While visiting Boston earlier this month, I was walking along the Rose Kennedy Greenway, a downtown linear park, when a sight transported me to Europe: a sprawling beer garden, sponsored by Boston-based Trillium brewery. A beer garden, in a public park, in America.
I was in awe.
My 13 months studying in Liverpool, England and exploring 10 European countries brought me to many public parks that had embraced alcohol. In all of the Royal Parks in Greater London, including the 350-acre Hyde Park in Westminster, people can bring and enjoy drinks so long as they do not charge anyone for them and so long as everyone drinking them is of legal age (18+). Cafés offer additional beverages for purchase.
In Lisbon, Portugal I discovered little kiosks surrounded by seating and trees, the perfect spots to relax with a drink in the hot summer. Two of my favorites are Miradouro de Santa Catarina on a hill in the Bica neighborhood, which provides stunning views of the river and often has buskers playing guitars. In Castelo São Jorge, Wine with a View lets you enjoy a drink while admiring the city from the ramparts.
Albeit less regulated, in the student-heavy and counter-cultural Exarcheia neighborhood of Athens, the main square is a hive of activity. Several convenience stores across the street from the park sell single beers for 50 Euro cents or less. After enjoying them in the square, a volunteer comes around to collect and recycle the empties.
Alcohol is of course not the only way to enjoy a park. However, these European examples demonstrate that it can be a way to encourage people to dwell in a space. In no case did I ever witness anyone become rowdy and noisy. Families with children mingled freely with the young adults.
The demand for this type of outlet exists in America too
In DC, it’s an open secret that players in the social sports leagues like softball, kickball, and bocce that use the National Mall are not carrying soda or water in their red solo cups. Picnickers in Meridian Hill and Rock Creek Parks often have bottles of wine in their totes.
Unfortunately, this behavior is illegal in national parks, including the urban parks of DC. At times, an overzealous National Park Service will raid weekend warriors and picnickers. However, Trillium Garden shows that the city could take a different approach.
The Rose Kennedy Greenway is a 17-acre public park in the footprint of the long-reviled John F. Fitzgerald elevated highway that the city demolished during the infamous Big Dig project. Since 2009, the Rose Kennedy Greenway Conservancy has managed the park. Each time I return to Boston I have seen the trees and plants mature, new fountain and art installations appear, and countless people enjoying the space.
Facing funding challenges, the Conservancy solicited bids last March to operate a beer garden on the greenway. Four-year-old Trillium Brewery won the competition. The Trillium Garden, with space for 250 patrons, opened on June 1 by the Rowes Wharf Hotel with views of the harbor under the arch. Draft beer and wine are available at normal Boston prices.
Unlike Europe, the space is not entirely free-flowing. A uniformed security guard patrols the site and a bouncer checks IDs before letting people into the space. Still, the area welcomes families, with people under 21 receiving a stamp to indicate their age. A food truck usually parks just outside the fence, but people can bring their own food and any non-alcoholic beverages to enjoy. Friendly dogs are also welcome if they are on a leash.
DC could become a bit more like Europe–if we could convince the city and the feds
DC does not yet have any legal way to enjoy an alcoholic drink in a public park, but the city does offer many places to enjoy a drink outdoors in private spaces: from rooftop bars to places like Garden District, Dacha, The Brig, Bardo, and Wunder Garten. The latter two come closest to the public parks of Europe. Bardo offers outdoor picnic tables along the Anacostia River and Wunder Garten has seating and games tucked among potted plants on an otherwise underused parking lot.
While welcome additions to the city, these outdoor spaces are still private and not always that lush. Visiting them comes with the expectation that you will be spending money and not simply taking up a seat or standing room. They are also tiny compared to the over 8,000 acres of parkland in the city which do not sell alcoholic drinks and prohibit people from enjoying their own.
In many ways, the infrastructure is already in place to replicate the Trillium Garden on the National Mall. Kiosks that vend hot dogs, burgers, ice cream, sodas, and waters line the park. Like Boston, DC has local breweries–DC Brau, Atlas, Bluejacket, Hellbender, and more–and I suspect at least one would be interested in a Trillium-like arrangement. It's worth noting that hundreds of sidewalk cafes with permits to operate in public space were once blocked by city officials for many years, due to fears about health and safety issues. Those rules changed, and the city is a warmer place for it.
Unfortunately, the majority of parkland in the city is under federal control. (The city controls about 900 out of the 8,000 total acres.) Even if the city is interested in changing its policies regarding drinking in parks, convincing the National Park Service to change its rules may indeed be a challenge.
Ultimately, in cities like DC with ample public transit including metro, bikeshare, taxis, and ride-hailing, people have many safe ways to enjoy an adult beverage in a park and make it back home or to their hotel. The upsides for DC are more people activating the space and more revenue to keep up with maintenance of the city's own 900+ acres of public parks. If “sleepy” Boston can open a beer garden in a park, then surely DC can follow suit.
Would you like to see DC have places to enjoy a beer or glass of wine in a public park? Aside from the big ticket national parks, I vote for the DC-owned Southwest Duck Pond in Waterfront.