COVID-19: The Recovery will Happen in Public Space

Urban Parks of the Past and Future

Dec 31, 2008
Dec 14, 2017

by Galen Cranz,

Associate Professor of Architecture, University of California at Berkeley

From Parks as Community Places: Boston, 1997, a publication on the Urban Parks Institute's annual conference.

The history of urban parks in the United States falls into four models. I'd like to briefly summarize those four, and then I'd like to talk about what I think a fifth model might be.

The first model is The Pleasure Ground. Roughly speaking, that era covers the period from 1850 to 1900. The pleasure ground is typically a large park, located on the edge of a city, following the ideal of the pastoral landscape with buildings subordinate to the overall landscape. This is the kind of park we associate with Frederick Law Olmsted.

This large landscaped park was supposed to simulate nature or the countryside. But it is not supposed to be as wildly stimulating as nature. Olmsted thought that Yosemite was wild, even scary. This pastoral landscape was conceptually mid-way between the wildness of pure nature and the finite and civilized nature of a city. These parks were active; there was diversified programming, sports were very popular. But the design also allowed for a certain kind of mental appreciation of the landscape, which sometimes is mistakenly called the "passive" component of these parks. A better word is "contemplative." I think this provides such a rich model because it allowed for both active and passive - or contemplative - recreation.

However, because these parks were located on the edges of cities, the working class never got to use them. They were too far away; it took an expensive transit ride to get there. These parks became playgrounds for rich people who liked to race their carriages there - the parks had some of the best roads in cities at that time.

A subset of this model occurred for only ten years at the very end of the 19th century: I refer to it as the Small Park Movement. This was an effort to take the landscaping principles of the pleasure ground and translate them into smaller parks, closer to the tenement districts where working people actually lived. That movement didn't last for very long, because it merged with the playground advocates who were, at the same time, advocating safe places for children to play off the streets. These two movements combined to provide parks for working class people and to provide special play environments for children, and together they created the second model, which I call The Reform Park.

In the reform park, planners were trying to use the park as a way to reform the city socially, primarily because they were dealing with so much immigration. Planners had a desire to bring everybody together so that they would speak the same language, they would know how to fill out government and other kinds of forms, they would know what it means to live in America. The architectural innovation of this period is the field house - which is meant to be the poor man's club house. It is sometimes located right smack dab in the center of the park. Remember: this park generally doesn't exceed four square blocks, or it could even be a single square block. And there's no illusion that it's in the countryside anymore - in this park there is symmetrical site planning and organization. Obviously, there is a radical difference between the pleasure ground and the reform park, probably the sharpest distinction that we have seen in our park history.

In 1930, a new era was ushered in when Robert Moses was appointed commissioner of New York City's parks department. Moses made a defining statement, saying; "We'll make no more absurd claims about what can be accomplished with parks, but rather, fulfill the mandate to provide recreational service."

I call this third period, from 1930 to 1965, the era of the Recreational Facility - "recreation" because of the emphasis on activity, "facility" because it's no longer really a park in the sense of having a lot of green areas with a lot of land around them. For example: a stadium would be managed by the parks department and viewed therefore as a park, along with the parking lot around the stadium. All these things that are more facilities than parks are considered nonetheless to be parks.

Robert Moses basically spoke out against the first two periods when parks people had to justify spending public money on parks. Whereas earlier, park planners had to enumerate all the things that were being accomplished - reducing class conflict, socializing immigrants, stopping the spread of disease, educating people - to justify the unprecedented expenditure; under Moses parks had become a recognized governmental service needing no justification. The emphasis was instead on multiplying and extending into the suburbs and all the areas that didn't yet have a field house or some other kind of park. This is a sad period in a way, because it has very little artistic vision. And it has very little artistic vision because it has very little social vision. And this is why people sometimes think parks are boring, because most of us have grown up in this period.

In the mid-1960s there was a new attitude that recreation is potentially everywhere - in the street or on the rooftop or on a crosswalk or at a waterfront or an abandoned railway site or a plaza or a park - and that you could think of integrating all those spaces into a network. I call this fourth model The Open Space System, because of this ideology - that all open space has potential recreational value, depending on the twist that you give it. A more artistic, participatory sensibility was born in this period so you get hip programming in parks, like controversial rock concerts.

All of these models fall into 35 to 50 year segments. And from the mid-1960s to now is 30 years - which means it's perilously near a time for a change. In fact, I would say that we need a change. So, what is next?

The fifth model, the model of the future, centers around the potential to use parks to contribute to the effort of learning to live on the earth in a more sustainable way. Overall parks can begin to overcome an historic split between production of resources and consumption of resources and address the possibility of being productive in their own right.

In other cultures - in China, for example - parks are used to generate revenue and to grow products like bamboo, which are made into fans or toothpicks; or flowers that are used as medicinal herbs. Fish in the ponds are harvested three times a year. Timber is at a great premium in China because their land is different than ours and they don't have forests the way we do -- or grassland, for that matter. And so they grow trees and selectively harvest them in the parks. In this sense, the Chinese are using their parks productively. And in this way, these parks help meet their own expenses. I think that if we could model that in our parks, it could be a way for us to demonstrate how to use landscapes that people could then adapt to their own yards. For example; 19% of municipal landfill and waste is from yards - grass clippings and branches, etc. If parks could demonstrate how mulching can be good, that there is an aesthetic to it, that would be a great service that parks could perform - not only for themselves but also for the local neighborhoods.

Parks could even become resource recycling centers in some cases. You could make it fun for kids to throw glass and metal, or to see pit bailers wrapping string around newspapers. You could work with artists to make these things visually, kinetically, very exciting, and at the same time, pick up some of the elements of the open space ideology and integrate it into a higher social purpose. The challenge for the future is to figure out how to live on the earth in a way that is sustainable -- in a way that won't wreck it.

Another example is the floating gardens south of Mexico City. These are 500 year-old Aztec gardens that were built over a canal system. They originally put soil on mats, to make the gardens literally float. Now they have stabilized into these little squares that can be farmed, with deep canals that go around them. By the 1970s, these gardens were threatened by people who were moving south from Mexico City, looking to build second homes in this area. The government didn't have the money to buy the gardens, or to make them a national or city park. But the government was able to invest in a better road to the gardens, and a marketplace so that the farmers there would have a market that would make farming more profitable than selling their land for second houses -- and they've succeeded. It's beautiful, it's historic preservation, economic development, and park and recreation development all in one. And it's a wonderful model for thinking about parks.

Another element is reclamation: we can create parks from landfills, as they have begun to do on Spectacle Island here in Boston Harbor. At one point, the common wisdom was simply to cap a landfill with four feet of usable earth to deal with the methane problem. If we had special factories to convert these dumps - to use the methane - we could go to the bottom of the problem, not simply cover it up. And maybe in the process of going to the bottom of the problem, we could turn the reclamation process into something that's scientifically educative and at the same time visually entertaining.

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COVID-19: The Recovery will Happen in Public Space