by Steve Coleman

Together with revitalizing the physical landscape, park leaders need to assess, map, and plan for revitalization of these ten intangible but vital components.

I. The Landscape of Memory

History neither began nor ended with the designed landscape. Making the historic landscape resonate more universally for diverse non-users calls for broadened interpretive programs about the many pasts of the land. These include stories about the prehuman and Native American days of the Earth around the Park and its geological and natural evolution; community history of the land before the Park; oral histories, photographic displays, and retrospectives of multicultural people’s experiences in the Park over the years; recognition and leadership roles for long-time residents and park users; revival or commemoration of historic links between surrounding communities and the park; and events honoring the design, place, and ritual antecedents of the Park in Native American, African, Asian, Latin, and European traditions. At Meridian Hill, the most important interpretation of the Park’s past is done by its longtime Park users: the policeman who grew up around the corner regaling school groups with tales of the horse drawn watermelon cart that used to stop at the Park; the former drug dealer who now devotes his life to the Park describing how the police and the community cracked an unsolved murder case; and the Baptist minister and “mayor” of the Park, who has been coming to the Overlook nearly every day the weather is fair for 45 years, telling his gentle, watchful stories of the bird life at the Park. (See Ceremonial Time, Hidden Cities, and The Power of Place: Urban Landscapes as Public History.)

II. The Landscape of Myth and Meaning

Perceptions of parks become reality. At Central Park and Meridian Hill, for example, it took mountains of publicity about the eradication of most crime, coupled with intensive programming, to bring people back. The image and reputation of the Park shapes not only visitor use, but also nearby neighborhood investment and economic development; community services; and public decisions about budget allocations, planning, transit, design, and programs. There are numerous positive myths of different cultures that the Park can tie into: the Pueblo, the Commons, the Village Green, the Piazza, the City Beautiful, the Emerald City, the Potowmack (or gathering site), the Sacred Site, the Garden of Eden, the Secret Garden, the Enchanted Forest, the Tree of Life, the Fountain of Youth, the Zone of Peace, etc. Equally important to the Park’s myths are the meanings that people draw from the Park. For decades, Meridian Hill’s formal landscape had seemed aristocratic and removed for many neighbors — until we adopted the motto, “A Park for All People” and reminded everyone that what makes Meridian Hill so great is that it took design ideas from private gardens around the world, then incorporated these into a Park that was intended from the start to be for all people to enjoy. Similarly, we took a hideously bad reputation as the single most violent park in the Capital and turned it on its head by making sure that the media covered every single positive development as news.

III. The Landscape of Imagination and Possibility

People come to parks with simple needs: rest, relaxation, recreation, and respite from the city. Good parks meet these needs but then also respond to deeper yearnings, giving us ideas, hope, and a sense of possibility in our own lives and communities. Far more than pretty things to look at, successful parks are places where we show people that their dreams can come true. Parks inspire us to rise to our best and to appreciate what is good among us. Created out of leaps of faith that often defied all conventional wisdom about what was practical (even Olmsted scoffed at the feasibility of Golden Gate Park), parks in turn broaden our own capacity to imagine and create a better future. The key is to offer a rich variety of experiences that spark the imagination and illuminate what it means to be fully alive. Meridian Hill was designed with “pageantry” in mind, but when we began work, fear had replaced fun in the Park, which was dying. Today, the Park has come back to life, and making people’s jaws drop in wonder and surprise has become a regular part of our work. Little children studying the wind stare in amazement at the long, twisted journey taken by the bubbles they blow off the top of the hill. A fascinated homeless man, himself elaborately dressed, watches a costumed septuagenarian performer dance while reciting poems in five languages. Older Park “alumni” — urban refugees — returning after more than a generation are stunned to learn that music once again floats across the Park on summer evenings, people still fall in love here just as they did so long ago, and the Park and the city around it are undergoing a major renaissance.

IV. The Landscape of Hospitality

Long before and ever since Mr. and Mrs. Mallard struggled to find a safe place to nest in Boston’s parks, non-users of parks have stayed away because they do not feel at home. The revival of hospitality called for by Henry Nuowen and others is especially needed in urban parks. The tests for hospitality in a space are straightforward. Are there indications along the boundary of the Park such as banners and other signage that outsiders are welcome? Is the Park linked to its surrounding communities through greenway or streetscape connections? Is the Park easily accessed by children, pedestrians, disabled people, bicyclists, and transit riders? Are the connections from the surrounding neighborhood planned with appropriate signage, crosswalks, and traffic lighting? Are the entrances well placed, lit, and maintained? Are people from vastly different cultures and backgrounds made to feel welcome and oriented as they enter the site? Are they informed how their diverse needs, comforts, and interests can be met in the Park? Are there lines of sight and other environmental security measures to make people feel safe and beckon them to venture in? Are the nodes of large parks related or connected in some way to their nearest neighborhoods to encourage neighborhood involvement? Are people made to feel that their enjoyment and appropriate experience of the site are paramount?

V. The Landscape of Freedom

In the past, many managers of historic landscapes have attempted to severely constrain innocent public uses in the name of preservation. The problem with this approach was that it alienated the very people for whom the landscape was designed, who could best watch over it, and who comprise the lasting constituency that would stand up for reservation and increased funding of the Park. With innocent users staying away and funding cut back, the result was that many historic landscapes in diverse neighborhoods were taken over by criminal users. Today, by contrast, creative park managers are finding that encouraging free, innocent uses actually helps free the parks from fear, violence, disruption, pollution, and decay. Within appropriate laws and rules and basic respect for others, good parks are the places where, more than anywhere else in the public spaces of a city, we are given permission to be ourselves and to do anything we want. Inside a good park, we feel free to run, play, frolic, love, laugh, sing, mourn, celebrate, honor the Earth, be alone, give a speech, paint a picture, dance, worship, perform a ritual, wear a strange costume, or do whatever suits our fancy (all of these elements were part of a single ceremony I attended recently at Manhattan’s 6th & B Street Community Garden).

On the same “play mall” at Meridian Hill where ball-playing and kite-flying were once illegal but the city’s largest open-air drug supermarket operated almost non-stop, one can now, on any nice Sunday afternoon, see a Breughel-like tableau of hundreds of people enjoying the Park in hundreds of ways. Meanwhile, in the quieter niches of the Park, made safe by the throngs of people returning to other parts of the Park, one can find more solitary visitors feeling free to picnic, sunbathe, smell the flowers, read, write, meditate, and nap — uses that would have been unthinkable less than a decade ago. Emphasizing the responsible freedom a park affords is especially vital in reaching out to multicultural neighborhoods, appealing both to immigrant groups who came here to escape oppression and to African Americans whose grandparents and great-grandparents were so recently enslaved.

VI. The Landscape of Community

A good park must have a culture and spirit where one feels comfortable speaking to “strangers.” This is the beginning and the basis of community and all successful parks. Community is talked about and theorized a great deal, but far too few people really experience it or understand how to build and protect it. A generation of community-illiterate Americans has been instructed to avoid going inside innercity parks, venturing outdoors in the evening, loitering, or speaking to strangers — yet these can be some of the very best ways to discover and build community. Urban parks are vital to community-building because they are one of the few places where people who share absolutely nothing in common with one another can meet and learn from each other. As anyone knows who has attended an evening performance in a park, there is perhaps no more magical community bonding feeling than that of the audience being serenaded together through the sunset into twilight. At such a time and place, we give ourselves the rare permission to linger or “loiter” long enough to connect to the place. Perhaps under these circumstances we even violate our cardinal rule by saying hello to a stranger.

Friends Of Meridian Hill would not exist today if our crime patrol had not adopted the requirement eight years ago that we say hello to everyone we met: the first person we said hello to that first cold winter night inside the Park was the teacher and minister who became our founding chair and who remains one of the guiding spirits of the Friends. Getting to know people in the Park and surrounding communities has opened doors to hundreds of community assets and resources that are now helping the Park. On a broader level, relentless outreach has been the key to building the concentric circles of community that come together in the Park: families, friends, organizations, neighborhoods, city, region and suburbs, and cultures from around the world. Now our outreach takes the form of T-shirts, flyers, banners, interpretive programs of all kinds, promotional campaigns, far-ranging press coverage, and strategic alliances with hundreds of cultural, environmental, and community service and development organizations. But our basic initial message to all of the communities of the Park remains the same: “hello.”

VII. The Landscape of Cultural Expression and Understanding

See a discussion of this under Organizing and Programming Across Cultural Boundaries

VIII. The Landscape of Learning and Enrichment

Olmsted understood the power of urban parks to enrich the lives of park users through a broad range of informal and programmed Park experiences. The National Park Service, the Student Conservation Association, AmeriCorps, many other agencies, and city school systems have developed useful models of Parks as Classrooms, park laboratories, service learning programs, and the like. Now many community development corporations and other agencies are developing job-training programs and even innovative concessions and other park-related enterprises. As we continually strive to make the Park experience relevant to the lives and needs of surrounding communities, the challenge is to find new ways for Parks, without sacrificing their historic integrity, to serve as economic engines for the depressed innercity areas around them. Increased public investment in parks can then be justified on the basis of the ways parks promote broader community safety, pride, revitalization, reinvestment, and heritage and eco-tourism.

X. The Landscape of Sustainability and Livability

The connection to their natural origin may be very distant, but parks of all sizes (John Muir considered even the flower box of a city tenement to be a park) nonetheless provide the vital link between innercity residents and the Earth. This connection is important for advancing the sustainability and livability of surrounding communities. Resource economics, air and water quality, non-automotive greenway links, anti-sprawl measures, safety, and cultural vitality will be key standards for identifying great places to live in the 21st century. Parks are positioned at the center of all of these considerations. In its recent listing of the most livable cities in America, Money Magazine used clean air, cultural institutions, and parks as screens for their rating system, and on these bases rated Washington the most livable large metropolitan area in the East.

XI. The Landscape of Stewardship and Stakeholdership

Whose woods these are I do not know
His house is in the village though.

The “owners” of parks can no longer be like the unseen landholder of Robert Frost’s poem. Public agencies and community organizations must now work hand in hand as the true co-owners that they are on every aspect of the parks. Only a few people would dispute that the long-term future of parks depends on new and lasting roles for the public in park protection, programming, planning, and philanthropy. Neighbors must become not merely involved but invested in real opportunities to contribute to the future of the Park, and we must get serious about ensuring sound long-term financing and management practice. Park leaders, similarly, must recognize that we are no longer merely agency managers or stewards of historic monuments but builders of major community institutions. As the community role in park programs expands, park leaders need to be prepared for significant expansion of the Ten Invisible Landscapes. At the same time, the physical “historic” landscape will be imbued with new meaning and public commitment for generations to come.

Tagged with →