The Strong Towns movement is inspiring real change and on-the-ground activism in communities across North America. To amplify our power to bring about change, we encourage our members to form Local Conversations groups with other Strong Citizens in their community or region. We’re all stronger and more effective when we learn from each other and take action together.
One such group is Stronger Denton in the city of Denton, Texas. Stronger Denton is a Strong Towns local conversation dedicated to making Denton more financially resilient. You can join the conversation in their Slack channel, #place_denton.
Think about that park in your neighborhood. Initially, you may not think of it as much more than a place to step away from the city into a flash of nature. However, as Strong Towns member Andrew Price has written, parks serve as gathering places, sites of future revolutions, and several other purposes.
Now, that doesn’t mean all parks offer these benefits. Cities can miss the mark, opting for sterile, risk-averse playground equipment or expensive, master-planned plazas. These miss-the-mark parks generally have the same thing in common: they’re built to a finished state.
That means no matter how the neighborhood responds or evolves, what you see is what you get (until the park experiences enough neglect that the city asks for a re-do).
Cities, however, have another option that’s more resilient, financially successful, and adaptive to neighborhood feedback: incrementalism—a term you’ve likely encountered on the Strong Towns site. An incremental approach to creating parks means, as Strong Towns President and Founder Chuck Marohn has written in his Neighborhoods First Report, making small, incremental investments in a place over time.
That could mean the city starts with trimming the overgrown shrubs that block the view of a potential park; it could mean consistently mowing the grass so people can comfortably sit on a picnic blanket.
These incremental investments don’t break the bank. And the best part: the city can observe how people react to the investments and, based on their observations, plan new investments.
(Much better than seeing your million dollar, shiny new plaza sit empty, huh?)
A Denton Park Prime for an Incremental Approach
Industrial Street Park, located along one of downtown Denton’s most popular streets, sits between townhomes and closed patios of a few local restaurants and bars.
The grass has always acted as an extension of the patios: walk down Industrial Street and you’ll occasionally see a group of people sitting at the one randomly-placed table, hovering over their street tacos.
The City of Denton, which gave the patch of grass its formal title of “Industrial Street Park” and accompanying sign last year, recognized the area as potential public space and released plans of its vision.
Will it attract more people to the space? Perhaps. Will more people visit Industrial Street, spending their money at nearby local businesses? Maybe. The problem, however: is the uncertainty of its success worth the $362,000 price tag?
At Stronger Denton—inspired by the Strong Towns concept of incrementalism—we believe the City should, instead, make small, incremental investments to Industrial Street Park. For example, the City could add a few more picnic tables; create an obvious entry point; or encourage food trucks to park along the space.
These investments would cost the City a fraction of the price of building out its complete vision for the park right away. And, you guessed it: it would also give the City essential feedback to guide future investments.
Industrial Street Park may need a design as depicted in the City’s plans, eventually. However, in the meantime, we wonder if the City could test a few more investments before it goes from single table to synthetic turf. That’s why, at Stronger Denton, we decided to demonstrate what an incremental investment to creating Industrial Street Park looks like.
How Stronger Denton Demonstrated Incrementalism
Early one Saturday morning (like, 4:30am early), with flowers and a few essential gardening tools in hand, we made the best incremental investment a group of four Strong Towns advocates could make: create a planter bed around the park’s sign.
It didn’t cost much—under $50—and gave the park enough of a facelift to capture people’s attention. (Even our community Facebook group, usually filled with cynicism, acknowledged the improvement.)
This small investment won’t make the front page of our local paper; it won’t call for a ribbon cutting and photo-op with the Chamber of Commerce. However, it will demonstrate that the humble Industrial Street Park can, incrementally, become a great place worthy of investment.
(If you’re interested, check out this video of the process.)
Think back to that park in your neighborhood—or, heck, any space that you think could use a little love. You likely have a grand vision of its success—with people sitting on the lawn enjoying a picnic, children running around—however, that doesn’t mean you need grand plan to achieve it.