Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Friday, July 02, 2021

Five examples of the failure to do parks and public space master planning in DC

My participation in planning started with historic preservation as a strategy to revitalize a lagging community.  Then commercial district revitalization.  

I got interested in cultural planning because of the failure of a number of DC cultural organizations around the same time, and my shock that people weren't motivated to look at what happened in a systemic way ("Cultural resources planning in DC: In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king," 2007).  

And parks and urban design, because DC hasn't released a full blown parks master plan in more than two decades, and because of how many of the "city's" parks are federal, run by the National Park Service, and they don't do a good job of meeting local needs.

In short, my joke is that I might not be good at planning, but I am great at gap analysis, and so I seem like a pretty good planner.  

Below are five examples from Washington Post reporting, about the failure of DC to do systematic  public parks and spaces planning. Each is explained by the same three points:

(1) a failure to have a parks, public spaces and recreation master plan ("Testimony: Agency Performance Oversight, DC Department of Parks and Recreation*," 2012,) [Disclosure, I was offered a job as a DPR planner and then, with no further interviews or discussion, the offer was withdrawn.]

There were planning processes in the Williams Administration and the Gray Administration, but full plans were never released.  There was a master plan process for playgrounds in 2012.

(2) no public typology of the types of spaces and facilities that comprise a complete system; and 

(3) the failure to apply a typology of spaces and facilities at four scales: city-wide; quadrant; district/area (multiple neighborhoods; technically the city doesn't plan at the ward scale, but the "area" scale, except that it doesn't really plan at this scale at all); and neighborhood ("Prototyping and municipal capital improvement programs," 2008), recognizing that certain types of facilities are offered at larger scales.

David Barth, Glatting Jackson/AECOM

This framework is for a district/neighborhood, not a full city-wide set of parks, spaces, and facilities, drawn from a plan for the Buckhead District of Atlanta:

• Plazas
• Central Gathering Space
• Neighborhood Parks
• Community Greens
• Conservation Parks
• Greenways & Trails
• Historical & Cultural Resources
• Public Art
• Dog Parks

A plan for a city or county includes a wider range including larger regional and special nature parks, and recreation facilities in a range of sizes, including both general and specialized types of facilities, e.g., the plans for Montgomery County Maryland's recreation facilities, parks, and public spaces.

These planning failures make it doubly frustrating that because of the amount of park space in the city--due to the spaces run by the National Park Service--DC undeservingly rates highly, often first, in the Trust for Public Land's rating system for urban parks ("Lies, damn lies, and statistics: parks edition," 2012; "Washington, DC, Named Best City Park System in 10th Annual ParkScore® index, Lifted by Strong Scores for Park Equity," TPL).

Because the rating is so out of sorts with the on the ground reality, it's very difficult for advocates to break through and get traction for improvements.

(And mostly, the directors of the DPR tend to be political appointees, people with limited professional experience in parks and recreation.)

NOTE that there are many more examples, these are just within the past couple years.  Why not invest in planning instead of blowing it off?

1.  Anacostia wants a dog park.  The most current is about how the Anacostia district doesn't have a dog park ("Why some say D.C.’s poorest ward needs a dog park: ‘Black people have dogs, too.’").   Of course it should.  But without systematic facilities planning at the district and neighborhood scale, why should we be surprised that there isn't?  Especially since in the DPR system, dog park "planning" is initiated by residents.

2.  Ivy City wants a community center ("Inside the housing showdown in D.C.’s Ivy City, where kids have no place to play," "Children in Ivy City have already waited too long for a place to play," and "After decades of waiting, D.C.’s Ivy City to get community center at Crummell School").  

My joke is that DC government's primary property management strategy is demolition by neglect.

After the Ward 5 Councilmember threatened to vote against the city budget, the Mayor capitulated and agreed to fund to a community center in the old Crummell School building, which has been empty for decades.

There is no question that the neighborhood is under resourced in terms of parks and open spaces, although there is a small park space, and the neighborhood is proximate to the open spaces of Gallaudet University and a couple recreation centers in the Trinidad neighborhood, one is just a little more than one mile away, but it's a gnarly walk.  OTOH, Ivy City has fewer than 2,000 residents in Ivy City, out of a city of 682,000, which likely doesn't justify a large community center, but one more right sized for the community.

(And couldn't there be joint planning with some of the independently owned multiunit buildings?)

The issue for me is having facilities in the neighborhood, granted there aren't many, and having metrics to determine what facilities should be there.  With no plan at either the city-wide or neighborhood scale, it shouldn't be a surprise that the neighborhood is under supplied for parks, open space, and community facilities.

3.  Anacostia wants public spaces as part of the commercial district ("A D.C. developer received a presidential pardon. Now, a neglected neighborhood hopes he will show mercy to a cherished community hub," originally reported in District Dig, "Sudden entry").  They were taking care of a vacant space, making it over into a community garden, because the owner, one of DC's largest commercial property owners, wasn't taking care of it.

The people quoted in the article come across as naive, but the basic point is that districts need public space plans that ensure commercial districts have a variety of spaces and facilities to meet the needs of patrons.

(Note that I think that one category frequently ignored when it comes to commercial districts are play spaces for children.)

Interestingly, the firm gifted the space to the community earlier this year ("Developer Douglas Jemal Gifts Community Garden To Check It Enterprises, Ending Long Standoff," DCist).

One problem with the "Secret Garden" is that it isn't really very publicly accessible as it is behind buildings.

One great example of a decent neighborhood/commercial district plaza in DC in Columbia Heights ("The layering effect: how the building blocks of an integrated public realm set the stage for community building and Silver Spring, Maryland as an example").  Opened in 2009, it has a splash fountain, supports community events and gatherings, is home to farmers markets, etc.

But it's pretty much a one off, but a good example of the problem with the planning process.  That neighborhood has a "public realm framework" plan.  Most DC neighborhoods do not, especially without a master plan process or typology of spaces and facilities.  

And outside of Business Improvement Districts there is no mechanism to manage public spaces in a systematic way (although San Francisco's Green Benefits District mechanism is worth adopting more broadly.)

4. Adams Morgan to lose plaza at 18th Street and Columbia Road ("Judge rules that groups have no legal standing to fight Adams Morgan project"). It turns out a public easement was never recorded for this public plaza at the crossroads of the Adams Morgan commercial district.  (The site was originally developed after the 1968 riots, by a local savings and loan that was community spirited; but they were merged into a traditional bank in the 1990s, after being declared insolvent.) A developer plans to remove most of the plaza in favor of an apartment building.

The plaza outside SunTrust Bank in Adams Morgan, photographed in 2016. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

The plaza, at the SW corner of the intersection, is a community space, home to a Saturday Farmer's Market and other activities.  And is kitty corner from a similar, but unused space across the intersection at the NE corner.

The space should have been protected as part of planning processes at the city-wide, district, and neighborhood scale, and as part of creating a network of public spaces in that area.

It's a clear planning failure.  Of course, the city is stuck between wanting development and theoretically, helping to extend and support the quality of life in the city's various neighborhoods.

5.  Columbia Heights dog park.  Residents used a remnant space owned by Metrorail as a dog park called 11th and Bark.  To raise money, WMATA wanted to sell the property, but residents agitated for DC government to buy it ("D.C. Might Be Buying The Dog Park In Columbia Heights After All"), which it did ("A $2.1 million parcel of D.C. land is on track to go to the dogs"). 

Metro currently owns a parcel of land that Columbia Heights residents use as a dog park. 
 Jordan Pascale / WAMU

Again, acting on an ad-hoc basis, no plan.


The major points I made in my 2012 testimony on DC's Department of Parks and Recreation:

1. The Parks and Recreation Department operates without a public master plan.

2. Without a master plan there is no public planning framework, no definition for level of service, no public process for making capital improvement decisions, no means for evaluating the mission and success of the department, no typology for the types of parks and services that should be made available to the public, etc. 

3. Best practice parks planning is at the cutting edge of placemaking and city/community planning across the country, and is seen as fundamental to quality of life, economic development, and sustainability.

4. DPR has a narrow and constrained vision. (With the exception of the facility in Deanwood.) Parks and recreation planning guidance should incorporate other agencies, nonprofit organizations, and for profit facilities. And flexible use spaces should be provided. 

5. Local parks and recreation planning guidance should be in place concerning the National Park Service.

6. The public realm needs to be planned expansively between DPR, DDOT, and the Office of Planning.

7. DPR needs to refocus its mission around enabling civic engagement, engaging citizens as programming providers, by creating parks and recreation committees for each installation, and providing citizens with significant input into the planning and programming for these facilities. 

8. DPR needs to reconceptualize how it brands and delivers programs, to coordinate programs by various agencies, and provide innovative programs in ways that improve service and reduce cost.

9. Programming plans focused on engaging the local communities need to be in place for each DPR facility. 

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At 1:04 PM, Anonymous charlie said...

I wouldn't say the Columbia Heights plaza is a one-off success.

It's actually a shitshow. Local residents treat it as a complete failure. Basically a magnet for shootings and other affairs.

Good design, but no ownership.

At 2:32 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

No argument from me. There are two issues: spaces and management (which includes programming).

In the 2012 piece on Silver Spring and "layering" I made the point that unlike the two main spaces there -- Veterans Plaza (public) and the splash fountain area (privately managed public space), the Columbia Heights space wasn't really managed.

And that like in Silver Spding the various spaces within Columbia Heights aren't conceptualized and managed as a network.

The spaces need to be managed.

Again, insane that TPL ranks DC so highly, indicating its measures are very gross grained.

Years before there was a similar issue with the park at the foot of Mount Pleasant, where Latino vendors would set up, and brick and mortar businesses didn't like it. DPR was given the management, and they kept the vendors for awhile, but then succumbed to the complaints of the brick and mortar businesses.

I think that was a mistake too.

cf. Adams Morgan Vision Framework

Decent vision, decent framework, clearly very little follow through.

At 2:36 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

I seem to recall the vendor market being at Rabaut Park for awhile (at the intersection of Columbia Road and 16th Street NW). I guess not.

At 3:10 PM, Anonymous charlie said...

Looks as if I may be off on the NYC mayor's race!

Reading the CH plan now...honestly first I heard about it.

But yes followthrough is the big missing element.

At 4:37 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

CH plan one of the only ones like that. On the CH list I argued some of the elements were flawed. But overall a good plan. But again, the spaces have to be managed.

(Years later I realized big gaps in the H Street and NoMa plans was lack of attention to public spaces and the need to create them. But I was still learning then. DCOP had an urban design unit, but it wasn't particularly proactive outside of Downtown and even there was probably pushed by the BID.)

Cf wrt the importance of management and the recent rise in disorder

2. Wrt New York, I think my analysis is more luck than anything. That I was right that women would be inclined to vote for other women, not a woman first and Adams second.

For me, either I didn't know or forgot about the AM vision framework. Good but meaningless since almost nothing is implemented.

It illustrates my point that successful revitalization efforts require implementation mechanisms, which is merely another way of saying "management."

At 6:48 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

In the Livable whatever plan for the Truxton Circle area, the planners refused to give the city responsibility for considering decking over the North Capitol depressed roadway, and didn't really pursue urban design improvements.

The Bloomingdale Civic Association went above and beyond in ways that for DC neighborhoods is unprecedented.

At 3:59 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

Selling park sponsorships.

At 8:45 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

DCist: Adams Morgan Plaza Fenced Off As Fight Over Condos Continues.


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