Throughout the history of the United States, the appropriate use of park space has been disputed. In the early 1900s, parks were designed for two primary reasons: to create natural spaces within polluted cities and to minimize social unrest. Diverse class populations used these spaces differently creating disputes over what constituted “appropriate park use and behavior.”[1] The middle class wanted to use parks for leisure and culture, while the working class wanted to use park space for outdoor recreation and games. This resulted in the middle class reserving park usage for carriage rides and public displays of wealth, frequently restricting park usage through signs that stated “keep off the grass”.[2]

Early urban parks

Early urban parks were designed to bring nature into the city. (Source:

Overtime, smaller parks geared toward recreation were created in less affluent areas. There were now not enough parks to meet the demand, which led working class residents to promote the recreation movement, which consisted of having both large and small parks. The working class did use parks for leisure, as the middle class, but did not have the luxury of a country estate or backyard for which to play games in private. They lived in slum type environments and needed recreational space. As immigration to the United States increased, the push for more multi-use parks increased. The working class wanted places where different groups could congregate. A place for men to play sports, women to relax and children to play.[3] The multi-use park is the framework for parks in the United States today.

The working class in the early 1900s was comprised primarily of immigrants. Today, New Jersey is one of the most racially diverse states, with foreign born residents populating about 18% of the state.[4] New Jersey falls behind only New York and California for the highest percentage of foreign-born residents.[5] According to the 2012 U.S. American Community Survey, New Jersey’s African American, Asian, and Hispanic populations are greater than the average for the entire United States, with Hispanic and African American populations representing about 30% of the total population. [6] This diverse demographic composition needs to be considered when creating and cultivating public spaces.

“Redesigning public spaces provides opportunities to visually represent changing community demographics. Designers tend to find inspiration through observation, dialogue with community residents, and vernacular landscape traditions.”[7]

There has been significant amount of research compiled on how different ethnic groups use open space. As a racially diverse state, New Jersey needs to make sure it creates public spaces that accommodate all of its residents. A study published in 2005, discussed how park space is used by different racial and ethnic groups. While the study noted that all groups engaged in activities where food was involved, the activities and size of groups differed. It found that Asian and White groups were more likely to go to the park by themselves or in small groups for shorter lengths of time, while Hispanic and African American group were more likely to go in groups for longer periods. [8] Understanding these trends can help identify program elements for more inclusive park design. For example, since all groups associate park use with food, from a design perspective, it is important to incorporate pavilions, grills, and picnic tables into parks.

As our communities change, providing open space to meet residents' wants and needs becomes more important.

Park usage is influenced not only by race and ethnicity, but also by gender and age. Women and older park users are more likely to use parks during the weekdays. Women are also more likely to engage in park-community activities, but less likely to participate in team activities. [9] Planners can use this knowledge when they are organizing community outreach activities or sports leagues. People also come to the park for different reasons; some like to come for leisure, some play, and some to interact with nature. Successful parks accommodate all these uses, incorporating quiet areas, playgrounds, playing fields, and vegetated areas to provide recreation areas for citizens of all age, race, and ethnicity.

As New Jersey continues to age and diversify culturally, the urban landscape will need to adjust. The adjustments, however, are not limited to the built environment. Our vision of communities and places that foster community must also evolve. Historically, parks have served not just as outlets for leisure and recreation, but also as a places where community members can go to interact and create social connections. By creating a dialogue in these changing neighborhoods and developing space to meet resident wants and needs, New Jersey will continue to be a state that welcomes residents from all walks of life.


[7] Lawson, Laura. “Parks as Mirrors of Community: Design Discourse and Community Hopes for Parks in East St. Louis 2007.” Landscape Journal 26 (2007): 116-33. Print.

[8] Sasidharan, Vinod, Fern Willits, and Geoffrey Godbey. “Cultural Differences in Urban Recreation Patterns: An Examination of Park Usage and Activity Participation across Six Population Subgroups.” Managing Leisure 10 (2005): 19-38. Print.

[9] Ibid.,35.