If you'd like to put up a building in Downtown Silver Spring, chances are you'll be asked to set aside some land for a garden, a park, or a plaza, spaces which will probably look nice but never get used. Pocket parks on the south side of a building will receive no sunlight and thus can get too cold to sit in. Those too far from food become inconvenient as a place to eat lunch. (And you can be too close to food, like the park next to the McDonald's at Colesville and Second, where the air is thick with salt and lard. Mmm, special sauce!) And a few, like Discovery's Sensory Garden on Wayne Avenue - a public amenity! - are even gated, preventing anyone from actually getting in.
These spaces have few users because they're designed to discourage loitering; so few, in fact, that the Planning Board wants to prevent the building of more pocket parks in the future. So Downtown's rotating cast of skater kids show up instead. Occasionally, you'll see them sharing the space with homeless men who for once aren't the ones getting hassled by police. They'd be found outside the Lenox Park apartments at Colesville and East-West Highway, or in the park above the Silver Spring Metro station where I'd wait for the bus.
Last year, the County closed off a block of Ellsworth between Fenton and Cedar for kids to skate each weekend in the place they'd be congregating in anyway. It turned into a little show: complete strangers would gather to watch them do tricks. But they were pushed out by shopkeepers who complained that their customers were scared away.
In August, the floating skate-and-homeless session moved to the plaza outside of the Discovery Building at Georgia and Wayne. For the first time since it was built nearly ten years ago, you could see life in this space as some twenty or so kids gathered there each weekend with skateboards and bikes, doing tricks off the planters and boulders that furnish it as homeless men watched the action from benches between naps and reading the newspaper. But in the month or so it's taken for me to write this post, they've since dispersed, chased away by a cherry-picker dumped in the plaza for some construction project that never seemed to materialize.
After watching the jungle gyms of my childhood carted away from Woodside Park at Spring and Georgia, I was heartbroken. But I'm glad to hear that the park's renovations include a new temporary skate spot along First Avenue, to open as early as January. Neighbors who had kids grinding down their front steps last spring will likely be relieved, but I wonder if kids will actually use the space enough to make it permanent.
Skater kids deserve a chunk of the public realm, because they'll vote with their feet (er, wheels) and if not given a space to go they'll make one themselves. There's a potential danger - both for them and for property damage - in kids misusing (or reusing, depending on how you see it) the furniture of the urban environment. And some of these kids don't know to act in public. But if we're going to require developers to build these little useless pocket parks, why don't we turn one or a few of them into legitimate skate spots? You're allowing them to make a public contribution that actually contributes to the public.
LEFT: The Discovery Sensory Garden on Wayne Avenue, a public space, is fenced off.
Hell, why don't we give them all recreational uses? People, especially people who sit down all day, are becoming fat. (In the three months since I got a desk job, I have gained fifteen pounds. It doesn't help that unlike in college, I can actually afford to eat.) It makes sense to turn these little unused spaces into opportunities for physical activities other than smoke breaks: handball courts, basketball hoops, even putting greens. Games that can be played alone or with others and don't require a lot of equipment beyond what you can keep under a desk.
Open space is a hot commodity in Downtown Silver Spring, and will continue to be as more people come here to live or just hang out. It's imperative that we ensure that these spaces are not just attractive but usable as well. Not every park has to have a tree and benches. Creating a variety of pocket parks that can be used for a variety of activities is the way to keep the area vibrant and healthy.
Check out this photoset of pocket parks.