Comparing Parks

In Social Spaces, New York City, A Sense of Place by Colin Grinnell1 Comment

Very near NYU, there are two public parks.  Both are large in size, both are used as a place of performance, relaxation, socialization, and as a walkway. The spaces are widely popular and a landmark for the neighborhood. However, one space works and the other does not. Washington Square Park makes excellent use of its space. It provides variety, beauty, and entertainment. Union Square feels overcrowded, its pathways are repetitive, and it is far too noisy.

Why does Washington Square Park work so well? I believe its greatest strength is its twisting pathways lined with benches. With matured trees, a pathway can feel private. It is hard to see other people when sitting on a bench around the perimeter of the park. With its great number of bench-lined paths, there always seems to be a place to sit. What also makes Washington Square Park special is that it has a major landmark, two in fact. First, there is the large arch. It is the focal point of the park. It also provides an unmatched view up fifth avenue. While one might imagine it would make the park swarmed with tourists, designers made the surrounding area of the arch mostly barren. If one wants to sit and eat lunch, it is possible to be far from tourists and unbothered. 

The way Washington Square Park is designed offers several large areas for street performers. These areas are placed at certain distances from each other that prevents unnecessary competition or noise pollution. The quiet paths on the outside of the park make it ideal for quiet conversations. The fountain also acts as a social hub in the park. In the summer, people gather around to watch toddlers and college students playing in the water, its own source of entertainment.

Why does Union Square work so poorly in comparison? For the same reason  Washington Square Park succeeds. The paths in Union Square are long, nearly straight lines. This makes other patrons of the park immediately visible and the sense of privacy is lost. On its south border, there is a large open area, much greater than any in Washington Square Park. This means one street performers instrument bleeds into the next’s stereo. The area is also covered with skate boarders who require large areas of space to perform tricks. This causes unease with other park-goers.

A park is supposed to be many things. Especially in big cities, they provide a space of refuge. They are a place to meet friends, have lunch, see a performance, or just kill time. After comparing these two parks, I think variation in design is important if the goal is to have people sit and be social. Union Square has plenty of patrons, but in my observations, they tend to be single and only stay for a brief time. Delving deeper into  variation, I think it is most important for a park to have many functions to be as welcoming as possible.


  1. I find the idea of Washington Square Park as an “intimate space” interesting, or at the very least as interesting as the idea of any public space being “intimate.” This strikes at the core of what Whyte tries to capture in “The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces”; that an urban space is compelled to engage with us in a way that feigns smallness, enclosure. This is, as you remark, accomplished through a keen facade: “its twisting pathways lined with benches…a pathway can feel private.” In your negative assessment of Union Square Park, we see this desire for intimacy become a demand for a public space; while always crowded, you assert no one stays at Union Square very long or with any body because it is unable to hide its traffic behind trees and pleasant-looking greenspace. This indeed provokes some thought into the idea of the pubic park in general: just what is it trying to hide?

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