Another day, another really nice park. This time, it’s Ritter Park in Huntington, West Virginia. It’s just so nice. I could leave it at that and show you the pretty pictures and you would agree. I’ll show the pictures but let’s try to get a little deeper.
First, let’s talk about socio-economic context. Ritter Park is located in a rather tony residential neighborhood. Old-school mansions line the street directly across from the park, and in the nearby hills are more up-scale neighborhoods. At first glance, one might conclude that Ritter Park owes much of its popularity to its affluent setting. But the downtown area and other less prosperous neighborhoods are also close by and it wouldn’t be surprising if Ritter Park had its share of trouble.
I’ve been discussing safety in public spaces in one of my LinkedIn discussion groups and one associate pointed out that feeling safe is more about perception than reality. Some spaces that seem scary may actually be no more dangerous than Main Street at noon. But perception almost always trumps reality and if a space seems dangerous, people will stay away.
Ritter Park feels safe. Why?
Malcolm Gladwell argued in his bestselling book, Blink, that our “gut feelings” are actually subconscious decisions that we make as we quickly process information. When we visit a public space, we will consider many things from a safe vantage point. First, we’ll look for a reason to enter the space. What is the attraction? If we enter, will we still be in the view of other people? If we enter, will we be forced to interact with people with whom we may not want to interact? Can we steer clear of scary people? If we enter, are there adequate escape routes? We won’t necessarily consider these things on a conscious level but in a matter of seconds, we will have a “blink” moment and decide whether to engage in the space or leave.
At Ritter Park, there are attractions. The extra-wide perimeter walkway is perfect for walking (with or without dogs), running, or sitting on a bench watching everyone else. Huge lawns invite informal ball games or casual strolls to enjoy the occasional works of art. The children’s playgrounds are challenging adventure lands.
As for the safety considerations, park administrators have been able to avoid the temptation of trying to cram too many good ideas into the park. As a result, open space is preserved, the user has many choices of where to go, and escape routes are everywhere.
Ritter Park is largely an inclusive space, meaning that very little is done to exclude perceived trouble makers. Everyone, it would seem, is welcome. Well, maybe not skateboarders. Anti-grinding angles are anchored to the edges of low walls and a lot of the walkways are not suitable for skateboards. But on any given Saturday you’ll find a broad cross-section of people, ranging from the youth of the counter culture to middle-aged dog walkers who seem to fit right in with the swanky neighborhood.
Lessons learned at Ritter Park can be applied to other public spaces, both large and small, but you have to look beyond the pretty pictures. You have to understand the behavior of people. You have to understand their needs (security) and their desires (attractions). Enjoy the pics.