A few weeks ago I decided to go on an exploratory lunchtime walk and stumbled upon Bluemont Park, a 70-acre multi-use park in the Bluemont neighborhood of Arlington County. I’ve visited a lot of parks in the last few months: Rural parks, suburban parks, urban parks…you get the picture. Urban parks are unique because nature isn’t as easily accessible; a natural environment has to be created within a very densely populated, unnatural setting, and I think this is something that’s very difficult to achieve.
So many urban parks I’ve been to seem so soulless and characterless; they have the standard requirements: A playground, perhaps a walkway and some basketball courts, a few benches, but something’s missing; the park feels disconnected and out of touch; it’s in the community, but not part of the community. So many places are non-places; places that could essentially be anywhere because they have no unique characteristics and no one is engaged with them in any significant way. But Bluemont Park is definitely a place. After the first time I visited I couldn’t get this park out of my mind. It just seemed like such a warm, pleasant, right place to be — a perfect park — and I wanted to figure out what made it so perfect to me. So a few days ago I went back to the park, sat down at a picnic table and started taking notes. I came up with the following:
1.) The park is just the right size. It’s big enough that you feel like you’re actually in a park, but it’s not so big that you feel isolated from the surrounding community. It’s long and narrow and you can still see houses and buildings. In other words, the community is all around you rather than far away from you.
2.) Related to point one, Bluemont is connected to the community in a big way. There are neighborhood access trails every few hundred yards so its easy for community members to walk or bike to the park. There’s no need to drive. And this is a neighborhood park, after all, not the kind of place you’d drive 30 or 40 miles to visit. Accessibility is the missing link with so many parks. Unlike other urban parks I’ve visited which so often seem like one square acre of bland, unmemorable green among a tangle of city streets, Bluemont is connected to Four Mile Run and the WO&D Trail, two very popular commuter and leisure trails designated for bikes, joggers, walkers and rollerbladers only, so it invites exercise. And Glencarlyn Park and Bon Air Park, two slighly different but equally great parks, are adjacent to the park on either side, so its connected to a greater network.
3.) There are always a lot of people here doing a lot of different things. The first time I stumbled upon this park I remember thinking, “Wow, I’m in America.” Good America, that is: Baseball teams, Hispanic immigrants barbecuing (on weeknights!), parents watching their kids on the playground, joggers in bright neon shorts, frisbee golf teams, moms cheering on their tee-ball players, fathers and sons fishing and families going for a leisurely evening stroll or bike ride. Pair this with a warm, early spring day when most of the trees are flowering and you have perfection. People are engaged with the park and with each other.
4.) It’s beautiful. But not too beautiful. The park entrance by the Frisbee golf course relatively secluded and wooded before the park opens up to sports fields surrounded by houses and buildings. There’s a pretty creek that runs the length of the park, and there are plenty of trees, picnic tables and even a paved biking/jogging trail that runs the length of the park. It’s beautiful enough to remind you you’re in a park, but not so overwhelmingly green and scenic that you forget you’re in an urban community.