The broken sidewalks and sagging fences of the neighborhood of my youth eventually lead to large, grassy parks. These common areas used to have barbeque grills, swing sets, sand areas and lots of open space for group games like volleyball. We often gathered there after school on nice days for pick-up baseball games. Clearly, the open spaces were designed for activities. Today, the park closest to my childhood home is eerily quiet. Gone are the barbeque pits, the swing sets and other symbols of collective outdoor living. The world has changed. Now folks tend to barbeque in their own back yard and interact on-line and with hand-held devices. Plus, the rise of district-wide recreation centers and athletic fields pulled a lot of the child traffic away from neighborhood parks.
So now the park, surrounded by back yard fences, represents an underutilized green space owned and maintained by a local parks and recreation district. Although “greenbelt” space is readily considered a typical and sought-after suburban amenity, the atrophy of the surrounding homes and yards suggest that the program should be re-evaluated. From the standpoint of resource usage, does it make sense to irrigate and maintain large tracts of unused grass abutting back yards? From a more policy oriented viewpoint, should we continue to elevate the role of the car as the sine qua non of the suburban lifestyle? Is it always the case that ‘burb’ dwellers must jump in their cars in order to get the most basic household needs?
Perhaps not. A re-visioning of the neighborhood park, along with the sidewalks and paths that lead to it, could offer the best chance for avoiding the suburban decay that some see as inevitable. By encouraging new uses for these common spaces, such as common gardens, co-op office space, a transit connection hub and even a small market center, many of our nation’s suburbs could experience a rejuvenation by making them more attractive to a wider group of potential residents.
We invite you to return to this blog for future additions to this series discussing the hidden potential for our suburban communities.