12 September 2005

A Cool Evening in the Park

Activity in Washington Park flows from one phase to another through the days, weeks and seasons. On a cool Sunday evening in September, it is full of families, couples, small groups of friends, adult soccer teams and dispersing birthday parties. Half a dozen languages from around the globe fill the air: German, Spanish, Urdu, and others. A young couple with a baby has a picnic in the formal garden, drinking wine (illicitly, but quietly) in plastic martini glasses. A dad plays catch with his pre-teen daughter. Tennis players bat balls under park lights. A cloud shrouded half moon lingers overhead making the waters below glimmer. Dogs fetch sticks in Grasmere Lake (the Southern pond) scaring the geese. An ice cream truck heads home for the night. A group of shawl covered middle aged women from South Asia slow as recumbent bikes speed along the loop road. A fashion model poses for pictures of the latest shorts and blouses in front of the formal gardens you see on this blog. Blue paddle boats criss cross Smith Lake (really a pond). Firefighters lounge on lawn chairs in front of their fuel cell powered station at the Northeast corner of the park. People come to the park on cool September evenings to appreciate how lucky they are to be in Denver. Despair is absent. There are no harsh words in the air, just camaraderie and fellowship. Children fill the playgrounds under the watchful eyes of their parents. Most of the people in the park have driven in a car to come there. Washington Park is one of the jewels of the city.

The harmony isn't visibly enforced. There isn't a policeman or police car in sight. Almost all the grounds keepers and recreation center staff are at home. Even signs posting rules (other than which lane is which on the road around the park) are not prominent. When a car goes the wrong way down a one way street, it is set right by pedestrians motioning to and calling out to the driver. Washington Park has no walls, no admission fees, and no limitations on who may enter its grounds. It maintains its harmony with a reverse broken windows effect. It is visibly well tended. Its formal gardens are neat and in blossom. There is no graffiti anywhere, not even in the portapotties that dot the park. The houses that surround the park are showpieces. The people in the park model appropriate behavior, and others who come into the park try to blend in. People who want to scream, fight and get drunk go elsewhere, where they will be more welcome.

The trick of urban design, and it isn't simply a matter of landscaping or architecture, is to create physical and cultural spaces that naturally promote this kind of harmony. Even those who designed the park probably don't fully understand how it happens, but it works, which is why the park remains little changed from the way it was when it was built about eight decades ago.

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