Clark Realty’s winning proposal with mega-park. Image by stirlingr on Flickr.

The District has been fortunate to receive a “once in a lifetime” gift from the federal government to build a whole new neighborhood on empty, unused land. Poplar Point lies just across the Anacostia River from the Nationals ballpark and a ten minute walk from the Anacostia Metro. A successful Poplar Point development, possibly with a soccer stadium for DC United, would create a mixed-use neighborhood and regional attraction in Ward 8, ending its long stint as the forgotten part of the region. If developed according to DC’s current criteria, it will also contain too much contiguous parkland. That’s right, too much.

The original RFP from the Mayor’s Office required all proposals to contain extremely generous amounts of “open space.” The winning proposal, submitted by Clark Realty of Bethesda, contained a 70 acre park out of 110 total acres on the whole site. That’s large by any measure. In contrast, Dupont Circle’s park is under one acre. It is also one of our region’s most beloved urban parks. When it comes to urban parks, bigger is clearly not necessarily better.

Now that Clark Realty pulled out of the project, citing economic concerns, the Mayor’s Office must go back to the drawing board and re-solicit bids. They should focus on proposals that better integrate small parks into the neighborhood urban fabric. Well-designed parkland would create a sense of place and interact with its surroundings.

The current “open space” at Poplar Point is in a state of disrepair and is underused as a park. There’s as much seedy activity there as there is walking, socializing, or recreational sports. Part of the reason is the Anacostia Freeway, which separates Poplar Point from its surroundings. Another reason is that it is too big to have enough “eyes on the street” to discourage undesirable activities. Any 70 acre super-park is very unlikely to have enough “eyes on the street” to dissuade seedy activity.

In her classic book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs wrote,

In orthodox [modernist] city planning, neighborhood open spaces are venerated in an amazingly uncritical fashion, much as savages venerate magical fetishes [sic]. Ask a houser how his planned neighborhood improves on the old city and he will cite, as a self-evident virtue, More Open Space. Ask a zoner about the improvements in progressive codes and he will cite, again as a self-evident virtue, their incentives toward leaving More Open Space. Walk with a planner through a dispirited neighborhood and though it be already scabby with deserted parks and tired landscaping festooned with an old Kleenex, he will envision a future of More Open Space.

More Open Space for what? For muggings? For bleak vacuums between buildings? Or for ordinary people to use and enjoy? But people do not use city open space just because it is there and because city planners wish they would.

An urban park is not the same as a suburban park, or a wilderness nature preserve park. No one drives for miles to visit Dupont Circle or McPherson Square. No one would drive for miles to visit a park in any new Poplar Point development. The park is there for the people in the immediate walking area. That is the beauty of DC’s existing small neighborhood parks. They contain nice benches with a nice centerpiece. Their design facilitates human social activities. They interact with their surroundings, rather than overshadow them. They are centers of place. In the L’Enfant City, they anchor beautiful sightlines along the diagonal state avenues. People use them to eat lunch on a nice day, read a book, use their laptop or iPhone, meet with a friend, or relax on an enjoyable date.

Parks like Dupont Circle and McPherson Square are the right size to enhance their surroundings. On the other hand, Franklin Square is much less popular because of its scale. Even though it is clearly more visually appealing, its size makes it harder to walk in, find a place to sit, and relax. It is too big to truly interact with its surroundings, yet too small to be an attraction itself. Consequently, it is neither fish nor fowl. Rather than enhancing the surrounding urban fabric like neighboring McPherson Square, it acts as a hole.

How can we avoid the failures of Franklin Square in a future Poplar Point? First, Franklin Square is 4.8 acres. Imagine if it were 70 acres. Few would venture in it. The only parks that even partially work on that scale are suburban parks. Like most of suburbia, those parks devote a large fraction of their land area to roads and parking lots. Even still, those parks often grapple with seedy activities under the cover of darkness.

Poplar Point won’t have surface parking lots. A 70-acre park won’t interact with an urban environment. Rather than “open space”, Poplar’s park will be “dead space.” In fact, the term “open space” is a complete misnomer. It implies a feeling of freedom and escape. It markets suburbia and its central axiom that more is always better. In parks as with romantic relationships, quality is far more important that quantity. Quality depends on the activity surrounding the park and how the park interacts with its surroundings. I would like to see a moratorium on the term “open space” and its uglier, more misleading cousin, “green space”. I once heard a very educated, well-meaning transit advocate refer to the trees on the sidewalk in Bethesda as “green space”. Let’s return to the time-honored term “park”.

The next proposals for developing Poplar Point should split up the parkland into more, smaller parks rather than a 70 acre megapark that will be doomed to misuse and neglect. Residents will need public athletic fields. Those needn’t be part of a megapark. Athletic fields can bring use and a sense of place to even a one-acre park. When mixed in within a walkable urban context, they draw users to the park at more times of the day, between office workers, residents, and local leagues. They add “eyes on the street.” (Unfortunately, they also need to use field turf so they don’t become dust bowls.)

Elsewhere in the Poplar Point neighborhood, mimic Dupont Circle or McPherson Square by creating small parks that act as central gathering places in busy restaurant and cultural districts. The developer will be happy to build fewer parks and more floor space they can collect rent on. The city will get more revenue from the additional taxable real estate. They will also save maintenance costs because the smaller parks will attract less vandalism. And all residents and visitors to Poplar Point can have the numerous small parks that Capitol Hill and Northwest already enjoy.

Cavan Wilk became interested in the physical layout and economic systems of modern human settlements while working on his Master’s in Financial Economics. His writing often focuses on the interactions between a place’s form, its economic systems, and the experiences of those who live in them.  He lives in downtown Silver Spring.