It was a beautiful summer evening in Milwaukee and some friends and I decided to meet up at our favorite park to toss our light-up frisbee. We gathered around 9:30pm and spent the next couple hours happily tossing the disc... We also spent the next couple hours keeping a constant eye out for the police. This is because all the parks in our area “close” at 10pm and it is technically illegal to be in this public space at night.
Do you have this same issue in your town? It strikes me as strange and unnecessary to designate a closing time for something that is nothing but pleasant and safe during daytime hours. I understand that in some areas, parks--particularly large ones--can be magnets for drug dealing and other crime at night. But I know plenty of parks in safe neighborhoods — like the one we were playing frisbee in — where this activity is unlikely to occur. Someone who wants to commit a crime is going to find a place to do it, regardless. So why should I be prevented from enjoying a neighborhood amenity after the clock strikes 10?
Parks should be open to their communities for late night joggers, people walking home who wish to take a shortcut (i.e. the most logical route), frisbee players like us, and 2nd and 3rd shifters who want to walk their dogs when they get done with work. There are a multitude of reasons why someone might want to be in a park after dark, and most of them are completely safe and reasonable. Jane Jacobs’ “eyes on the street” concept works well here. If the park is accessible throughout the night, presumably the many individuals who would be utilizing it in legitimate, legal ways could keep a lookout out for those who might be using it in an unsafe and illegal manner, as well as keeping one another safe with their presence.
This seems particularly doable in smaller parks where houses and businesses surrounding the park can keep an eye and ear on what’s happen within. It may not work quite as well with large parks. Andrew Price wrote a great article categorizing parks as "Grand" or "Neighborhood," that delves further into this distinction.
In The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs advocates for smaller parks, not surrounded by hedges or other view-obstructing things. Parks built like this should easily facilitate safety no matter the time of day. As Jacobs’ writes, “Effective neighborhood physical planning for cities should aim [...] to use parks and squares and public buildings as part of [the] street fabric; use them to intensify and knit together the fabric’s complexity and multiple use. They should not be used to island off different uses from each other” (129). (A side note: Jacobs' chapter on parks is a fascinating read, and I take issue with a few of her arguments, but this point is salient.)
In other words, a park should not be just a basketball court for teenagers or just a playground for children or just a pond for ducks — it should serve multiple uses so that it is almost constantly in use. This keeps it safe, purposeful and lively. According to Jacobs’, parks work best when they are fully part of their cities, just like homes and shops and schools and sidewalks.
By making parks “out of bounds” after dark for the people who live around them, care for them, and frequently use them, local governments are preventing this natural, diverse use from occurring.
Now, I understand that residents in a quiet neighborhood might be worried about excessive noise in a nearby park at night (or have any number of other concerns), but I think those could be handled with existing laws (against loud music after midnight, for instance) and police patrols. We don’t close the streets after a certain hour because idiots might be driving home drunk or otherwise causing problems in the road. Why should a pedestrian amenity like a park be any different?
To me, this blanket law falls into a category with other laws like zoning and street width requirements, that have been put in place because a couple people made a couple mistakes, and suddenly someone in charge decided the only way to stop these things from happening was to ban it for everyone. Obviously closing parks at night does not lead to thousands of pedestrian deaths a year like our current method of street design does, but it still seems superfluous and overreaching.
Maybe I’m crazy. But I’d like to see more neighborhood parks stay open 24 hours and see how it goes.
A different version of this essay was originally published in 2015. All photos by the author unless otherwise indicated.