The problem with forcing developers to provide open space

In my last piece, we took a look at Van Vorst Park in Jersey City, NJ and talked about why it works so well as a park. Today we will look at some "green space" that does not provide nearly as much value or function nearly as well.

Here is Maxwell Place Lawn in Hoboken, NJ:

Maxwell Place Lawn ( Map )

Maxwell Place Lawn (Map)

Unlike the greenspace around a strip mall, the developers gave this a name in an attempt to make it a place that people use. They called it a “lawn." Unfortunately, in my two years of living a block from Maxwell Place Lawn and frequently walking past it to get to the waterfront, only once have I seen anyone spending time in it. The lawn otherwise sits un-utilized.

Maxwell Place Lawn. I saw somebody sunbath here once.

Maxwell Place Lawn. I saw somebody sunbath here once.

Van Vorst Park in Jersey City, NJ. Always full of activity.

Van Vorst Park in Jersey City, NJ. Always full of activity.

Unlike Van Vorst Park, which is divided into separate areas with fountains, a playground, a grilling area, a gazebo, a children's garden, and dozens, if not more, varieties of plants - which all come together to hold your curiosity and encourage you to explore, people watch, or read a good book, Maxwell Place Lawn is just a flat open area of lawn.

There are a few benches around the outside, if you are ever in the mood to just sit there and look at lawn, but otherwise, it's empty.

Now, lawns make a good place for playing sports, but...

Enjoy the lawn. No fun allowed.

Enjoy the lawn. No fun allowed. “organized or team-oriented sports.” Bummer. You can't even walk your dog in this park.

Maxwell Place Lawn is just dead greenspace, consuming labor, money, and oil to keep manicured. The lawn is privately owned, and it exists because the buildings surrounding it are part of a large development, so the developer had to throw in some “open space” to get it approved. But, usually when you force someone to do something against their will—in this case to check off a box to get their development approved—they do a mediocre job of it. Now this area does not have a shortage of good parks:

( Map )


Right next door is Elysian Park. It’s beautiful. Anytime the weather is slightly nice, it is full of children. You would not believe so many children live in this corner of Hoboken unless you visited this park on a nice day.

Elysian Park

Elysian Park

On the other side of Maxwell Place Lawn is Maxwell Place Park. I come here to lay on the lawn under a shady tree and read a book all the time. It's also full of people, even when the weather isn’t nice.

Maxwell Place Park  

Maxwell Place Park

Having access to quality parks and nature is really important. But, there are three points to be made here:

  1. An under-utilized patch of lawn is not a quality park. In fact, underutilized spaces in urban areas are dangerous, as their lack of activity offers no deterrent to crime.
  2. There is no shortage of quality parks in this area. Too much open space can actually be harmful if there is not enough activity to fill it with, as it can leave it dangerously underutilized.
  3. When we force a private owner to use their land in a very unproductive manner, they do a mediocre job of it.

We are great at building parks. Hoboken even has two parks (the Southwest Park and the Northwest Park) under construction.

The quality of public parks in my town is really good, and I suspect that's the case in many other towns and cities. But this is a fully built-up urban area where our land is our most valuable resource, so it frustrates me when I see wasted dead space. I would much rather have the developer put this land to productive use by developing on it or selling it off to someone who can, instead of placating the public with a useless chunk of grass.

(All photos by Andrew Price unless otherwise noted.)

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