Earlier this year I visited Vancouver for the first time. It’s a city that looms large in urban writing, both because of it’s achievements and the urbanists it has produced.
So it didn’t take me long to see an example of something working well: the park in the pictures below.
During my time in Vancouver this park appeared to be well-used and successful. It was filled with families, children, a few elderly people, etc. It was a place that after just a brief glance made me want to experience more of it.
Which all got me wondering: why isn’t Salt Lake City’s Pioneer Park equally successful?
Pioneer Park is an attractive and well kept place. It’s just a few blocks from the very center of the city, and well within downtown. It’s also the site of the Twilight Concert Series and the Farmer’s Market in the summers.
And yet Pioneer Park is unequivocally a failure at the moment. Other than the few hours per week when it hosts concerts and markets, it’s empty but for a semi-permanent encampment of homeless people. I run in the park — sometimes I’m the only non-homeless person out of 70 or more people — and I often see fights, drug deals, prostitution, and general mayhem. Earlier this year, I even saw a dead body.
So why are these two parks, which are both attractive and well-located, so different in character?
There are many reasons, and I plan to touch on others in the future, but here’s a big one: density.
If you look at the edges of the park in those pictures, you see lots and lots of skyscrapers. Vancouver is famous for the way it has added density, but this park is a good example of what density does: it puts more people on the street and surrounding destinations. That in turn increases safety and economic vitality; if there are suddenly 30 families at a park, drug dealers, for example, end up elsewhere — either by choice or because a bunch of middle class people won’t tolerate them.
Now lets look at Pioneer Park:
The first of those two pictures of Pioneer Park shows a new housing project now being completed on the north side. There’s another condo development next door, but that’s pretty much it right now. In the second picture, the kind of development that rings the park’s other sides is sort of visible: a gas station, a small office building, a tiny Enterprise rent-a-car location, a nut processing factory, etc. There are also some parking lots and painfully bland, low-rise hotels.
So clearly, the type of development surrounding these parks is radically different.
It’s also worth pointing out that the type of housing being added around Pioneer Park is laughably modest; more people probably live in half of one Vancouver high rise than live in all the condos added recently near Pioneer Park.
I realize there are significant differences in the real estate markets of these two cities. But my point is that what counts as “density” in Salt Lake would barely be a blip on the radar in Vancouver. Whether that minimal density — including any upcoming, similar mid-rise projects — will be enough to revitalize the park over time remains to be seen, but it’s important to recognize that the great park in another city was surrounded by hundreds (or thousands) more people than we’re aiming for in Salt Lake. Our ambitions are comparatively modest, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see more modest results.
In any case, density matters. The successful park has it, the failed one doesn’t. Density isn’t always easy to cultivate and the kind of density matters too, but on a very basic level you just need a lot of people around if you want a successful space.