The Death and Life of Parkland Sidewalks

by Chris Marks, Marcos Giossi, and Rene Ramos

With a name like Parkland one would expect lush green nature, open fields, and kids playing outside. But sadly, none of these things are actually reflected in the local suburban sprawl. By simply walking on the main road of Pacific Avenue, I quickly learned that the name—Parkland—unfortunately does not even come close to characterizing what the place is actually like: asphalt, gravel, and the roar of car engines.

One cannot walk in Parkland because of a simple reason: there are no sidewalks. I walked nearly the entire north end of the city, all of Pacific Avenue, and through the majority of its suburban residence. In doing so, I found that if one wishes to get from point A to point B they had best have a car or the public transport equivalent. All the land mentioned, with the exception of Pacific Avenue, had mere dirt and gravel to pass as walking space. I nearly broke my ankle trying to walk from the local drugstore back to PLU, and not from slipping mind you. Rather, it was from one of the million (yes, million) gaping potholes that litter the walking paths. It is as if the city planners had simply let go of the idea that one may want to walk in the town, that I was at fault for trying to get anywhere by foot.

To be fair there is little reason to go anywhere besides the main strip of road that cuts the city in half (Pacific Avenue), though if one does wish to fight the very ground they walk on they should never do so at night. Walking at night in Parkland is like dumping a package of thumbtacks on the ground, blindfolding oneself and trying not to fall. This is no exaggeration, in my travels, I walked nearly 8 blocks without a single overhead street light and when I found one it may have well been a desk lamp with the amount of light it put out. Even where there is a sidewalk it seems to not be made for walking. Battered and broken slabs of concrete make up what looks to be an attempt at sidewalk placement, impossible for anyone with the smallest physical handicap. 54 blocks were walked on Pacific Avenue and not one of them brought me any thought other than “I need a car.”

According to, the average Parkland resident spends an average of 30 minutes commuting to work, which means that most people drive out of the small community for their job. In fact, when looking at a map of Parkland, the entire area seems to be set up so that people can get in and out, fast and easy. All of the residential streets branch from Pacific Avenue, which cuts through the middle of Parkland like a bulging vein leading to Highway 512. From this perspective, Parkland looks more like a transient space than a destination. Those passing through might—at first glance—overlook it as void of culture and life. But there is a community, even if it isn’t readily apparent or particularly vibrant. Like a plant growing through concrete, Parkland culture manifests itself in transfigured and interesting ways. Sidewalks sputter in and out of existence without immediate purpose, and crosswalks leading to nowhere are sprinkled haphazardly throughout the landscape. Through careful observation and mapping of the area, we analyzed the way the Parkland community navigates the space around them. As we walked down the paved, gravel and dirt pathways, we examined how the structures of these streets result from the overlying government, history, and values of the area.

It is easy to see that Parkland is prominently a car culture. Parked vehicles fill the parking lots, sides of the streets, and often the gravel walking pathways that are wide enough to fit them. There are countless low-cost auto shops and dealerships to cater to the community’s needs. Walk down Pacific Avenue at just about any time of the day and you will see a steady stream of individuals, enclosed it their cars, not interacting with anything but turn signals. Could this car-focused isolation be hurting the community?

Scholars and City Planners have recognized the significance of interactively navigating spaces ever since Jane Jacobs wrote The Life and Death of Great American Cities in the 1960’s. Before her book, society typically deplored people hanging around on sidewalks and public spaces because it was assumed they did not have decent homes or important things to do. Jacobs dismissed this idea, calling it a “profound misunderstanding” and arguing that the interactions of the public were not only important, but also vital for the prosperity of an area. The more eyes on the street, the safer they’ll be. The more mouths and ears on the street, the faster ideas will spread. If the area is diverse, cultures and perspectives are shared by individuals who otherwise will not interact without a shared public space. This last point is especially true for Parkland, which is shared by an assorted mix of lower to middle income families, military employees from the nearby base, and private college students. So why is there a deficit of shared spaces in Parkland? It could be possible that the social groups have no desire to interact with each other, and in that case it would be foolish to attempt to coax the community into a dynamic that would ultimately fail. However, we don’t believe this is the case. We think that other forces, such as government and history, have pushed the car culture into prominence.

Parkland has no central government. It’s considered an “unincorporated suburb” of Tacoma. In fact, the only official recognition that it gets is as a census designated “place.” Because of this, funds for the area are not well integrated. Gathering spaces such as parks and squares still exist, but they often end up serving only the private interests that created them instead of the Parkland society as a whole. For example, the Red Square at Pacific Lutheran University is almost exclusively used by the school and students. The space isn’t used in the traditional sense of a public square where different community groups might come together.

Sidewalks in Parkland are erected for non-traditional reasons as well. Instead of being placed at spots that serve the community best and make the space more navigable, they are located at the neighborhoods and buildings that can afford them. Essentially, the sidewalks are not created as functional tools but as symbols of status and wealth. Pacific Avenue is the center of commerce in Parkland, and the entirety of the street has paved walkways. The section of C Street that’s north of the Pacific Lutheran is paved, and it has houses that look much nicer than the ones south of the school, where the walkways are almost entirely gravel. 112th Street is only paved on the west side, where there are nicer houses and a cluster of large churches. The newly installed Garfield Station apartments, which will cater to higher income residents, have a wide and radiant sidewalk with garnished trees planted along the sides. These sidewalks cut out of existence immediately after the influential building, neighborhood, or university ends. The gravel pathways on the other hand, seem to exist specifically for functionality. There are multiple clusters of them around the borders of the university, where many of the students walk. Other gravel paths can be found around the schools and apartment complexes. These paths aren’t appealing to the eye, but are rather useful for the walking community.

Parkland might have turned out to be another place altogether if it’s history had been different. For example, if it had incorporated itself as an official city, town, or village, then it would have a centralized government to guide its use of public space in a healthy way. If it had established some sort of prominent industry early on, people might have been more drawn to and invested in the area.

So, can Parkland shift into an area of public exchanges and sense of community? We think so. It would be difficult to reverse the values ingrained in this small society, but with the right elements in play, Parkland could be reinvented into an interactive space where people teach and learn from one another. After all, the lack of communal interaction seems to result from Parkland’s past and lack of municipality, and not from an aversion to interrelating in shared spaces. Now that the factors blocking social communication and collaboration are understood, the next step is finding an effective and enjoyable way to eliminate them. The result could be a smarter, happier, more productive Parkland.