Learning From Sloan Street Park

This is a cross-post from my monthly column, Community Design Matters, in The Current.

Sloan Street Park: Roswell’s only neighborhood park is surrounded by homes and townhomes, has a playground, a gathering space, a monument and even has a doggie poo station. image: Bing Maps

When was the last time you visited a park?  Here in Roswell and North Fulton, we are blessed with great parks .  In fact, the Roswell Parks & Rec department has been named Agency of the Year by the Georgia Recreation & Park Association a record eight times, last receiving the award in 2011.  Alpharetta also won the award in 2011 for the mid-size city category.  Some of the great parks in our area include Riverside, Roswell Area, Wills, Overlook, the Big Creek Greenway and the Chattahoochee National Recreation Area.

What do these all have in common?  They are destination parks. Most visitors drive to them. Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with destination parks but when you lack the other types of parks, your city can certainly become boring not to mention difficult to navigate for some folks.  Think about this, can you walk to a public park in ten minutes or less?  If you are in the historic district, that answer is probably yes.  I’m fortunate to be able to walk to five and if you count the grounds at Barrington and Bulloch, seven.  Unfortunately, most of us don’t have that type of park proximity.

How can our cities increase park access for all?  Well, what most of the cities of North Fulton are lacking is easy access to small neighborhood parks sometimes called pocket parks.  These are the types of parks where neighbors bump into each other while on a stroll.  The kind where kids can actually go without a parental escort, maybe gaining some confidence and independence in the process.  The kind that have buildings lining the edges defining the space and creating a sense of place.  Unfortunately, we’ve largely forgotten about public neighborhood parks out here in the burbs.  We forgot about them in favor of big yards and lawnmowers. We traded traditional neighborhoods with walkable parks for our easy, no hassle, happy-motoring access to all the happiness that stuff in strip malls provides us.  

Roswell is a great case study, we have no fewer than 22 parks in the city.  Of those there are 11 linear parks, 5 district parks, 1 national recreation area and six “small urban parks” as the city refers to them.  You might be surprised by their names; City Hall, Heart of Roswell, Sloan Street, Terramont, Town Square & Triangle Parks.  These are just our public parks.  The list does not include private parks such as those in Martin's Landing and other subdivisions.

Now, 22 is a respectable number of parks with a diverse range of types totaling over 900 acres.  Add to that Roswell’s commitment to preserve over 5,000 acres of greenspace (including but not limited to parks) and you have a city that is serous about parks.  Well, serious about destination parks.  We have the "small urban parks" but even those six can be a challenge to walk to which limits their utility.

Three of the six are adjacent to Hwy 9 and another is adjacent to Holcomb Bridge Rd.  For the most part, they don't serve a neighborhood and are actually smaller destination spaces.  Actually, only one of our public parks, Sloan Street Park, could really be considered a neighborhood ‘pocket park’ and not surprisingly, it’s the only one with a playground.

What makes it unique is that it is focused on the people that live and work around it while also being useful to all ages.  It should serve as inspiration for the next generation of parks in Roswell.  We can start focusing on building true neighborhoods with cozy walkable parks where neighbors can gather and kids can play with friends without calling it a ‘play date.’ 

Now, neighborhood parks sound warm and fuzzy but public money spent on parks would be better utilized by the private sector, right?  Wrong.  A well maintained network of public parks supports property values, boosts the local economy, increases social capital, improves public health and helps preserve the environment.  One of the best examples of a park creating value is our nation’s most famous park, Central Park.  Frederick Law Olmstead (also designed Piedmont Park) tracked the values of property adjacent to the park from 1856 to 1873 to justify the $13 million investment.  He found that values increased by an impressive $209 million in those 17 years.  

Beyond the economic case, the quality of life benefits are huge.  Simply being able to walk out the front door and stroll to your park is a luxury that is largely lost these days.  We’ve chosen to build our parks in places where it’s tough to walk.  Most of our parks have few homes fronting them.  Many of them are separated from residential areas by busy street on at least one side.  Neighborhood parks have homes and businesses that front the park.  People can walk right out into their park.  They meet their neighbors there and the best thing is that they can walk right back home when it’s time.  Sloan Street Park is just that kind of park.

We need more parks like Sloan Street Park to start completing our neighborhoods.  You should check it out.  It might not be special to you but then again, it’s probably not your neighborhood park.  Where can we build the next one?