Sunday, September 13, 2009

City Parks’ Grand Rebirth

Some interesting thoughts on downtown parks. Hey we have one of those....and someday we might have a better one!

Complete post at

But there’s no single formula for new parks. Just climb up a short flight of stairs to the newly-opened “High Line” park on Manhattan’s West Side. You’ll find clusters of families and couples strolling, chatting, sipping lemonade and nibbling on waffles or sandwiches along what for years constituted a desolate and weed-choked stretch of abandoned elevated freight railroad track.

Now, from the meandering concrete walkways of this sliver of protected park space in the sky, the visitor catches stunning views of the Hudson, the Statue of Liberty, Midtown and Wall Street skyscrapers, plus amazingly intimate glimpses into the forbidden interiors of nearby apartments, stately townhouses, and offices.

Or check auto-happy, sprawling Houston. Two-term Mayor Bill White has made parks a top priority. Lead example: Discovery Green, 12 once-industrial acres on the east side of downtown. Among Discovery Green’s features: a shaded walkway featuring 100-year-old oak trees, thematic gardens with native Texas plants, birds and butterflies, fountains and spacious green lawns, a model boat basin, a children’s stage, WiFi everywhere, and two restaurants. Plus lots of people watching.

Indeed, if there were ever a bonanza decade for America’s parks, this is surely it. Add stunning new parks in Boston, Atlanta, Cincinnati, Denver and Santa Fe, plus the success of conservancies in revamping great old parks in such cities as Pittsburgh, Brooklyn and San Francisco.

And by good fortune, there’s a skilled chronicler tracking and analyzing the wave–Peter Harnik, parks expert for the Trust for Public Land and author of a soon-to-be published Island Press book on today’s parks phenomenon.

For amost a half century, Harnik notes, the reigning American park model was Disneyland– “corporate, programmed, extravagant, rural, flawless and electrifying.” City parks “began grinding down relentlessly everywhere” as people realized “the park experience could be sanitized, social classes could be segregated.”

So why the big turnaround now? Partly it’s the “wow” in the new city parks–fascinating gardens, theaters, concerts, fountains, ice skating. That’s why, says Harnik, the 2004 opening of the Millennium Park in Chicago had the biggest impact on the American parkland scene since New York’s great Central Park opened in 1873.

But Harnik insists there’s more to the revival–that we’re seeing a revival of factors “ignored in the din of massive suburbanization and sprawl–human scale, walkability, efficiency, and respect for ecological principles and democratic ideals.” Or put another way, we’re reawakening to parks’ ultimate value: “an interplay–a conversation–between people and nature.”

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