The Perks of New Parks

Little moments of joy in an evolving urban landscape 

In March 2020, vibrations of the Earth eased. Anthropogenic activity generates a hum within the Earth’s crust so that “every day as we humans operate our factories, drive our cars, even simply walk on our sidewalks, we rattle the planet,” says Nicholas Christakis in the book Apollo’s Arrow.  

Our very presence causes vibrations discernible to seismologists. Then we were still. During the COVID-19 pandemic, that pause was a window within which priorities changed, urban experiments happened, and unforeseen forces such as work from home influenced the built environment of Dallas and neighboring cities.  

Parks make up one type of infrastructure that proved vital during the pandemic. “Parks functioned as a flex space that could support some footprints that couldn’t safely be held indoors anymore,” says Jenn Carlson, AIA of HKS.  

With all of the focus on working from home, there was little conversation about the substantial uptick in park use. Carlson, Abel Clutter of Page, and Erick Sabin of LRK – all members of the AIA Dallas Communities by Design Committee – decided to start a dialogue with a survey of AIA members and others in the community titled “Get Outside.” Its intent was to show that people were using parks differently and at a higher rate. Although the survey does not fully reflect Dallas’ diverse population, it still provides an informal snapshot from over 100 respondents. The responses reveal a 10% increase in daily park use and a 26% increase in park use of three to five times a week.  

Have Dallas residents sustained that higher park usage? Robert Kent of the Trust for Public Land said he and his wife walked every evening to wind down after a day of working from home in summer 2020. But after returning to the office, they had to be intentional about leaving work on time to keep up their routine.  

The increase in outdoor exercise has enough benefits that, ironically, “a health crisis may be leading to some significant health benefits for folks,” says Kent, whose organization works to make sure that Americans have access parks and the outdoors nearby. 

Kent suggests that small changes, such as a fraction of the population walking 20% more, will have outsized community health outcomes. But the sharp uptick in park use could well be followed by a slow descent back to the average, although Kent is optimistic that the new average will stick at a little higher than previously.  

The pandemic pause gave greater urgency and awareness to the issues of inequality as well. “The last year revealed for a lot of majority groups how life is for minority groups, not just race, but income,” Kent said. 

In 2021, the Trust for Public Land, or TLP, added equity as a key metric alongside acreage, investment, amenities, and access for its ParksScore, which ranks park systems for the 100 largest cities in the U.S. each year. Plano placed an impressive 15th, but the rest of North Texas is far behind, with Dallas ranking 50th and Arlington, Fort Worth, Garland, and Irving placing in the bottom 25%.  

The North Texas chapter of TLP has already been working to increase access to parks through projects such as Dallas’ Five Mile Creek Greenbelt and Alice Branch Creek. But heightened awareness of equity “brought more urgency to the work for the decision-makers that help make these types of efforts happen,” Kent said. “The generation of kids that don’t have access to parks and green space within walking distance of their home … can’t wait 10 years.”  

The question for TPL and similar nonprofits is how parks can be become an “engine for equity,” he said. 

In spring 2021, the Better Block, which promotes vibrant neighborhoods, and the Real Estate Council’s Dallas Catalyst Project also highlighted inequity amid the pandemic with the MLK Food Truck Park. The event had been planned as a Complete Streets demonstration for spring 2020, but was delayed a year by COVID-19, then changed entirely to focus on food and highlight the pandemic’s impact on small food vendors.  

“People said no one would come to South Dallas, but we had 5,500 people in nine days,” said Krista Nightengale, Hon. AIA Dallas of Better Block. The pop-up event transformed an empty lot into a small market with booths, a stage, seating, abundant shade, and mulch to minimize mud from spring rainfall. When I visited on a late Saturday morning, an energetic jazz band was in full swing. With barbecue from Holy Smokes and sweets from Brown Suga Vegan bakery, it was a good time. South Dallas vendors said that the park provided greater visibility for their brands.  

It also illustrated the barriers to mobile food vending. Nightengale said a food trailer or push cart requires capital of $25,000 to $30,000, and a food truck will cost $50,000 to $200,000. Similar to those of other cities, the Dallas ordinance required that food trucks start from and return to an approved commissary each day for vehicle service and sanitation, and be parked at the commissary for a minimum of five hours overnight.  

But there are no commissaries in South Dallas, which adds to driving time and gas costs for food trucks to serve that area. The ordinance, which Nightengale noted was about 10 years old and was due for an update, also limited the food types. A freshly prepared chicken salad is not possible as no vegetables can be chopped in a food truck and no chicken can be grilled. Chicken must be breaded and can only go from the freezer to the frier. Certainly, food safety is paramount, but cities such as Austin, Portland, Cleveland, and Nashville have adapted ordinances, leading to stronger mobile food cultures. In May 2022, an updated ordinance was passed by the City of Dallas. 

Another program that pivoted to support the restaurant sector during the pandemic was downtown Dallas’ PARK(ing) Day, led by Downtown Dallas Inc., or DDI. The program invited participants to partner with a local business and submit ideas digitally of how businesses could use the temporary parklet program that the city started in April 2020. (Parklets are set up for a short time in curbside parking places to provide amenities to pedestrians.) AIA Dallas’ Communities by Design with Peter Darby, AIA of Darby Architecture and Andrew Wallace, Assoc. AIA of Architexas reached out to Adrian Busby-Cotten of the Pegasus Brewery, which opened its second location at the Dallas Power and Light Building in the fall of 2020. They proposed a biergarten with five 9-by-9-foot modular booths that could be manufactured off-site and delivered in a flat form and then literally popped up. The brewery sets aside defective cans that cannot be used for beer production; these leftover cans could fill low wood shelves of the booths to provide a screen from the street. With the foundation made of wooden pallets that the beer cans are delivered on, it has a sustainable sensibility. Wallace added that Adrian’s “whole philosophy for the brewery was picking up these landmarks in Dallas and really highlighting” them. It resonated with DDI as well since the design won the Most Creative Award.  

Doug Prude of DDI said, “The first goal of PARK(ing) Day is to get cities to really look at these [parking] spaces” and recognize that “you don’t need to reserve this for a car; we can actually use it for other things.”  

In addition to the concepts for PARK(ing) Day, restaurants primarily in downtown, Deep Ellum, and Uptown took advantage of the city’s temporary parklet program to expand their restaurant footprint and safely serve customers outside. Nightengale said parklets also provided a walkability component in slowing traffic and making spaces more pedestrian-friendly. “A coffee shop we’ve been talking to about doing a parklet … has maybe four seating spaces inside. A parklet would literally quadruple that.”  

One benefit of the pandemic was cities becoming more open to experimentation and embracing pilot programs like the temporary parklets, Nightengale said. The City of McKinney not only established a temporary parklet program but used CARES Act funding to commission Better Block to produce two modular, adaptable parklets. Any restaurant can apply for use of the parklets.  

The City of Dallas expanded the temporary park program with the idea of Street Seats, a more permanent program with a longer permit provided. Better Block worked with the city to create 14 iterations of two parklet designs for restaurants. Since the design has been reviewed and approved through all city departments, restaurants owners can have some confidence that the 90-day permitting process will be successful. The costs are estimated to run $6,000 to $17,000 for a 10-by-6-foot parklet.  

Other cities turned to shared street programs so neighborhoods would have more room for pedestrians. Chicago, Toronto, and Oakland, Calif., have had robust programs in place for residential areas. Within Texas, Nightengale said that Austin’s program “was a little slower to start. They finally got a program in place and then they said they were taking it away.” 

Designed by the Better Block as part of The Real Estate Council’s Dallas Catalyst Project, the MLK Food Park was a pop-up park created in a vacant lot in the Forest District of South Dallas. / Credit: Better Block // Better Block designed and fabricated this 36-foot parklet for McKinney, TX. Each parklet is comprised of 12 modular platforms that can be rearranged to fit the needs of the businesses they’ll sit in front of. / Credit: Better Block

Within Dallas, a similar program was limited to a short, small pilot of closing down one neighborhood block for up to 10 applicants for thirty days. Although there appeared to be sustained interest, the pilot has not been continued to date. Nightengale said people realized that the block party permit process is not always sensible, which has led to interest in improving the process.  

Across the pond, London, which experienced some of the most stringent lockdowns, dominated the scene of block parties and play streets. Before the pandemic, the nonprofit London Play, which aims to make London the most playful city in the world, had supported the creation of over 150 play streets across the 33 boroughs over the span of a decade. However, with the lockdown, play streets were “mothballed in one sense because mixing wasn’t allowed” said Paul Hocher of London Play. 

Fiona Sutherland said the organization did provide guidance of ways to reframe play streets “as a safe space on their doorstep” for children to play without coming in contact with other households. Sutherland said that London Play’s perspective was that “kids have been hammered by this pandemic. They’ve been taken out of school away from each other, locked in incarceration in flats with parents who are under stress and potentially ill family members. They need more than ever to get out and play, and play streets are actually the safest option for them.” One upside is that the suffering of children during the lockdown boosted awareness of kids’ need to play, with more calls for design professionals to consider the urban fabric with the lens of providing incidental places for children to play throughout the whole city.  

Additionally, London Play provided the play street carousel, “a suitcase full of art materials and a video recorder and a sound recorder. And the aim is for people to pass that from household to household on a single street and collect examples of games that people played from different cultures, from different generations.”  

These types of community connection are similar to what Carlson of HKS recalls about the COVID-19 shutdowns. “Something I loved about the pandemic was being forced to spend a lot more time in my community instead of downtown in my office,” she said. “I hope that we embrace those little moments of joy – how can design continue to foster connection and connectivity?” 

The future of work and its influence on downtown Dallas has implications that will play out slowly in the next several years. Survey data showed that tiny offices were back to business as usual early in the pandemic, Prude said. Small firms followed, although many piloted the concept of three days in the office. For the large companies downtown, there were simply less people per square foot, as some opted to work from home and some came into the office.  

But Jon Altschuler of Altschuler + Co. said that most predictions about the future of work during the middle of the pandemic were wildly inaccurate. Corporate tenants are “saying, at least for a segment of their workforce, this remote style of working is effective for the employee and cost-effective for the company.”  

Because office leases move at a slower pace with timeframes of five to 15 years, companies may be making longer-term moves, which will play out over the next several years in the downtown office sector. Altschuler said that office towers missed capitalizing more on including outdoor space as part of the office environment, and amenities such as the new West End Square add critical value.  

Cataclysmic change can appear in an instant as it did in March 2020. Christakis captures what we know now as this: “While the way we have come to live in the time of the COVID-19 pandemic might feel alien and unnatural, it is actually neither of these things. Plagues are a feature of the human experience. What happened in 2020 was not new to our species. It was just new to us.” 

A little-known connection between the vibe of the Roaring ’20s was not only the conclusion of World War I, but also the relief from the Spanish flu pandemic.  

We are now on the other side of the pandemic and keenly aware of, as Carlson phrased it, “those little moments of joy” and the influence they will have on the built world around us in the years to come.  

Lisa Casey, ASLA is an associate and landscape architect at Studio Outside. 

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