A little more on parks in Salt Lake and Vancouver

Last week I wrote several posts about Pioneer Park and why it might be failing as compared to a park in downtown Vancouver.

But here’s another reason why Pioneer Park might be troubled: its large size.

Pioneer Park takes up a full city block. That’s not huge for a primary city park — Central Park in New York and Vancouver’s Stanley Park are vastly larger — but it is pretty large for a neighborhood park. And that’s the kind of park it most closely resembles. (Liberty Park is as close to a Central Park as Salt Lake gets, though that’s a dissatisfying comparison.)

To get a sense of Pioneer Park’s size, here it is next to that park in Vancouver:

Screen shot 2013-11-12 at 11.12.43 PM

Screen shot 2013-11-12 at 11.11.36 PM

Both images are zoomed in to approximately the same distance.

The most obvious thing that’s going on here, at least as far as size goes, is that Pioneer Park is clearly bigger than its equivalent in Vancouver.

However, given the fact that no one really uses Pioneer Park outside of the Farmer’s Market and Twilight Concert Series, we can also assume that demand for park space is also much lower. Or, said another way, the supply of park space in downtown Salt Lake City is too high and it is therefore devalued.

In other words, there’s more park in downtown Salt Lake than people can or will use. It’s like having too much of any good thing; at a certain point you see diminishing returns and that good thing starts going to waste.

Another downtown park. I rarely see many people in this park.

Another downtown park. I rarely see many people in this park, meaning it adds to the overall problem of too much park space.

By contrast in Vancouver, the park is heavily used but not overcrowded, indicating that the supply of park space is more in line with demand.

Park space isn’t exactly a commodity that is for sale (though we pay for it via taxes) but the concept of supply and demand is a useful one because it helps us understand why a park doesn’t revitalize. In the end, you can dress something up as nicely as you want but if people don’t demand as much of it as you have you’ll always run into problems.

There have been efforts to increase demand for park space in Salt Lake City. The Farmer’s Market and the concerts are an example of that.

Fixing this problem will probably require two things: 1) increasing density so there are more people demanding park space, and 2) decreasing the supply of park space across downtown.

That second point might seem abhorrent at first glance because, obviously, parks are good.

Union Square in New York is well-used because it's in demand, or in other words because the amount of space it offers isn't vastly larger than what people want.

Union Square in New York is well-used because it’s in demand, or in other words because the amount of space it offers isn’t vastly larger than what people want.

But Salt Lake has so much open space relative to population that there simply won’t be enough people to use it all in the near future. Think about it: in cities like Vancouver or New York, or even smaller cities like Portland, there are dozens and dozens of blocks filled with buildings. The result is that what open space exists is highly sought after and well-used. Coming upon Union Square in Manhattan, for example, is wonderful for the oasis it offers.

In Salt Lake, however, every building seems surrounded by open space. Sure, not all of it is technically “park” space, but Pioneer Park doesn’t feel like an oasis, it feels like just more emptiness.

Decreasing the supply of open space in Salt Lake will mean doing infill projects that add buildings to current vacant lots. But it’s also going to require us to stop adding parks, plazas and whatever else — as we’ve done recently with the extraordinarily disappointing Public Safety Building. That cuts against the accepted wisdom, but the lack of use in so many of our public spaces is evidence that we need to try something different.



  1. Emily S.

    I hadn’t thought about it like that before, but you’re absolutely right–Pioneer does not feel like an oasis downtown!

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