January 30, 2012

Revitalizing America’s Worst Urban Park

by: Will Novak


Today’s post is by contributing writer Will Novak:

Since I’m stuck in Boston until the end of February I’ve been unable to participate in the current visioning processes for Hance Park. From what I’ve seen, the process is moving along rather rapidly, but so far I’ve yet to see a plan that fulfills the parks amazing potential.

Below is a slide show I’ve created outlining what I think it will take to make Hance Park one of America’s great urban parks. It’s a big vision; it will take time and lots of money, but its better to dream big and do it right.

The slideshow concludes with a hand drawn map of what I think the park can be like. Please keep in mind that I’m not a professional artist and its just a rough jumping off point.

Finally, the ideas in this slideshow have been heavily influenced by a few key sources: the Project For Public Spaces and its leader Fred Kent, specifically their book How to Turn A Place Around. Additionally, the work of Jane Jacobs, Daniel Burnham, William H Whyte and Fredrick Law Olmsted were in the forefront of my mind while contemplating this vision, I’m sure you’ll note the influence.

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17 Responses

  1. “America’s Worst Urban Park” — That sounds a little too much like the title of a book I love to hate (one that has been mentioned a lot on this site lately). I agree, however, that it’s a badly designed, underutilized park. The irony is that Hance Park was built to heal the city after homes were demolished and neighborhoods split to accomodate the highly controversial final segment of Interstate 10.

    Unfortunately, Hance Park, as it exists today, is as much a barrier as the freeway it covers. As you have mentioned, parking lots, fences, and hideous buildings like the Channel 12 bunker hide the park and impede access to it. Within the park, attractions like Japanese Friendship Garden and the Irish Cultural Center are needlessly walled off from one another and the park’s main areas.

    One note about the food trucks idea: The City’s parks department is already planning to proceed with a trial run of food trucks at the Downtown Civic Space, a park that is much better designed but still underutilized. I think that location makes more sense due to the number of office workers and ASU students in proximity to the Civic Space.

  2. Will Novak says:

    Thanks for your thoughtful comments as always. Regarding the title, I know what you mean, I kind of went back and forth on it. But it really is the worst urban park I’ve been to and I figure coming from a local who really loves the City and wants to make it better, its maybe somehow more OK to be negative…I dunno.

    About the food trucks, thats great about them going to the Civic Space, definitely a good idea. My thought in general with food trucks is that the City needs to permit them in more places and the Food Truck market can sort itself out. The Capitol Mall/Bolin Plaza for instance would be a great place for them, as the people who work in that area have nothing in terms of walkable food options.

    Here in Boston there’s lots of spaces that can only support one or two food trucks at a time, and each day there seems to be a different one in said spot. I like that, it provides variety for nearby patrons. It would be nice if local food truckers could be at Bolin plaza one day, Civic Space the next, the Public Market the next and Hance after that. If it turns out there’s not a market for them at any one of those places, they can leave at their own accord. 🙂

  3. Will,

    This is a great list of ideas! I work a block from the park and I have thought of all of these things at one point or another. The only one I disagree with is a pond. Yuck! (Okay, and mini-golf. I’m just not a mini-golf kinda person, so that never crossed my mind.)

    Anyways, I’d love to see the rest of these implemented, and I’m forwarding this presentation to the City of Phoenix and maybe they will get a clue.

    My only concerns are:
    1. How will these ideas be funded?
    and 2. What about the homeless people?

    Any suggestions for solutions to those problems?

  4. Dear Mr. Burke,

    There is nothing wrong with Hance Park, the ideas that have been proposed sound like Disney Land, but does not increase its role as a communing area.

    The problem is that it needs to be used more. It has one of the most beautiful lighted spaces underneath the lightrail bridge that would lend itself to a variety of uses, particularly dining and a sitting area. But, it does not require the type of renovation that is being proposed.

    It would be more appropriate if many of the empty lots throughout PHX could have communing areas designed on them.Rather than gild the lilly, we should look at creatively filling in empty lots that don’t have anything on them. Example, the lot on third ave and Roosevelt, across from Monorchid, would be a wonderful area for a new park.

    Thank you,

  5. Patrick Brennan says:

    I generally agree with everything here, but would perhaps reorganize some of the ideas and add greater emphasis to others. For instance, my first thought about the permanent eateries was that they would inevitably fail if not led by increased usage….. and then came the suggestion to move the Art Institute and other uses closer to the park. Also related, I think the issue of walkways and promenades should take a more central role, in tandem with some of the suggestions for better defined borders. People ought to be drawn into and through the park. I would even suggest that we do more to make it an inviting short cut from one side to the other by continuing pedestrian walkways in north-south directions. The trick, it seems, is in getting more people to use the park — something our parks department does not typically do very well, from what I’ve observed.

    One other suggestion, regarding the Japanese garden, is that we look toward Oakland for guidance. They have an enclosed bonsai garden that is open on weekends and whenever volunteer gardeners are there to keep an eye on the place and accept donations. This arrangement appears to work quite well, as it’s a win-win for the gardeners and public. Our city too often seems to fear handing over control in such a way, which is unfortunate. I suppose the same concern applies to using the park as an event space — we often hear that the open space must be kept open and unobstructed, but what is the city doing to promote large events that benefit from such wide open space? The only time in recent months that I’ve seen more than a dozen people at the park, the majority were wearing police uniforms and riot gear.

  6. Will Novak says:

    What don’t you like about a pond? I really love the one at Discovery Green in Houston, kids can rent little motor boats to play with in the pond, people fish and certain times of year they even do urban kayak lessons on the small pond- its lots of fun. Even if the Mini golf, or any particular attraction doesn’t appeal to you (i.e. I’ll never play soccer) remember we need to make the park appeal to as wide of a group of people as possible.

    Re: the homeless. Generally speaking, busy public parks often don’t have a homeless issue. Hance Park has more or less become a skid row in PHX because no one else uses, it makes a quiet, comfortable place for the homeless. If it were full of people, it would likely encourage some of the homeless to move on. Additionally designing the park and surrounding buildings in a way that promotes “eyes on the street” is key as Jane Jacobs taught us. There will always be some homeless people who stay, and thats fine, when the park is flooded with other people they’ll end up just blending in and becoming park of the fabric of the City.

    Good call on the Bonsai Park in Oakland. Thats one City I haven’t really visited, so I was unfamiliar. Like I said, this is just really a jumping off point and borrows things from great parks I’ve seen all around the Nation.

    You say the park needs to be used more, we all agree. But why would anyone use it currently? There’s really not very much one can do there, thus people aren’t attracted to it. People attract other people, and to attract the initial people a public space must be clean, safe and have a variety of uses. All park space shouldn’t just be quiet places to idle, read or think…thats good for some folks but not others. We need uses that appeal to a wide spectrum of people.

    Its easy to say there should just be new parks on empty lots, but many of those lots are privately owned. I’m all for temporary re-use of dirt lots (i.e. Valley of the Sunflowers) but we already have Hance under City control and can make it great.

  7. mark lymer says:

    hi Will – nice list of todo’s! put in some good time on this. starting small, maybe you could volunteer to plant trees? personally dont like palm trees, dont cast shade, drop lots of things. symbolic, but kind of silly when the same space could be used for shade. I attended a couple Hance park meetings. There’s no shortage of ideas for the park, I heard a lot of them. Think that what the adjacent neighborhoods want is paramount. It was their hoods that got sliced. I’m not a fan of slicing cities with freeways, btw. But as in LA, one thing that seems to be happening is those pizza slices are becoming discrete neighborhoods once again, takes decades tho. I’m aware of and read the same stuff you mentioned, even talked with Fred when he was in Tempe a few years ago. And a buddy lives in an Olmsted designed hood in Baltimore. but will come out here, I was a part of the design team for the ‘Deck Park’ as it was called in house, before Margaret T. Hance. Me and a landscape arch designed the hardscape area east of the bridge. I had spent the summer before in Rome studying street design, the Forum and walking around several piazzas and fountains. I wrote a small bad book on one very old street. So when I was ‘assigned’ to the team to design the park, some of the Rome stuff was still stuck in my head. ie: fountains, ancient culture, etc. So…the theme of the hardscape plaza was an unearthed Hohokam village. Yeh, no one but us mice knew that. But it also had to relate to the bridge that was designed by an arch in KC, who thought it was Wrightian…..the shade structures were never built, you talk about a ‘room’, those would have helped. And there was a large fountain planned, i designed it also, same theme, at the east end of the hardscape plaza. again in -house name. It didnt get built either, gc complained it was too hard. it was basically legos, so, go figure. The consultant for it was Dick Chaix, he was teaching at Harvard at the time, good guy. The large fountain was cut for budget, ditto the shade structures. I grew up in Phx-Tempe, so I get ‘shade’. Basically I think there are inexpensive things that can be done, asap. Fill in the not-maintained fountains on the n-s sides of the plaza. put plants in them. put up some kind of shade structures at the same locations as earlier. used to be able to see the nelson lugs sticking up, waiting for the steel plates of the columns. so put up tensile, etc. cheaper. dont last as long, but worth it typically. repair the fountain area next to the bridge. that was intended as a giant evap cooler to begin with. bernoulli-venturi -whatever- breezes coming thru tunnel, the diurnals in the summer, etc. cooling ea side of the bridge. ponds next to the bridge were intended as wading pools to begin with, that’s why there are those blocks in the middle, to sit on! and agree, walking in the tunnel should be fun, not creepy. as far as the rest of the park, i was not involved. did not design Japanese-Irish things. both by other luminaries in the office or by others in those countries. agree that they should have been connected, mystified they weren’t. Oakland is a good idea.
    but trying to control what happens on private property is another ball game all together. this isn’t sim-city. just not that easy. moving businesses is extremely complex. knocking down buildings and hauling them away is very expensive, think about hazardous waste….but also the op to bring in private operators is always an there, that is in the control of the parks dept. just gotta find operators for ferris wheels, etc. oh, and I also think about things like bright lights shining into peoples living rooms or bedrooms, or barking dogs at midnight, etc. use all your senses. also btw: the city has no money. best -mark.

  8. olllllo says:

    When I read this post, I couldn’t help but think that I would love sit in the park you created and have a beer. That would be the natural step from a restaurant.

    Beer Gardens are undergoing a bit of a Renaissance in New York and Milwaukee. In New York there are pop-up beer gardens. In Milwaukee, there is COUNTY support for a return to the classic brewery beer gardens of the 1800’s. (In fact it was Frederick Pabst that brought beer gardens from Milwaukee to New York.) Read about that here: http://www.jsonline.com/news/milwaukee/milwaukee-county-to-solicit-bids-for-beer-gardens-in-some-parks-3u3p49b-137133833.html

    So, yes, knowing what I know now, Tea for Taz and a Horchata for you!


  9. Will Novak says:

    Thanks for your time, good to hear from someone who was involved originally. Its interesting to hear it was all designed in separate chunks and put together lego style– no wonder it didn’t “come together”.

    Regarding the Ch 12 building: according to the Maricopa County Assessor that building is owned by the City and they’re just leasing it to the Southwest Aids Center. The City owns a lot of land along the Light Rail corridor, so down the road (I’m talking years and years) they could find them a new and perhaps even better home.

    Agreed about light, noise, etc going into peoples homes. Thats why Im proposing keeping nosier/busier uses on the parks East half. The West half should be more of a community/sports park since its nearer to single family homes.

    And yes, the City has no money. But I’d rather we plan very very long term and hope the money can be saved over time and also partially be raised privately through the Conservancy and sponsorships.

  10. Will Novak says:

    Great idea on the beer garden! Being a non drinker that idea likely would’ve never occurred to me. A beer garden could easily be adjacent to a restaurant or bar that specialized in local breweries or whatever. This is the sort of discussion we need, thinking about amenities that attract people from all ages, ethnicities, walks of life, etc.

    Thanks too for the link!

  11. Will Novak says:

    Oh I just had another thought re: beer garden!

    Hance Park is already becoming something of a de facto Sister Cities park. There’s the Japanese Friendship Garden (Himeji, Japan), the Irish Culturual Center (Ennis), and the Jewish Community Center (Ramat-Gan, Israel) that represent those Sister Cities at Hance.

    While beer gardens originated in Germany (we don’t have a German Sister City) they’re also extremely popular in the Czech Republic and we’re Sister Cities with Prague! The Riegrovy & Letenske beer gardens are very popular in Prague. Perhaps with the guidance of our friends from Prague we could have an authentic Czech style beer garden, maybe the adjacent pub/restaurant could even specialize in Czech cuisine, serve Czech (as well as Arizonan) beers, be a meeting place for new Czech immigrants and a community gathering space for the Czech community in AZ.

  12. Joseph Benesh says:

    I agree with most of this, thanks for taking the time. I think the food trucks are great. I work at the Phoenix Center for the Arts and love walking through the park to meetings; I’d eat in the park if their was food provided there (like the food carts in the parks in NYC).

    I like the water pad playground because it also addresses the moms and kids constituency. But I’m against the fountain because we live in a desert.

    I’m fully committed to the amphitheater idea as we’re working on that at the Center too.


  13. Will Novak says:

    “But I’m against the fountain because we live in a desert” isn’t that exactly the reason we need more fountains in Phoenix? Fountains and water features create cooling, comfortable microclimates. They let you run your hand through them to cool your brow. Its not like a fountain wastes a lot of water, most of the water is recycled within itself. Plus its not as if it would be using potable water.

  14. Cory Kincaid says:

    There are a few items that may be particularly hard and I haven’t yet looked to see what is in each of those specific ‘Outer Park’ spaces you mention to ensure there aren’t surprises… but I think this is a great vision for the park. There is tons of space to play within each of these core ideas but seeing your specific items in each area helps drive food for thought. Great read and definitely worth sharing with others. Thanks!

  15. olllllo says:

    If anyone else is interested in this idea of Beer Gardens (and what they offer to the discussion independent of beer itself) there is a good survey of history and social meaning here.


    The notion of an inviting place is central to beer culture and in Germany it is expressed as:

    GemĂĽtlichkeit: (g-muet-lik-kite) a warm friendliness—belonging, social acceptance, cheerfulness, the absence of anything hectic…and the opportunity to spend quality time.


  16. Peter Martori says:

    Outstanding article! Thanks for all your effort.

    One thing I would throw in the bucket is a soapbox area. Something we’re a little nervous about, but part of our society. A block of cement in an open area may invite some mutual respect and boundaries.

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