The ‘pocket parks’ of Petaluma
It’s just after sunrise on a foggy morning at Sunset Pocket Park, Petaluma’s newest official park - and also one of its smallest.
Located at 401 Lakeville St., the attractively landscaped 0.4-acre sliver - clearly designated as a park by a sizable wooden sign bearing its name - could easily be mistaken (by pedestrians or bus passengers who embark and disembark there) as merely the “front yard” of the recently opened Hampton Inn, the renovated reincarnation of Petaluma’s iconic Sunset Line and Twin Factory. Thus the same of the park, which also just happens to be facing west toward the setting sun.
There are some metal benches around a concrete walkway, a few stone picnic tables, a small palm tree and assorted smaller trees planted here and there, and a scrap of grass not quite big enough for a decent Frisbee toss. And don’t underestimate the importance of the Frisbee Factor in determining the significance of any park. To many people, if it’s not big enough for a good long Frisbee flight, it’s not much of a park. That said, for many others, all a park requires to be a park is a bench and a view.
Sunset Park is, in every way, a perfect example of a modern “pocket park.” It’s got benches. Nice ones. And depending on which way you are facing, it does have a bit of a view.
Petaluma currently has 10 others, some a little smaller, one or two slightly bigger.
First described as such in the mid-1960s, a pocket park is generally defined as a small public space, frequently in urban or suburban environments, usually established on a single lot surrounded by residences or businesses. Also called mini-parks, parkettes, plazettes and, in some parts of the world, “vest pocket parks” or “vesties,” these tiny pleasure spots are rarely larger than an acre in size, and many are much, much smaller.
“Some of our little pocket parks are so small that ‘pocket parks’ isn’t even a good way to describe them,” says Kevin Hays, recreation coordinator for Petaluma’s Parks and Recreation Department. “Some are barely parks at all, honestly.”
Using the 1-acre-or-smaller definition, Petaluma’s official list of public parks includes 11 such pocket parks within city limits, while Hays acknowledges that there are a number of others in town which have been established and are cared for by individual neighborhoods or homeowners associations. Of the 11 official Petaluma pocket parks and mini-parks, it is the Parks and Recreation department that is responsible for maintenance and oversight.
Many Petalumans will be surprised to learn that some of these public spaces have been designated as parks at all.
“Center Park, for example,” says Hays, referring to the 0.1-acre splinter of prime downtown real estate that stands between the Mystic Theatre and Petaluma Boulevard, just across the street from 24 Hour Fitness and the Great Petaluma Mill. Technically one of the city’s oldest parks, established around the time of Petaluma’s incorporation, it’s perhaps best known for the towering redwoods, now surrounded by a simple wooden fence, that are draped in lights each year during the holidays. There is a small bricked patio with six metal benches, facing each other three by three. Facing the buildings is a little interpretive display featuring several succinct paragraphs (by Argus-Courier columnist Skip Sommer) about the iron front buildings of Petaluma. If you look closely, you will even find an old mission bell, designating Petaluma as a stop along the historic El Camino Real once traveled by padres as they moved from mission to mission across California. The whole parklet is surrounded by parking spaces, but have no doubt: the place is a park. “It doesn’t have any green grass,” allows Hays, “but it has those benches and some gorgeous trees you can look at and, depending on the time of day, you sit there and kind of enjoy the beauty of downtown Petaluma.”
Just down the street is Helen Putnam Plaza, among Petaluma’s most trafficked and utilized mini-parks, despite its diminutive 0.1-acre size. Named in the 1980s for former Petaluma mayor Helen Putnam, the park at 129 Petaluma Blvd. features a circular fountain and a patch of grass surrounded by walkways and cement benches and another interpretive history display by Sommer. Putnam Plaza - clearly marked by a large metal sign in the archway that leads to the plaza - serves as an identifiable landmark in the downtown area.
Of course, many of Petaluma’s pocket parks bear no signage or identification at all.
Among these is the 0.8-acre lawn at the Petaluma City Hall (11 English St.), officially a park, and increasingly becoming better used by the city as such. Last summer, the first Live on the Lawn event was held there. Though its proximity to a number of residences would seem to make it a prime place for family picnics and similar events, its identity as the City Hall’s front lawn might discourage many from using it as an actual park. For the record, the site, with little more than grass, grass, grass and a few trees, holds a highly desirable Frisbee Factor.