John Shearer: Learning From Parks Advocate Gil Penalosa What Makes A Good Park

  • Monday, February 26, 2024
  • John Shearer
Gil Penalosa below the Walnut Street Bridge
Gil Penalosa below the Walnut Street Bridge
photo by John Shearer
If you want to observe whether a park is all it can be in terms of beauty or amenities or even having adequate use without being too crowded, what do you look for?

According to a parks and urban enthusiast and consultant who has traveled the world, you look for not only people having a good time, but specifically women.

“Women are a good indicator,” said Gil Penalosa, who was in Chattanooga last week meeting with local parks and urban officials and giving a Chattanooga Design Studio CIVIQ talk at the Chattanooga Public Library.
“Women are very smart, and they don’t go if it’s not clean, if it doesn’t feel safe.

“If you go to a park and there are no women, usually it’s a bad signal. You usually need at least 50 percent women.”

I had a chance to interview Mr. Penalosa outside the Outdoor Chattanooga offices at Coolidge Park on Wednesday in between his various appearances and meetings. In an accent showing his Colombian heritage, the well-traveled urbanist still spoke a relatable language that all park and nature lovers in Chattanooga could easily relate to.

And the general topic of green space – or the disappearance of it -- is on the minds of a lot of outdoors-loving people in this era when much pristine land in Chattanooga and Hamilton County is quickly being turned into residential or commercial uses.

Mr. Penalosa, who is now based out of Toronto, Canada, mentioned that urban sprawl is a big issue in a lot of places, but it is also important for communities to create parks along with any growth and new developments. “If they don’t leave any area for a park, it will be much harder afterward to go back and tear down houses to create parks,” he said, adding that parks should be located a certain distance from each other just like new streets and stoplights when development is taking place.

“Everyone in Chattanooga should have a park within walking distance,” he continued, adding that accessibility is always important. “Unfortunately, in the U.S. about one out of three people living in cities don’t have parks within walking distance. It is very clear that if you don’t have parks within walking distance, you will not be as physically active as the people who do have the park within walking distance.”

Mr. Penalosa’s concept proclaimed through the non-profit that he chairs is based on the believe that all parks and other urban spaces should be usable and attractive to both an 8-year-old and an 80-year-old.

“If it is good for those 8 and 80, it is going to be good for everybody,” he said. “We need to stop building cities as if everybody was 30 years old and athletic and instead create cities for everyone.”

Along those lines, he also emphasized the importance of sustainability and mobility and that cities should be walkable and bikeable and have good public transportation and not just depend on the automobile to get around.

Regarding his impressions he had seen of the Chattanooga area regarding its parks and some of the other urban spaces or related sights, he said it has nice areas but that some aspects could be improved.

“Things I liked were some that were built by people, others by God,” he said. “I think the mountains are beautiful, the river as well. So, Chattanooga is very lucky it has this. In addition, I’ve seen a lot of trails that are quite nice. Also, I’ve seen that you’ve made this beautiful bridge (the Walnut Street Bridge) pedestrian.

“On the other side of the bridge you had surface parking and now there are condos. That was really, really good. On the other hand, I think it was a city that is not very good for sustainable mobility for walking, for riding bicycles and for using public transit.”

He also thinks the local park system lacks a little equity, saying that when someone goes to the local parks in the wealthy areas and then the lower-income areas, the qualities of the parks are totally different.

“If anything, the parks in the low-income areas should be better,” he said. “Parks are about fun and games, and that’s important, but there is much more. Parks are about health and happiness.

“People have known they (parks) were good for physical health, but now with the pandemic, people realize the parks are also for mental health. And they are also good for economic development because people will want to stay and come back in the cities if they have a park within a walking distance. So, that is good for business and economic development.”

He also pointed out that parks are good for the environment, mentioning that trees in parks help clean the air.

Mr. Penalosa also stated that parks can be great for the social life of a city in that they are great places to meet and help people create a sense of civic belonging and engagement. But he pointed out that parks also need to have programming, and that sometimes costs money. However, he thinks that is a worthwhile investment for a local government.

“It is very important to have programs for people of all ages and all abilities,” he said.

Mr. Penalosa was also asked about the McDonald Farm in the Sale Creek area now owned by Hamilton County government and the current debate over using more of it for an industrial park or recreational development.

He pointed out that communities need all sizes of parks for all kinds of uses and added, “I think if you don’t have large parks in that area, it should be ideal to be converted into a park.”

Regarding other related issues, he felt development should be done more by densifying areas and corridors already developed rather than building on unspoiled land. He even discussed such concepts as an older person or couple wanting to stay in their home leasing out some additional space to others in some way.

But it was the park system that seemed to bring out his enthusiasm the most, and he emphasized in several ways how to make a good park. And for him, it is one simple concept.

“A good park is a park that has people,” he said. “Parks are for people. It is not if it has won architectural awards, but if people come and they stay and they come back, then it’s a good park.”

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