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  • How to Create a "Pocket Park" with a few Benches, Trees and Passionate Neighbors

    pocket parks Paley Park in NYC is one of the best "pocket parks" around - Photo by Aleksandr Zykov (Flickr)

    Take a vacant lot and fill it with park benches, a few shade trees and some bright flowers and what do you have? A pocket park!

    What is a pocket park? Generally it's any park that is about a quarter of an acre in size. They are typically located in urban areas where open spaces are tight. Sometimes they are referred to as “vest pocket parks.”

    These small, mini-parks are a perfect solution for any budget-strapped parks and recreation department or to attract customers to a savvy local business.

    The concept is catching on and when you think about it, it’s a perfect way to expand any park system without a huge expense. Many cities already have plenty of vacant lots. The city of Baltimore, for example, reportedly has 12,000 vacant houses and 14,000 vacant lots. That’s quite a bit of wasted space.

    Perhaps there is a metro downtown area or local town with properties that are too small for a commercial building. Why let it sit there and just gather trash and graffiti and become an eyesore? Or perhaps there is a tiny unused lot in a suburb. Make it a gathering place for the community.

    Park managers don’t need much to create a pocket park - a few park benches, one or two trees, some shrubbery and a pathway to walk on.

    What so great about a pocket park, is that you can enlist the help of nearby residents to pitch in. Perhaps involve the local Rotary Club, Lions Club or garden club. Those groups are always looking for civic projects.

    This helps alleviate the Catch-22 that exists when it comes to public involvement. When you have a big open space that caters to many people, many people are going to assume someone else is taking care of that space. They might be less inclined to participate in maintenance or donate to any fund-raising.

    But when you have a mini-park that is obviously created for the benefit of a small sphere of local residents, the likelihood of participation goes up. Let local residents know there is the possibility of creating a mini-park in their area. Get them fired-up. Get them involved in fund-raising activities. Form a committee.

    Perhaps also contact local businesses in the area and ask them for their participation. Get the committee to do this, since they are already customers of these local establishments. Offer the business owners sponsorship opportunities. Think of the tremendous goodwill generated if a local business sponsored a few outdoor park benches for example.

    Every time people sat on them or even walked by, they could see a logo and a message, “This bench brought to you by Joey’s Donuts.” Announce it in a newsletter or blog. Do you think people who see that will have a positive impression of Joey’s business? Of course they will!

    Find key individuals in the neighborhood who are excited about the park idea. Maybe a few gardeners with green thumbs who just love to play with a landscape. These are the people who will be motivated to keep the pocket park maintained and vibrant.

    The fantastic advantage of these mini-parks is that they don’t really need to be a big-budget item. Naturally, there’s the acquisition of land. Maybe the landowner will provide the land for a small annual lease, say $1. If the landowner owns property nearby, show them how a clean, organized mini-park is going to increase the value of that property. Another reason to donate the land is that now someone else will be involved in the upkeep.

    The next items in the budget are also inexpensive. All you really need are three or four park benches. Buy benches made of recycled plastic, powder-coating or with a thermoplastic coating so they last forever.

    benches All you need are a few park benches to build a pocket park

    A major mistake that the developers of mini-parks all seem to make is in not providing plenty of benches. They usually put up one and figure, okay, we added site furnishings.

    The problem with one park bench is that it does not encourage social engagement between neighbors. You know how people are, if someone is occupying a bench, a visitor might not want to sit down, even if half the bench is still available.

    But place three or four park benches in the area, facing each other, and now you have the means to start a conversation. Cities can generally be a lonely place. But if you create an environment where people can comfortably interact, you create an environment people will cherish and want to preserve.

    Then spend a few dollars to add a few shade trees. Some shrubs. Don’t forget trash receptacles. Add these items and then “Presto!,” you instantly created a park.

    For site managers, there’s a great opportunity for the private sector to become involved in a pocket park. For a business with extra space or a location near a vacant lot, create your own mini-refuge for locals. What a great magnet to attract people to your business. If you are a coffee shop or restaurant, here’s a place where people can bring take-out to eat on a picnic table. Enjoy their lunch break outside. Or the pocket park can be a nice place where customers can wait until a table clears up. Or make it a place to hang out after a meal.

    A pocket park is also a welcoming spot for book lovers. Or moms and their kids. Or elderly folks. Any business, such as a bank, insurance business or real estate business can sponsor a pocket park. Again, think of the goodwill created. Place a stand with literature about the business’ services in the park. Erect signs indicating the name and background of the company that built the park.

    If there are concerns about liability and vandalism, perhaps let the local parks and department know you want to make some space available. Parks departments and city officials love to tally up as many park acres as they can. They also love grand openings and dedications. So do politicians. And the media as well. There’s tremendous opportunity here to gain exposure and buzz for a business.

    Studies show the use of a park is greatly determined by the proximity of the park to the public. As a nation faced with an obesity epidemic, we all want people to get out of their homes and walk more. A large public park is generally not available to a large portion of the population within walking distance. But if you provide many mini-parks, you have now created a destination worth walking to.

    Also, you don’t need to provide fancy playground equipment for kids. Provide a play area covered in rubber playground fill. They can bring their own toys. Parents will just love the opportunity to get their children outdoors. They will also love the opportunity to meet with other parents and have their children interact with other kids.

    Municipal budgets are tight nowadays. Park budgets are generally the first item to be cut in a crunch. Especially when it comes to land acquisition.

    Pocket parks are a remedy for this. A small lot, a few park benches and a handful of trees are not a major project. But by adding several of these mini-parks, a park or site manager can have a huge, positive impact on the well-being of local citizens…and voters.

    To see an array of pocket parks, including NYC where the concept is popular, click here.

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