People use parklands for many purposes. Much of the research conducted with adult park users lists walking and exercise, playing with the kids and walking the dog as the most common reasons people visit parks. Recent research also suggests that as increasing density reduces the size of private yards, simply getting out of the house is a key motivator for park use. Reasons why people don’t use parks include parklands not being welcoming, not feeling safe, there being nothing to do or no safe route to get there.
So what makes a park useable? There are several key factors: whether parklands are considered attractive and desirable places to be, whether people feel comfortable and safe, whether they can access them easily, what infrastructure is in place than provides opportunities for physical activity, social interaction and rest and relaxation, the presence of trees and the quality of park landscaping and maintenance.
Liveable Neighbourhoods (LN) guidelines outline several objectives relating to parkland design. These include supporting increased walking and cycling, retention of environmental features and integration of water sensitive urban design (WUSD) principles, and a minimum standard of landscaping. LN objectives also call for consideration of location and natural surveillance to enhance community access and safety, as well as balanced provision that ensures communities have access to a range of parkland experiences – such as playing sport, recreation and relaxation and enjoyment of nature.
While these intentions are good, what the LN guidelines don’t do is provide enough information about how these objectives can be achieved – and it is ad hoc interpretation of the LN guidelines that has led to the provision of less than optimal parklands in many new residential developments.
Take a drive around many new developments and you are likely to see multiple small parks with minimal infrastructure (not much to do), little connectivity to other areas (not easy to access) and parkland spaces that all look very similar (little diversity in appearance or degree of attraction).
In some ways, this outcome is driven by the LN guidelines. One aspect is proximity. The guidelines recommend that local parks are located within 150-300 metre walk of all homes, resulting in proliferation of small pocket parks with limited scope to provide larger, multipurpose neighbourhood or district parks that might provide a variety of functions relating to use for sport, physical activity and exercise, social interaction or relaxation in a natural environment. LN guidelines also suggest that parklands should be adjacent to roads to increase natural surveillance. While there is merit in this objective, it means that children wanting to access parklands to play must navigate roadways in their neighbourhood often without designated footpaths or pedestrian crossings. From another perspective, integration of WUSD principles has resulted in some parklands appearing to function more as a landscaped water retention basin than useable parkland.
So how can these issues be resolved? One approach is to focus on outcomes for the end users with primary consideration given to how parklands will meet the needs of the people who live near them, rather on focusing first on proximity and water management. Secondly, it may be useful for future LN guidelines to provide better definitions of what constitutes balanced provision and the need for diversity of spaces to meet different needs. Changing how we think about access and park proximity may also be a key. What if rather than expecting that everybody lives within walking distance of a single area of parkland, we planned our neighbourhoods to ensure everybody lived within walking distance of access to a parkland network – with linear parklands, green streetscapes and designated access routes making it easy to get out of the house and talk a walk in the park?