Linda Poon is a staff writer at CityLab covering science and urban technology, including smart cities and climate change. She previously covered global health and development for NPR’s Goats and Soda blog.
Most cities aren’t fond of letting people use parks after dark. But there are good lifestyle, environmental, and safety reasons to reconsider.
It was just another Saturday when I stumbled across a busy park in Seoul last year. The Gyeongui Line Forest Park, a 4-mile strip of greenery built atop a former rail line, was packed. Couples, families, and groups of friends planted themselves throughout the park, picnicking as buskers belted out songs.
It was midnight, and from the look of things, the night had just begun.
In many ways, it wasn’t an unusual scene at all. Nightlife is a fixture of vibrant urban parks all around the world. But it’s a rare thing to find in the U.S., where parks often close after sunset—even if there’s nothing stopping you from walking in if you really want to.
In 2018, the Trust for Public Land surveyed parks in the 100 largest U.S. cities and found that most close from dusk to dawn, while some others are open until 11 p.m. A few remain open later into the night, but they’re the exception to the rule: The National Mall in Washington, D.C., is open 24 hours, for example, and New York City’s Central Park closes at 1 a.m. Still, aside from a handful of joggers and late-night strollers, you’re unlikely to find a lively crowd in either park at night.
So why don’t American parks have the after-dark activity found in many other countries? It largely comes down to differences in culture, geography, and climate, says Leni Schwendinger, a nighttime designer who works internationally.
“In Spain and India, they have a habit at having dinner [as late as] 11 p.m., and then going out,” she says as an example. “In the cooler countries, no matter how cold it is, it gets dark so early that people are used to being out.”
The American Dream has something to do with it, too. Suburban sprawl means Americans generally live farther away from parks, and have fewer opportunities to casually stroll through them while walking home.
“Americans look at their homes as castles, and we have everything we need in our little homes,” says Cynthia Nikitin, senior vice president at the nonprofit Project for Public Spaces. She contrasts that with high-density cities across Asia, where long work hours and smaller homes mean people often entertain at night and outdoors.
There’s also a bad reputation to contend with. Americans in particular have historically viewed parks as dangerous places to be after dark. Nikitin says that’s largely a result of disinvestment in urban parks, as wealthy white Americans fled to the suburbs in the decades following World War II.
Among the more notable victims was Manhattan’s Central Park. Beginning in the 1960s and through to the ’70s, statues were left crumbling and defaced with graffiti, and spikes in crime committed in the park heightened existing fears driven by class, racial, and ethnic tensions.
Still, there’s hope for change. As more Americans move to urban areas, many cities are focusing on ways to improve the condition of their cities after dark. Parks haven’t been much of a priority in that context, but there are reasons to think they could be.
Take Paris, for example. The city, known for its strict rules on park use and equally strict adherence to park hours, began a few years ago to open its parks 24 hours a day in the summer. It’s part of the city’s “cooling initiative” to help people enjoy time outdoors without the threat of excessive heat. Now, residents can enjoy midnight picnics, nocturnal strolls, and late-night celebrations in more than a quarter of Paris’s nearly 500 parks, and security teams ensure safety and control excessive noise.
With summer days only getting hotter, Rich Dolesh at the National Recreation and Park Association expects increasing demand for American cities to follow in Paris’s footsteps.
“The fact is if you have a long period of excessive heat, your park infrastructure will not be used enjoyably [during the day],” he says, pointing to Phoenix’s 100-plus consecutive days of triple-digit temperatures last year. “So being able to use some of these spaces after dark is a really valuable public benefit.” Dolesh says it’s “an inevitable response” to a climate-changing world.
The U.S. will have to push past some challenges first, namely funding and rebranding parks as safe and welcoming places for families after dark.
“Safety is very bottomline,” Schwendinger says.
While it was a long slog, Central Park offers one path to change. The Central Park Conservancy took over management of the park in 1980, bringing in over $500 million worth of investment over 30 years—much of it from public-private partnerships—and hundreds of volunteers to restore the park.
In 2014, a late-night park-goer described Central Park as “boringly safe” to the New York Times, which detailed scenes of couples strolling under lamplights alongside joggers, cyclists, and carriage horses well into the night. It also cited a steady decline in crimes committed in the park, from 731 cases in 1981 to 37 in 2001, and to just 17 by 2014. Few, the reporter wrote, recalled the infamous assault and rape of a Central Park jogger in 1989.*
Yet the time and money it took to change Central Park aren’t available to every city. The 100 largest U.S. cities currently spend some $7.1 billion on parks each year, with other organizations footing another $597 million, according to the Trust for Public Land survey. It’s a considerable recovery from the period between 2007 and 2009, when the recession pushed funding for local parks and recreation to the bottom of cities’ budget priorities.
But it’s never enough, says Charlie McCabe, the director for the Center of City Park Excellency at the Trust for Public Land. Parks, just like anything else, wear out, and cities are always in need of more money to restore and maintain them. That leaves little for, say, staffing parks at night and retrofitting them with design elements that feel inviting. Like lighting, which Schwendinger says is a prerequisite to keeping parks open at night. Brighter isn’t always better, though. Instead, she says, it has to be done strategically so that parks are lit enough to enhance security but not be so bright that it disturbs the wildlife or nearby residents.
Currently, Dolesh says, the athletic community is among the most likely to use public parks at night or before sunrise. To make them more family friendly at night, and to improve their public value, communities need to invest in more nighttime programming.
“Like nighttime basketball, or movies in the park, ice skating in the dark, fireworks,” says Nikitin. “It gives [residents] an option to be in a safe place with other people.” And in that way, activities in parks at night can actually improve safety.
Dolesh points to Los Angeles’s Summer Night Lights program as a good example. Started in 2008 with funding help from various philanthropies, the program aimed to reduce gang violence among at-risk youth by opening up parks and recreation centers at night across 32 sites, and filling them with activities for teens like dances, fitness class, art workshops, and food festivals. Evaluation by the Urban Institute found that by 2010, the program had led to, among other things, 55 percent fewer shots fired and 57 percent reduction in gang-related homicides in those areas.
And in March, the Los Angeles County parks department kicked off this year’s Parks After Dark program, which began in 2010 with the goal of making parks safer by bringing evening activities to them. It started with just three parks and has now expanded to 33 locations. A 2017 study of the initiative by UCLA concluded that 95 percent of those who participated in 2016 said it improved the community’s relationship with local authorities and among neighbors. Seven in 10 participants who described their neighborhoods as “unsafe” also reported that they felt safe attending those programs. And the researchers estimated that by reducing crime, it saved the county nearly $6 million in law enforcement costs that year.
McCabe calls for American cities to experiment more, and to learn from cities that host night markets and food festivals in parks.
“I think the mingling of commerce with public land has always been more fraught in the U.S.,” he says, adding that early landscape designers like Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux—who designed New York City’s most popular parks—intended parks to be an escape from the city.
However cities want to encourage more park use at night, he stresses that they need to consult the “community anchors” to ensure that it meets the needs of the entire neighborhood.
“They might be store owners, the senior committee, or they might be a collection of younger parents,“ he says.
Nikitin says U.S. cities still have a long way to go: “I personally don’t know of many cities that are making this a priority, but it could be a wonderful trend.”
*CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misstated that the victim was murdered in the 1989 case of the Central Park jogger. The story has been updated.