The Advantage of Parklets and David Owen's Green Metropolis


In David Owen’s Green Metropolis, he makes a good argument for cities as system of choice for a sustainable future. Using Manhattan as a case in point, Owen explains that the closeness of businesses and homes, coupled with gridlocked traffic makes NYC an attractive place for cycling and walking.

The book has a lot of provocative ideas in it, for one that perhaps the great outdoors is best spared of our presence and maybe surfing the Internet at home is the best way to protect it (national park visits are dropping rapidly, according to his research). In our opinion, no matter how much fossil fuel is used driving to Yellow Stone park, we will always advocate it, because, well, we think life is too short not to experience the majesty of the natural world. Also, we believe contact inspires environmental stewardship. The problem lies with our modes of transportation, not with our enjoyment of nature itself.

Owen’s critical analysis of Central Park—namely that it isn’t well used space—left several reviewers cold, and while we don’t share all of his views, we do think he raises a very interesting point about the functionality of urban parks. Owen explains that Central Park creates a border (anywhere that disrupts the flow of a city) between the West and East sides of Manhattan, by essentially being too big. When people can’t see their way through to more well populated, and at night, more well lit areas, less of them hang around. This dearth of human activity defeats the entire purpose of parks and plazas in the first place, which is to encourage urban dwellers to spend time outside. According to Green Metropolis, few people actually use Central Park to cross Manhattan, instead opting for the more populated walks along the edges.

Borders are toxic to sustainable cities in Owen’s view, because the emptiness they engender repels people, and this in turn creates unsafe, or seemingly unsafe environments. This sentiment is echoed by Jane Jacobs, who underscored a necessity in cities to have “eyes on the street” at all times, to create a sense of safety and visual interest, again, encouraging people to spend time outdoors. It goes without saying that an increased sense of safety promotes the use of public transport, walking and biking over driving and taxis late at night; if there is no one around, it is more likely that a car will be used, even for short distances.

“there must be eyes upon the street, eyes belonging to those we might call the natural proprietors of the street. The buildings on a street equipped to handle strangers and to insure the safety of both residents and strangers, must be oriented to the street. They cannot turn their backs or blank sides on it and leave it blind.

And third, the sidewalk must have users on it fairly continuously, both to add to the number of effective eyes on the street and to induce the people in buildings along the street to watch the sidewalks in sufficient numbers. Nobody enjoys sitting on a stoop or looking out a window at an empty street. Almost nobody does such a thing. Large numbers of people entertain themselves, off and on, by watching street activity.”

― Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities

In Owen’s mind, New York City’s Washington Square Park is a far more ideal use of space, garnering much more use for its smaller size. Visible edges, where people can see populated areas and feel safe are the best practices for green spaces that encourage people to congregate outdoors.

With the completion of Chicago’s first parklet and more on the horizon, it is interesting to apply some of Owen’s observations with respect to these people spots. With some angered about making parking even more difficult in certain neighborhoods, and others touting the benefits added green space bring to surrounding businesses and overall well-being, parklets can be a contentious issue. But perhaps because of their small size and location within well populated commercial districts, parklets could be an optimal type of green space in dense cities like New York: too small to create borders, and just big enough to create community. Or, more importantly, they could provide crucial help in securing “eyes on the street” – making spaces like vacant lots and alleyways, into places that feel a little bit safer – and making cities that much more enjoyable.