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Central Park Turns 150 and Other Cities Take Note

Urban park revival is under way in America

October 29, 2003 |
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

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  Inspired by New York’s Central Park, which is celebrating its 150th birthday, a more enthusiastic, if leaner, park movement has motivated a new generation of urban parkmakers who are extending the almost lost legacy of city green spaces.

A century and a half ago, park-making was a tape and toe affair. The great park makers of the mid and late-nineteenth century measured and paced and mapped green spaces to enhance city life. Thus was born Central Park, the masterwork of Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, launching the movement l50 years ago.

Inspired by this luminous expanse of country park dotted with sparkling lakes, meadow vistas, natural outcroppings, and entwining parkways, a legion of progressives and park makers continued to further the growth of city park space. Fusing the green and the grid, they reinforced community and livability in the romantic l9th century park. And, as the 20th century approached, the playground movement brought recreation to these neighborhoods as well.

Sadly, such park visions languished. In the car-bred flight from the mid-20th century city, public parks took a shabby second place to the lawn and private yard.

Love of Green Spaces
Happily, America’s green sensibility has heightened in the 21st century as citizens celebrate the human joys that come with sharing the camaraderie of such elegant and spacious public parks. Central Park, which has undergone tens of millions of dollars in repair and renovation in recent years, sparkles with vitality to match any period in its long history. Every day, and above all on weekends when roads are closed to traffic, New Yorkers by the thousands spend endless hours running, walking, playing softball and soccer, and indulging in park and people watching in one of the great public spaces in the world.

Many of the Olmsted Brothers’ master parks and interconnected systems, deteriorating after World War II, have followed suit. From Louisville to Seattle, Chicago to Atlanta, Brooklyn’s Prospect Park to Boston’s meandering “Emerald Necklace,” such urban oases have become magnets for park goers.

The welcome revival of America’s romance with parks parallels citizen concern to design our communities to be more deeply ecological, more efficient, and more livable — to paint the urban values of the Smart Growth movement a deeper shade of green. Local elected leaders, citizen activists, environmentalists, and enlightened business owners have not only done housekeeping on worn public spaces but shaped new ones to advance back-to-the-city and anti-sprawl approaches. From countless urban foot trails to mountain paths, along waterfront edges and former brownfields, walkable neighborhoods with green space have reinvigorated their economies and retained their populations.

A Window Into America's Spirit
In fact, the condition of America’s parks reflect in a real way the vigor of the larger society. As the park goes, urbanists have begun to realize, so go the cities. Cities may be landlocked or land poor, and their citizens downtrodden or departing. Budgets have shrunk and staffs with them. But mayors from coast to coast have begun to comprehend that urban landscapes are essential oases that maintain and enrich the lives of their citizens.

For all the economic problems of the day, Tupper Thomas, administrator at Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, cites New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s refusal to extend his budget-cutting spree to New York parks as evidence of the trend in the midst of hard times. Detroit is building a waterfront park along miles of the Detroit River. Chicago’s renaissance as a well-tended city hinges on the care devoted to restoring its Lake Michigan shoreline, which now boasts clean water, sandy beaches, miles of playing fields, magnificent gardens, and a network of bike and walking trails.

In the nation’s capitol, too, the thesis is becoming clear, even circular: Fix parks, build community, cut crime. Build community and you keep cities strong — and stem sprawl.

Around The Nation, A Parks Revival
Washington Parks and People, a neighborhood advocacy group that covers the entire National Capital region from the Anacostia River to the Blue Ridge Mountains, 14 years ago transformed the menacing Meridian Hill’s Malcolm X Park in Northwest D.C. into a safe haven. The park, a node of crime and violence in the l960’s, became a symbol of safety in the ‘90s when the Friends of Meridian Hill, with its crime patrol and landscape stewards, allied with the National Park Service. Now Washington Parks and People is turning a ragged l927 mansion into a community center and transforming a trashed neighborhood park near a housing project into an asset.

Such farflung parkmaking now boast a new coalition, the City Parks Alliance, launched in New York City with a new director and affiliates around the country. Even as Central Park celebrants clicked wine glasses at Manhattan’s Gracie Mansion in June, they tallied the new organization at 88 members: From San Francisco’s Adopt-a-Watershed to the Bronx River Alliance; the Friends of the Park in Chicago’s massive system to the American Community Garden Association.
However essential such green spaces are to insuring that people choose to live in cities and care to stay there, maintaining them is no easy chore. Plans for a four-lane bridge and highway across a splendid river valley in Michigan’s Grand Traverse region threaten to significantly diminish the l.5 mile extension of a new township park wild enough to be home to bobcat, bear, and otters.  In Washington, Frederick Law Olmsted’s splendid grounds for the national capitol have fallen under the bureaucratic hatchet for a pricey, mammoth visitor center and security check-in facility.  And everywhere, hard times cut maintenance and staffing budgets.

Still, a more enthusiastic, if leaner, park movement has slowed the flight to the boomburbs. In this green anniversary year, a new ethos, a new generation of urban parkmakers are extending the almost lost legacy of city green spaces.

Jane Holtz Kay is architecture/planning critic of the Nation, a contributing  editor for Landscape Architecture and author of Asphalt  Nation and Lost Boston. Reach her at jholtzkay@aol.com

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