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'Preciating the Pocket Park

Updated: Aug 29, 2019

Admittedly, I don’t usually care much for monocrops of flowers lining city sidewalks - all those begonias, marigolds, and African violets bordering cement, red brick pavers, and plastic landscape edging that never, ever seems to look terribly good only a few days after installation and then puckers with the first hard rain.

Too often these flowers are queued up just so, in little rows and grid patterns, one after another, unnaturally, especially along business districts, institutions such as hospitals, even city parks. Just a big homogenous affair in which they’re the only guests, save the soil that they so depend upon, or, more visibly, mulch, which is itself monochrome and artificial.

Individual plants can, of course, be endlessly fascinating with all their roots, shoots, nodes, leaves, buds, and flowers working together to encourage growth, produce fruit, attract pollinators, reproduce. No two plants are the same. Each a fingerprint of life, a show of fecundity. But force all those individual plants of a single species together into a controlled pattern, and, for me, they lose some wonder. Such a bloomin’ party has color and life, but it lacks surprise and variety.

I generally prefer spaces that at least feel wilder, even if I know they’re being “managed” in some way, as in state and national parks.

And yet ... Recently, I’ve lingered in more manicured space, in a “pocket park” called the “Crossroads Park: An Urban Greenspace.” A curving, multi-level staircase guides you through this terraced mini-park, ascending a bit above the noise of traffic. Prolific and easy-to-maintain species such as hostas and juniper populate mulched and mostly weedless plots. Benches and grills accommodate passersby and residents of the apartment building up the hill. In this case, I’ve found the ordered foliage and demarcated space more enjoyable.

In part, this has been a matter of convenience: I frequently walk through the intersection where Crossroads Park is located. The mini-park feels like a rest from the three adjacent corners, which host a dentist’s office, a parking garage, and a hospital – big brick and cement structures, albeit with their own, small, neatly trimmed garden plots. And I appreciate this green space’s design – the rise and curves, the semblance of variety within the ordered and less wild.

Also – and maybe the foremost reason, in the end, that I’m enjoying this green space – the park’s back story reveals that it serves as an oasis of openness and connection with nature amidst the inertia of real estate development. A friend filled me in: Several years ago, as the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC) expanded, community members expressed frustration over this campus’s ongoing encroachment into residential areas. Many community meetings and negotiations later, with a community group called The Number Four Block Club leading efforts against this massive non-profit with a mixed public image, and UPMC agreed to work with residents to install Crossroads Park. So, this pocket park that I now enjoy for a few moments of solace every now and then was borne from community protest and organizing that occurred years ago.

Not sure what this means for my enjoyment of such urban green spaces in the future. At the least, I can say depth of design matters and context matters. And just maybe I don’t need to be too reflexively a curmudgeon when it comes to manicured garden plots in urban space.


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