The pocket park: does a mega city need a mini playground?

The caliber of playground amenities in our urban parks has improved and diversified considerably in recent years. I can remember when I was a child: it was typical for each piece of equipment to sit in isolation, almost forcing the kids to decide between playing with one another or engaging with the equipment and making it harder for parents to monitor it all. The status quo was for every slide or merry-go-round to languish in graffiti or (more common) scratchiti that taught me words that I should have learned with some context or guidance. And of course, the veneer of rust that assured at least one saddle-swing was broken was the least of our worries; if anything, it was precisely because of playground equipment that parents hustled their children to the doctor for their tetanus shots. Perhaps I’m hinting at a childhood where public resources toward playground equipment were paltry, and other places with better-funded parks & rec departments fared better. But it didn’t really matter: I lived to tell about it, and, lacking better alternatives from which I could compare, it was still fun.

In 2019, residing in one of the most affluent metros in the country—and one where a considerable portion of the park system benefits from not just the city but the entire nation of taxpayers (many urban parks around me come courtesy of the National Park Service), the recreational amenities really do surpass everything I naïvely loved as a kid. But the generous funding for parks in both the District of Columbia and its wealthy Virginia/Maryland suburbs also fosters a complacency that borders on carelessness. Case in point: this pocket park is but one of the many features to spring up within the last five to ten years at the new Potomac Yard redevelopment on the north side of Alexandria, Virginia:Alexandria pocket parkAnother angle should clinch that there’s little more to it than the the installation within the perimeter fence: a few slides, some climbing bars, a few tunnels, some canopied perches, and a spinning tic-tac-toe set.IMG_1390This playground would strain to appeal to children over the age of six. But it looks tidy, unsullied with graffiti, and in good working order. Perhaps it owes these characteristics to a strong supervisory body—either the management company affiliated with Potomac Yard (if it’s a private park) or Alexandria Parks and Recreation (if it’s public). But I have another guess: this playground looks great because it goes almost completely unused.

I’ve written about Potomac Yards at least once before: it’s a massive conversion of an old rail yard that closed in the late 1980s, then sat in polluted desuetude for a few years awaiting cleanup. After the EPA classified it as a Superfund site, it received the dedicated funding necessary so that private real estate interests could take advantage of its marvelous location within the DC metro (just south of Reagan International Airport) to develop it into multifamily housing, the pace of which surged in the early 2010s. And it’s still developing. The pocket park featured in the photo above is near the southern end of Potomac Yards, not far from Alexandria’s Old Town (the historic downtown). And, by almost every metric of a small playground I can think of, it’s a success: the colors are bright and appealing, the equipment is consolidated and allows for easy parental monitoring (or for dad reflexes to sweep in to avert a mishap), it’s well-maintained and in good condition (no doubt aided by the fact that it’s still new), and the materials are resistant to harsh weather or a variety of temperatures. Perhaps most importantly of all, the pocket park sits nestled within a dense array of townhomes that otherwise lack yard spaces large enough for a swing set. Here’s the housing immediately adjacent:IMG_1391And here’s a streetscape:IMG_1392

Needless to say, it’s a medium to high-density residential area, which, as long as it achieves a quorum of young children, should be exactly the sort of amenity the neighborhood needs to give it lasting appeal. But I’ve passed it multiple times, on weekends with unquestionably pleasant weather, and I’ve never seen a soul. Meanwhile, just a few blocks away, on the next parallel street just to the east, we witness this:IMG_1395IMG_1394

And that’s just the start. Aside from being at least ten (probably twenty) times larger than the pocket park I initially featured, this Potomac Yard Playground features a spray plaza, an interactive maze, two separate installations tailored to different age ranges, and tennis courts right nearby. The map below shows how these two playgrounds relate to the surrounding, mostly residential neighborhood.Potomac yard map

The tiny, neglected pocket park is circled in purple at the bottom, while the southern half of the Potomac Yard Playground is outlined by the green rectangle. The two playgrounds are within a five-minute walk from one other.

IMG_1397Needless to say, the smaller one can hardly compete. I struggle to think of a situation where the tiny pocket park would appeal to children. Perhaps for the introverted, wallflower toddler who prefers playing alone? For the paranoid parent who finds the larger playground too big and unmanageable? The pocket park has an added subtler disadvantage: it only fronts local streets within the neighborhood, while the larger park faces a four-lane collector road. Therefore, numerous people pass by the Potomac Yard Park each day—it promotes itself—while only the people who reside in the neighborhood (or know the residents) are likely to even be aware of the pocket park.

In the final analysis, the unused pocket seems borne out a bizarre paradox: it suffers from both a paucity of ideas and a deliberate, exhaustive overthought. From a site planning perspective, the developers ran out of inspiration for this small, triangular parcel. To some extent, this isn’t surprising: triangular parcels might yield the visually striking, flatiron effect in busy urban centers, but they’re rarely the most lucrative shape to transform into a residence. And this parcel lacks the depth to fit another townhome comparable to the residences that abut it, as seen in the aerial below:pocket park aerial

This residual land could offer the developers an opportunity to introduce a structure that hosts an altogether different, non-conforming use. While it’s possible that conventional, Euclidean, residential-only zoning regulation would impede the ability to add a small commercial/retail structure, it’s also obvious that the massive site was a bleak rail yard until the redevelopment that necessitated an environmental cleanup. If the City of Alexandria relaxed land use regulations by organizing Potomac Yard as a Planned Unit Development (PUD), it would have permitted all degrees of site planning flexibility, up to and including a microresidence built atop some first-floor microretail. And even if the City did not allow for a PUD, a mixed-use overlay district could have permitted something other than the uninspired default: a safe, dull, ignored playground, the sort of recreational use that would have been permitted anywhere. Though I’m sure the property managers promoted this park as an amenity, it’s not the highest and best use of land. And in a city and region that struggles to offer affordable housing, this pocket park—along with many others—could serve a far better purpose by offering the sort of tiny space that allows a homeowner or entrepreneur with more moderate equity to tap into this lucrative market.

So this pocket park owes its origins to a lack of inspiration. At the same time, however, other activist initiatives often force the hand of developers and cities. For example, the Trust for Public Land is an organization that seeks to ensure “that every person in America has access to a quality park within a 10-minute walk from home.” It’s a laudable ambition; who wouldn’t want more parks in our big cities? The Trust for Public Land has created ParkScore® as a benchmark that rates the 100 largest US cities on their provision of parks. It wisely creates criteria within its metric to account for the wide differences in settlement patterns among various cities: it awards parks differently based on acreage; it measures investment in terms of public/nonprofit spending and volunteerism; it assesses the specific amenities within a park (including playgrounds, restrooms and splashpads), and access using the ten-minute walk (half mile) rule. Lastly, it carves out a domain of need, based on population density, the presence of children 19 and younger, and the density of households with moderate or low incomes.

The finely wrought ParkScore metric has become a powerful tool for compelling cities both to add new parks and to invest in their existing systems. I do not doubt that our urban landscape is better for children than it otherwise might be thanks to the Trust for Public Land’s activism. But I cannot help but think back to my time in Cambridge, Massachusetts—a city not big enough to fall within ParkScore’s 100 largest but one that undoubtedly has designed its robust assortment of pocket parks based on the ParkScore methodology. Within Cambridge’s densely inhabited 6.5 square miles are dozens of mini parks, nearly all of which (from my experience) get as little use as this playground in Alexandria. While yards are small and multifamily housing is abundant, most single-family homes in Cambridge do at least sit on small plots of one-eighth of an acre or so—enough that they have a yard of their own, thereby rendering pocket parks redundant to at least half the city’s population. And Cambridge, like its neighbor Boston, faces a widely touted affordable housing crisis.

Controversial though it may be, I think broader ambition of cities like Cambridge and Alexandria to provide parks within a 10-minute walk of their entire population diverts their attention from greater needs, such as finding new ways to introduce alternative structures—accessory dwelling units (“granny flats”), microretail, even tiny homes—at these strategic parcels to open their communities to market-rate affordable housing or leasable space. Sure, a few pocket parks here and there are a drop in the bucket based on the overall need in expensive markets like DC and Boston, but they are unequivocally a better use than a neglected playground. Yet most cities are unwilling to weaken their widely touted ParkScore ratings (or their Euclidean zoning ordinances), even if it means sacrificing vital housing as a result. Most American alpha cities have spectacular park systems—that is in part why they’re alpha—but their affordable housing crises are growing by the day, and it is time they rethink the provision of all these playgrounds (especially when alpha cities are notorious for having lower-than-average percentages of children). And in Alexandria, our example here reveals two vastly different parks within much less than a 10-minute walk from one another.

Does that beautiful neighborhood installation of slides, monkey bars, and fireman’s poles get any use whatsoever? Or is it an elaborately landscaped micro-garden with nothing more to do than sit and read? (And who does that anymore?) If not, why try something else? Far too often, within the urban canvas, the pocket parks are little more than the white patches left exposed under the layer of paint. It’s time to get out the oils and the brush once more.

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10 thoughts on “The pocket park: does a mega city need a mini playground?

  1. Brian M

    Interesting essay, but a couple of caveats or questions:

    Is there really a demand for this microretail? As you have noted, retail is vastly over-provided in these United States, and a small shop selling overpriced liquor store goods or even gourmet groceries might struggle to find customers in such a odd location?

    I wonder also if part of it IS demographics? There is a decidedly working class, largely Hispanic neighborhood of older single family homes less than a mile from where I sit now. Much lower density than this neighborhood, and there are individual yards. Yet, the mini-parks seem to be quite well-used by local neighborhood residents.

    Thought provoking nonetheless, and “flexibility” in zoning is almost always a good thing.

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt

      Very good points, Brian. I’ll confess that I threw the “microretail” out there, with little to no evidence (so far) that it stands a better chance of surviving the apocalypse than mega-retail. It certainly leaves a smaller footprint, though, but that’s not going to convince the banks/lending agencies if it’s a high-risk archetype. You could be right, but, at the same time, the comparative lack of retail–and the relative density of housing around it–could make it a viable retail host if the appearance is right. Aesthetics matter more and more for good retail. Think of the strip malls built in the 70s and how awful they look compared to the standards applied in the 90s and 00s. (There really aren’t that many 10s strip malls; they just aren’t getting built anymore.)

      As for demographics, that’s another possible explanation. I’d be curious if the pocket parks in your example are the only parks around for quite some distance, if they have the right amenities, and if they’re slightly larger than the one I’ve featured. There may be cultural differences (Hispanics value communal space more than other ethnic groups), or it may just be a particularly high concentration of kids. If the mini-park is a duplication of a back yard–with the same size and amenities as the typical home’s lawn–it would be difficult to compete. And if there’s a dearth of children, which is often the case in urban settings for alpha cities, it won’t matter if it competes or not; there’s just not likely to be much demand.

      My example of Cambridge was deliberate because it has a fairly similar size, urbanism, and demographic make-up to Alexandria. Both cities are small, dense, immediately adjacent to a bigger “parent” city, and well-stocked with good park acreage. They also both are growing steadily and could easily use the neglected park space to offer innovative affordable housing solutions. But I don’t know if either city would support a great demand for 3BR and 4+BR housing because I can’t say confidently that they’re attractive places for families with school-age children. The schools in each are decent but there are better alternatives in the exurbs, where the yards are bigger, settings are less walkable, but the districts tend to be top-rated. All of this would come into play when calibrating the use of small parcels to the specific demand.

      Reply
  2. Chris B

    A seasonal ice cream stand would probably draw people and be considered a social amenity by the neighborhood…

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt

      And if it could be ice cream in the summer and hot drinks in the winter, it might be viable all year round…

      Brian’s very valid points can’t be ignored. The location could be a boon–kind of unconventional, very neighborhoody, and a neighborhood with the density to support it. But the article itself does recognize that it is much more obscure than the next parallel road, which actually hosts regular vehicular traffic. However, in this era of Google Maps, obscurity is less of a disadvantage. It wouldn’t have much competition nearby…except for a super-regional shopping plaza (with Target, Best Buy, Staples, Michael’s etc) just a half mile to the north. But a small microretail tenant (probably local) wouldn’t likely afford the leasing rates at a mega plaza anyway.

      Reply
      1. Chris B

        Food and beverage places are today’s neighborhood gathering spots/third places. In a kid-oriented environment, probably one without alcohol would be most favored, though I could be mistaken.

        On that topic: We recently visited Geneva, NY (at the northern end/outlet of Seneca Lake about an hour east of Buffalo). At the end of the city’s downtown lakefront walk there is a big playground for younger children. Right next door is an ice-cream stand that has a decidedly adult offering: wine ice cream.

        And in my former neighborhood in Indianapolis, there is a large public park with lots of Little League ballfields. A block away is a beloved old-fashioned Dairy Queen stand. With a bar next door.

        Reply
        1. AmericanDirt

          I’m with you. As shopping declines, restaurants/bars/coffeeshops are far more likely to facilitate recreational gathering–and the possibility of impromptu random encounters with friends–in much the same manner that malls used to achieve. Bars and coffeeshops particularly have this effect, since they more than restaurants don’t mind when people linger (at least usually). While I’m not certain microretail would succeed at the site of this Alexandria pocket park (the verdict doesn’t seem to be out on whether microretail is yet a good alternative outlet for flagging retail structures), the demographics and sociological conditions would seem to favor it at this spot. Alexandria has an old enough built enviornment that I can think of other fairly obscure corners with successful, occupied retail…mostly restaurants or cafés as you might expect.

          Reply
  3. Chris B

    Side note/diversion: funny that commercial real estate has morphed to the point where we consider neighborhood food and drink “retail” today.

    So many strip malls have become eating destinations. The one at 10th and Indiana is now entirely food uses. The one on BR Ave next to the former BRHS also has several eateries. And over 30 years the building next door that used to house Peaches Records and Waldenbooks morphed into a thrift store, then a grocery, now a brewpub.

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt

      I’m glad you referenced that strip mall at 10th and Indiana. I noticed the characteristic you described several years ago. It’s been there since the 1980s, I’d assume? Was there a point that it had more overtly collegiate uses? By now, it’s essentially an automobile oriented food court. And, as much as I’d love to see that large parcel get snatched by development into a higher and better use, it’s not likely to happen any time soon while the value of that strip mall is so high: as soon as one fast-casual restaurant leaves, another moves in. The locally owned establishments have also proven popular IIRC: an Indian restaurant has done well there for several years.

      The BR strip mall is another that I envision getting redeveloped as an extension of the walkable town grid that characterizes the land to the immediate west. But it probably won’t happen, again for the same reason.

      I have the photos in store for a similar restaurant-only strip mall in Pennsylvania where I used to live–except that it’s not in a remotely urban setting but in purely auto-oriented suburbia. Still has a better performance/absorption rate than 98% of the strip malls out there.

      Reply
  4. Jeffrey Jakucyk

    One other thing to consider, by making this pocket park a pocket playground, it may very well exclude all adults that don’t have a child with them. That rule/ordinance is becoming more and more common. So by making it a playground, someone who just wants to sit and read, feed the birds, or stop and smell the roses, might not even be allowed to legally enter it. Granted the one bench looks like it is there only to provide a monitoring post for the playground equipment, as there isn’t much else within the fenced perimeter besides bark mulch. Still, by making this a young-kids-only space, it further reduces its usability.

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt

      Good point, Jeffrey, and unfortunately you’re referencing a standard that is likely to get enforced more stringently in years ahead. I wonder, though, if it would get enforced if a person merely chose to sit in the space while no children are present. Since this pocket park is probably childless about 99% of usable hours, that might be reasonable. If the neighborhood association (or whatever entity maintains this space) were to monitor it for usage, they may determine that the playground equipment should get moved to a more lucrative location, then resort it to a place to read, relax, or even to accommodate a more sport that’s more grown-up oriented. (Perhaps still too small for bocce?)

      Or, better yet, they’d develop it to something else, which, at the very least, features a housing component. But this isn’t likely to happen given zoning regulations and the onus of seeking a variance for a use that would almost certainly arouse community opposition. The NIMBY contingent tends to fight anything that results in the elimination of a park, even if the park is completely unused. I wouldn’t be surprised if the opposition even cites the ParkScore rating at a variance hearing!

      Reply

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