How A Park Can Transform A Neighborhood
By Mike Ratajski
November 9th was a beautiful warm sunny Fall Saturday in Porterville. I was invited to attend the dedication ceremony for the Fallen Heroes Park located on the city’s east side. Today, in the neighborhood around Fallen Heroes Park, you can walk to the local “jerky” store, take your car for a fill-up at the gas station and do-it-yourself spray wash or stop in at the local café for a good “home cooked meal”, but there was no place for kids or families to play, picnic, and just hang out…until now.
Fallen Heroes Park is the latest destination on the Tule River Parkway Trail that will eventually connect this little neighborhood to the broader community of Porterville. Fallen Heroes Park, originally called “Chase Park”, is dedicated to the fallen heroes of the community – soldiers, police officers, and fire personnel who have given the ultimate sacrifice for the safety and lives of others.
The honorable Mayor, Milt Stowe, led a brief dedication ceremony and following him, the Director of Parks and Leisure Services, Donnie Moore said, “This is the community’s park. It takes a whole community to keep something like this looking nice.” After the ceremony, people stayed. After all the coffee, iced tea, donuts, and cookies were gone, the neighbors didn’t want to leave. They were hooked. I took the opportunity to walk around and talk to as many as I could. It’s interesting what I discovered just by listening.
When you create a beautiful park with many amenities, neighbors have a tendency to take “ownership” of their little green space. This park already has the distinction of local ownership. In fact, this opening day was quite the event that people were waiting for. A little boy who lived nearby would walk up to the construction foreman before opening day and ask him, “When you gonna open my park?”
Already the residents were taking ownership – even the little ones. That’s a very good sign. This boy and most of the many happy kids that live nearby now have a place to play and socialize rather than in the street or a spot on the floor in front of the television. No longer does Mom have to scream, “Get off your rear, stop playing video games, and go out and play!” Well, that’s wishful thinking, but at least there is now another option.
Local business owners surrounding Fallen Heroes Park used to be concerned about having a park built next door to them because they feared that the park may attract the homeless, crime, and gangs. They did a “total 180” and are now embracing the park. The two property owners to the east actually paid for a pedestrian gate between their businesses and the park so their employees would have a place to relax and eat lunch.
I spoke with the owner of the booming tire business across the street. He was anxious for the park to open because he knew that once it did, his customers, particularly those with young kids, would now have a place to take them while their cars are being worked on.
The local residents next door were obviously pleased that the dilapidated fence that looked more like a giant toothless comb was replaced by a beautiful masonry wall.
Another factor that contributes to this concept of “ownership” is that the neighborhood had a role in determining what they wanted in their park. Of course nearly everyone wants a splash playground nowadays. The residents on Chase Avenue and the blocks around it now have a place to retreat during the brutal summer heat in Porterville…and get to know each other.
According to the American Planning Association (APA), for those concerned that parks may foster crime and illegal activity, evidence now exists that the opposite may be true. When next to residential areas, parks have been shown to create neighborhoods with fewer violent crimes and damage to property, and neighbors tend to support and protect one another. Parks support frequent, casual contact among neighbors. This leads to the formation of neighborhood social ties, the building blocks of strong, secure neighborhoods where people tend to support, care, and protect one another. In addition, time spent in nature such as the beautifully landscaped environment of Fallen Heroes Park and the future Tule River Parkway adjacent to residential neighborhoods helps relieve mental fatigue; thus, reducing aggression.
QK should be proud of the role we have had in creating these wonderful green, fun-filled places that help transform neighborhoods. Though the park has been open for nearly two years, crime is non-existent, and judging by the changes that have already taken place as well as this “pride of ownership” that I saw in the local residents and businesses that day, it appears that the neighborhood around Fallen Heroes Park was off to a very good start.