade (or will be, when planting is completed this fall), plus the expected ornamental plantings of flowers and small trees.
The relationship between Union Station and its new front -yard is not just physical. The links between the two range from the details of the street furniture to the overall shape of the park. The Art Nouveau decorative lampposts in the park match those already installed around the station. On a larger scale, the esplanade focuses attention on the facade of the building, the view of which will be framed from the south by the phalanx of red oaks which will line the esplanade. Jim Ash, the Scruggs & Hammond designer who worked on the project, says, "Clearly, the station has an architectural value that needs to be shared with the community." Unfortunately, the main pedestrian routes into the park will be along the curved walkways, not from the south along the esplanade. Passing motorists on Jefferson Street will be able to enjoy the view, if fleetingly; the main beneficiaries will be idling bank customers stuck in line at the drive-in bank across the street.
The physical elements of the new park seem conventional enough. Fountains are a feature of nearly every new plaza these days, where they offer coolness and motion and mask the clatter from nearby streets. Trees are not just sightly but essential for shade in Midwest summers, especially in a low-rise city setting like Springfield where buildings do not screen the sun. In fact, the design conforms nicely with the rules laid down by the "space doctors," a loose movement of architects, urbanists, psychologists, and others who in the 1970s began analyzing how people act in public spaces, and how such spaces act upon people. For example, when Jane Jacobs, in her classic The Death and Life of Great American Cities, noted that all good urban parks have a center, a "main crossroads and pausing point, a climax," she might have been describing the central fountain of this design.
Parks are like marriages, in that good looks alone are seldom enough to make them work. Landscaping, for example, does more than provide shade. It shapes the space in a park, and people's perception of space is crucial. It is generally accepted that any open space whose width is more than four times the height of the Vertical walls which contain it leaves people inside it feeling exposed, and thus vulnerable. The shapes of the world's most treasured vistas, from mountain valleys to narrow European streets, fit within the limits of this ratio. For this reason, streets in postwar subdivisions, with their one-story houses set well back from the street, generally do not feel welcoming until their street trees begin to reach mature heights. Well-placed trees on the street can change the apparent shape of outdoor "rooms" such as parks. (Downtown, of course, it is buildings that perform this enclosing function, which explains why a streetscape reduced to surface parking lots, while posing no danger to passersby, still feels vaguely threatening.)
Feeling comfortable in our outdoor rooms is crucial. Tony Hiss, summarizing some of the latest findings of "space doctors" in a recent New Yorker, confirms that our sense of security in public places is "spatially anchored." Everyone, Hiss explained, "has to be able to find . . . a little niche where he or she can stand or sit without being bothered by other people and without getting in anyone's way."
There will be plenty of niches in the new park. There are fifty-six redwood benches in two rows facing each other across the esplanade, for example, each of which will seat two people quite comfortably, or three in a pinch. It seems unlikely that all those seats will be occupied at once, but that does not mean that the new park is over-seated. William H. Whyte, author of the landmark 1970s study whose results were published as The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces, confirmed an obvious truth which had nevertheless escaped park planners for years, which is that people sit most where there are the most places to sit. The more choices, the easier to find one of those niches which Hiss's experts described.
Though plentiful, the long rows of benches bolted to the pavement suggest a waiting room. People who use parks prefer movable seating, but people who run them do not. Jim Ash, the Scruggs & Hammond designer who worked on the project, explains that the need to collect and lock up unanchored chairs or benches—or pay to replace ones stolen when they aren't—leads most of his clients to insist that seating be fixed. "Rarely will a community put up with it," Ash says, adding that privately managed public spaces which have staff on the premises, such as outdoor cafes, find it easier to cope with security and storage problems. Fortunately, there is no regulation which prohibits nearby residents from bringing their own folding lawn chairs to the park.
Park seating needn't be as formal as a bench, of course. The ground encircled by the curved walkways has been sodded, and should make a nice venue for lollers on dry days. People will sit wherever they are comfortable, in fact, will even sit where they are uncomfortable, if they have a reason to. One of the most popular seating areas of the mall south of the Old State Capitol was not designed as such. The top rim of the low earthen berm built at that plaza's west end offers vantage points for people watching (women watching, actually, since the occupants of these perches are nearly always male.) The grass which was originally planted on the berm quickly fell victim to sitters, and the berm has remained bare ever since, testimony to the fact that, when they can, people will redesign a park to suit their priorities rather than honor those of its architects.
The plaza south of the Old State Capitol offers vivid proof of Whyte's maxims about seating in public spaces. During noon hours, people will collect on the stone ledge formed by the base of the ornamental fence which rings the Old Capitol. This ledge was not designed for seating, in fact its design rather discourages it, since it is a scant seven inches deep. But its location and the. views it provides of the passing scene make up for its lack of comfort. To their credit, Scruggs &. Hammond proceeded from the humane assumption that if people are going to sit on ledges, they might as well be comfortable. The basins of the two esplanade pools form admirable sitting spaces—chair height from the pavement, smoothly finished on top, and a generous twelve inches front to back.
The type and amount of seating matters little, of course, if no one enters the park to sit down in the first place. Passive recreation of the sort this new park is designed to accommodate is actually not very passive at all. People go to downtown parks and plazas in order to do things—not to play tennis, naturally, but to eat or read or socialize or, most popular of all, to watch other people eating or reading or socializing. The busiest public spaces are not crowded because they are popular, they are popular because they are crowded. People, not flowers or shade, attract people. Activity of any sort is particularly crucial in a downtown like Springfield's; there, as is not the case in New York or Chicago, people suffer from sensory starvation rather than overload. In such a stagnant urban environment, stimulation (within civilized limits) is more invigorating than rest.
The social life inside the new Springfield park thus will be crucial to its success. The park will draw upon a diverse population, ranging from old people from Near North Village, young singles, office workers (possibly including employees from St. John's Hospital), and shoppers from Union Station. Which and how many of this potential park population actually use the park, and when, is partly a matter of the park's design, of course, but even more decisively a matter of its location. This is a neighborhood park, and neighborhood parks draw people from only as far away as people are willing to walk. Studies by Whyte and others suggest strongly that the maximum "pedestrian commuter distance" for such trips is three city blocks, or the equivalent of a three-minute walk.
However, the rules which govern public life in big cities don't necessarily apply to small ones. People in small cities like Springfield are less willing to walk than their cousins in big cities, for example, so that even three blocks may be too far a trek. Roughly half the land in downtown Springfield is parking lots; a walk past these devastated vistas is less interesting, and thus seems much longer, than a walk of equal distance along a street crammed with shops. (Unable to experience an invigorating street life in their own downtown, Springfieldians by the thousands seek its closest equivalent in the indoor shopping mall.) Also, since small-city downtowns sprawl over a larger percentage of their overall urban area than do those of big cities (and Springfield's downtown is attenuated by even small-city standards) people have farther to walk.
A minimum flow of people into the south Old Capitol mall is guaranteed by the many shops which line it. The new park has no such advantage, Union Station notwithstanding. It may be necessary to entice people into the park, at least at first, rather than rely on the meager flow of people passing it on the street. The recreational areas will be one certain lure; Scruggs & Hammond was alert to the fact that people like to watch as well as play games, and benches have been installed next to both the shuffleboard and horseshoe facilities. Live entertainment is another draw, a service Often provided by freelance street musicians and others working for tips, such as the blind man who accompanies himself on an electronic organ on the Old Capitol mall.
What people mainly like to do in an urban park, however, is eat. Appetite generates design; in Whyte's words, "If you want to seed a place with activity, put out food." The south Old Capitol mall for example, abuts a fast food emporium and three restaurants serving lunch as well as vendors who sell hot dogs and similar delicacies from makeshift kitchens on the mall itself. Union Station has five shops which offer take-out (including a deli-style shop), and is considering purchase of a portable ice cream kiosk which would operate from station property adjacent to the park. The mayor's office (which is responsible for management of the park) has already received inquiries from push-cart vendors who want to sell in the park; design standards and other regulations to govern such sales are being considered at city hall.
The desirability of "seeding" the new park with activity offers chances to convert what is arguably the park's most dubious feature into an asset. Splitting the block just north of the park, straddling the space between it and Union Station, is a parking lot, an expansion of a single row of parking spaces for customers installed when the station reopened. The lot now includes a second row of twenty-eight spaces (metered for use by the general public) with a driveway down the middle.
The expanded lot forms a physical and visual barrier between the park and Union Station. While one is forced to concede that some on-site parking is necessary for the station's commercial purposes, the rationale for the lot's expansion is much less sound. It is being assumed that some park patrons will travel to it by car, perhaps because they have kids in tow or because they are too distant to make the trip by foot. But once people resort to a car for a trip to the park, they will find it just as convenient to go to one of the larger, better equipped city parks. Whyte, referring to park trips made beyond the three-block pedestrian commuter limit, put the rule this way: If you have to get into a car to go six blocks, you might as well go a mile. The rule is affirmed every workday lunch hour when hundreds of state workers rise from their desks no more than a half-dozen blocks from the more popular downtown restaurants and go to their cars to drive to lunch at remote restaurants in remote commercial strips. It takes less time to drive from the state complex to, say, South Grand, than it does to walk downtown.
The new lot thus won't be much of an amenity for park users, although it will certainly be popular among meter-feeding office workers. However, the paved, off-street surface would be a perfect site for "quick lunch" trucks catering to the noon-hour trade. (They could back right up to the main esplanade walkway.) It would serve equally well as a site for a revived downtown farmers' market. The popular twice-weekly sale of fresh fruits and produce and flowers was in effect banned from its previous site because of the damage trucks were doing to the Old Capitol mall, its previous site. Restoring the market to the new park would put it on a firm footing in several ways, not the least being the proximity of Near North Village, whose residents have extremely limited opportunities to shop for fresh food downtown. The mayor's staff is already at work exploring that possibility. While out driving one recent Friday evening, Mayor Mike Houston passed the park. The day was punishingly hot and humid, and the park was shadeless. Yet there were several elderly people, presumably from Near North Village, sitting and talking. He took their presence as a good sign. Like the kids who'd been there earlier that day, they know a good thing when they visit one. ●