Last year I worked as a consultant with Skyway residents and King County Parks to develop a shared, community-owned plan to upgrade and reclaim Skyway Park. It's an an important reminder, as King County considers closing many of its parks, of how critical these gathering places are, especially in the urban-suburban belt around Seattle.
We started with the realization that the park, given its central location, could positively impact the surrounding dense residential community and two adjacent business districts. We also knew that we would have to increase the park's accessibility and sense of safety. Over a period of six months we worked with some 80 residents to develop a plan for the re-imagined Skyway Park, one that would be a focal point for many community activities and functions.
Bryn Mawr-Skyway is a multi-cultural district of about 14,000 people at the south end of Lake Washington. Its residents wanted their park to be much more than a place for sports. Among the ideas: an amphitheater for community performances and celebrations; a community garden; an off-leash dog park; a tot-lot for small children; a shelter for teens; a multi-purpose central 'êplaza,'ê an open field for informal games and gatherings; shelters for picnics; year round turf athletic fields; basketball and tennis courts; enhanced wetlands and natural areas; paths designed for walking; enhanced lighting for safety; possible skateboard park; a movable concession stand; and gateways inviting people into the park (created by volunteers under the Pomegranate Center'ês direction).
Traditionally, every community and neighborhood was designed around a common space that functioned as a heart space for the community, a place for friendly encounters. It is a great tragedy that we'êve forgotten about this necessity as we built suburban developments. Without generous encounters between neighbors, the rich complexity of civic life narrows into thin slices of cultural and economic homogeneity. This produces dull neighborhoods.
Then, over time human beings become accustomed to sameness; differences become threats, and the potential for conflict increases. By contrast, a healthy community treats its diversity as a valuable resource that can give rise to mutually beneficial relationships, and these differences are celebrated most powerfully in gathering places.
Gathering places are intentionally designed for unintentional encounters of many different and marvelous kinds — where a senior can interact with an infant, where athletic or artistic talent can be uncovered, where different aromas of food can become familiar, where active and quiet can intermingle. In short, they are places where many different people can find something to do, meet others, and enjoy events. Members of the Skyway community yearn for such experiences, too. And so they are turning their park into a genuine, multi-dimensional community heart area.
As King County considers possible closures of parks to save money, we also gain an opportunity to redefine the role of parks. Many of our current parks are dedicated to a single purpose such as athletic fields for sports, tot lots for children, or botanical gardens for adults. The vision developed by the Skyway residents shows that future parks can serve their communities better by becoming multi-purpose gathering places. To pull this off, parks as gathering places need to have an important central location in a neighborhood, town, or city. And they should be integrated within a larger district of perimeter uses such as nearby stores, coffee houses, restaurants, bus stops, banks, theaters, and schools.
Rather than closing parks, we need to rethink them. The key is to realize that what is at stake is not only a traditional use of parks as places for recreation, but also a new emerging use to serve as heart areas for communities and neighborhoods. Parks are about open space, to be sure. They are also about social spaces — the social cohesion, culture, vitality and identities of distinctive communities. Like Skyway.