Designing Small Parks

Designing Small Parks: A Manual for Addressing Social and Ecological Concerns is the report of a year-long project on redesigning neighborhood parks and town squares. The manual was published by Wiley in October 2005. The project was supported by the USDA Forest Service through the National Urban and Community Forestry Advisory Council grants program.

Small parks are a key part of most neighborhoods but typically provide mostly recreational benefits. With demographic and cultural changes and an increase in ecological awareness, those involved in designing, redesigning, and maintaining parks need to understand the multiple roles that parks can have as part of the public space and ecological networks in the urban landscape.

By definition small parks have limited areas, so they cannot meet all the potential demands for space for varied human activities and multiple natural processes. Helping those involved in planning, designing, and managing parks understand where it is easy to serve multiple purposes, and where it is more difficult, is an important aim of this manual.

The core of the manual is arranged around thirteen topics that represent key questions, contradictions, or tensions in the design of small urban parks.

The first four topics in the manual on size, edges, appearance, and urban nature deal with fundamental issues for small urban parks. They are small and can only accommodate a limited number of activities; they likely have more edges than larger parks with both problems and benefits. These issues are magnified because people differ in their preferences about park appearance.

The next four sections on plants, wildlife, water, and air and climate deal with the topics where natural systems are key and where small parks can play a role in a larger open-space and ecological system. These natural features, however, also form part of the human environment providing pleasure (e.g., watching wildlife) and comfort (e.g., moderating air temperature).

The final five sections focus more squarely on human aspects of how different social groups use parks, the kinds of activities small parks need to accommodate and how to manage inevitable conflicts over use; more qualitative issues about the sensual experience of parks; issues of personal safety; and the very real problems of park maintenance and management.

Fine-print facts outline key-research findings relevant to the topic that are too detailed to put in the body of the guidelines. These fine-print facts provide some of the research basis for each guideline.

The manual includes a portfolio of case studies with alternative designs for five prototype parks. We designed these in order to test the guidelines under different scenarios. These include designing a new suburban park that includes a stormwater management area, rehabilitating a central city park in an area with relatively new immigrant populations, redesigning an existing park in a suburban area that has key recreational and ecological roles, creating a new urbanist town square, and reusing a vacant lot as a temporary park.

Published as:

  • 2006     A. Forsyth and L. Musacchio. Small Parks, Landscape Architecture Graphic Standards. Len Hopper ed. New York: Wiley.
  • 2006     L. Musacchio & A. Forsyth, Small Things Considered, Parks and Recreation 41, 4: 42-47.
  • A. Forsyth and L. Musacchio. Designing Small Parks: A Manual for Addressing Social and Ecological Concerns. New York: Wiley.Chinese translation by Zhide Yang (China Architecture and Building Press, 2007).
  • 2005     A. Forsyth and L. Musacchio. Why Small Parks Matter, Planning 71, 11: 32-35.

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