MILENKO MATANOVIC: Parks provide a gathering place

In 2008 Pomegranate Center, a non-profit design and community-building organization, worked with Skyway residents and King County Parks to develop a shared, community-owned plan to upgrade and reclaim Skyway Park.

The impetus for this work was two-fold:

1. The realization that the park’s vitality, health and its central location can positively impact the surrounding dense residential community and two adjacent business districts;

2. The park’s use would increase by improving accessibility and safety concerns.

Over a period of six months we worked with some 80 residents to develop a plan for the re-imagined Skyway Park. Out of this collaboration a comprehensive vision emerged, expressing a strong desire to turn the park into a focal point for many community activities and functions. Skyway residents felt that their park had the potential to be much more than a place for sports and their vision included an amphitheater for community performances and celebrations; a community garden; an off-leash dog park; a tot-lot for small children; a shelter for teens; a multi-purpose central “plaza”, an open field for informal games and gatherings; shelters for picnics; year-round turf athletic fields; basketball and tennis courts; enhanced wetlands and natural areas; paths designed for walking; enhanced lighting for safety; possible skateboard park; a movable concession stand; and gateways inviting people into the park.

Traditionally, every community and neighborhood was designed around a common space that functioned as a heart space for the community, a place for friendly encounters. It is a great tragedy that we’ve forgotten about this necessity as we built suburban developments. Without generous encounters between neighbors, the rich complexity of civic life narrows into thin slices of cultural and economic homogeneity. This produces dull neighborhoods. Over time human beings become accustomed to sameness, differences become threats, and the potential for conflict increases. A healthy community treats its diversity as a valuable resource that can give rise to mutually beneficial relationships, and these differences are celebrated most powerfully in gathering places.

As King County considers possible closures of parks to save money, the opportunity to redefine the role of parks should be seriously considered. Many of our current parks are dedicated to a single purpose such as athletic fields for sports, tot lots for children, or botanical gardens for adults. The vision developed by the Skyway residents shows that future parks can serve their communities better by becoming multi-purpose gathering places where quiet enjoyment of nature coexists with social gatherings, cultural celebrations, educational outings, sports and games. Parks as gathering places should occupy an important central location in a neighborhood, town or city (this is the case in Skyway). And they should be integrated within a larger district of uses, connected to nearby stores, coffee houses, restaurants, bus stops, banks, theaters or schools.

As we all contemplate possible closures of our parks, we need to realize that what is at stake is not only a traditional use of parks as places for recreation, but also a new emerging use to serve as heart areas for communities and neighborhoods. If we close parks we may run the risk of shutting off the wellbeing and vitality of the entire community: its social cohesion, its culture, its vitality and its future stronger identity.

Milenko Matanovic is a community builder and a visual artist, founded the Issaquah-based Pomegranate Center in 1986 to create an arena in which art, public participation and community betterment converge. The non-profit center facilitates the conception and construction of open-air gathering places.

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