New and improved parks -- now with no nature

Parks keep getting fancier -- amphitheaters, geodesic domes, starchitect designs. What's wrong with natural beauty?

Published March 17, 2012 4:00PM (EDT)

The lake in Constitution Gardens, in Washington, D.C.      (<span about='' xmlns:cc='' rel='license' target='_blank'>Mr. T. in DC</a> / <a href='' rel='license' target='_blank'>CC BY 3.0</a></span>)
The lake in Constitution Gardens, in Washington, D.C. (Mr. T. in DC / CC BY 3.0)

Spring arrives this week, and what better way to celebrate than by lazing about at the park. Or, as you'll soon be able to do in Chelsea, Mass., walking the demarcated pathways of the Publicly Organized Recreation Territory.

The new waterside park, nicknamed PORT, will be very small -- less than three-quarters of an acre. But that doesn't mean it won't be packed with amenities, including a playground, an amphitheater, three geodesic domes and a circuitous series of walking paths separated from its grasses and flowers by low gray walls.

It's the kind of park you might call "innovative," and there are lots of things to like about it. If you're interested in architecture and design, the geodesic domes and amphitheaters are superb. Likewise for those who prefer the tailored feel of a botanic garden, and for people looking to boost real-estate values or spur development in the surrounding area.

But if your ideal park is one that can entertain a variety of uses, or where you can go to absorb a little natural beauty, PORT -- and the many new city parks like it -- might not be ideal. The six-acre Santa Monica Civic Center Parks project, described by the Los Angeles Times as a "Rolls Royce project," will feature walled pathways similar to PORT's, overlooked by "large clamshell-shaped steel viewing platforms." Likewise, plans for Seattle's new waterfront park reportedly propose, among many other things, a roller rink, a climbing wall and tall poles that spray mist (yes, in Seattle). And a planned renovation of the outdoor sections of Chicago's Navy Pier has attracted a long list of "starchitects," promising, according to the Chicago Tribune, a park redesign process that will be "anything but dull."

The money and effort going into these parks will no doubt ensure an un-dull result. But to misquote Mark Twain, a green space filled with geodesic domes is a good park ruined. The modern ethos that cities should provide an experience at every turn has led to ultra-mod park designs that, at times, scrub away any sense of nature or versatility. "The problem with big plans is, they're often great ideas, but they can abolish diversity," says Knute Berger, Seattle native and author of "Pugetopolis." "You can end up a kind of mall-like creature rather than a great civic space."

Bryant Park in Manhattan is an example of a great "dull" park, says Ryan Gravel, designer of the BeltLine, a system of parks and transit being built in Atlanta. As a relatively unadorned rectangle of grass and trees, "It's sort of a canvas that can be used in different ways, whereas if you piled it full of stuff, it could only be used in the way the designer intended," he says. "There's nothing wrong with some parks having lots of stuff, but I find the most beautiful parks are the more simple ones because they're not proscribed in how you're supposed to use them." After seeing Seattle's waterfront park plans, urban planner Mark Hinshaw expressed a similar concern. "There were always shops, always an amphitheater, always events, always stuff to do," he wrote in Crosscut magazine. "The effort to animate and activate public spaces can be overdone."

It's no coincidence that many of the simplest parks are more than a century old. Prospect Park in Brooklyn, Baltimore's Patterson Park, Boston Common -- each of these were built back when city parks were seen mainly as places of respite from the chaos of urban life. But in the early 1900s, park philosophy began to change. Ball fields, swing sets and boat launches were added. New York's Robert Moses, in particular, who never met a landscape he couldn't overbuild, "was uninterested in a park's 'natural' functions," writes Robert Caro in "The Power Broker." "His mind saw people in the mass, running, jumping, swinging tennis rackets and baseball bats." Such changes prompted some hand-wringing about cities losing their oases of calm. "City parks ought not to be playgrounds, where those who do not care for rest and nature go and destroy their beauty," wrote one irate reader of the New York Times in 1910.

But today's parks, starchitecture and all, are evolving even further in this direction. This week, renderings for Phase 3 of New York's High Line park were revealed. The third segment of "the city's most fashionable public space," as the Daily News called it, is breathtaking. And the park has been an undeniable magnet for tourism, high-end development, and acclaim from all corners. But the High Line is also an example of the untouchable-ness that defines this new type of park -- a virginal, beautiful work of art to observe from behind equally beautiful fencing. A magazine editor who works near the High Line once told me she thinks of it as "the Nobu of parks," referring to the pristine, ultra-mod Japanese restaurant. If the High Line were dinner, it would be sushi.

And that's part of its function. Potential Nobu patrons are exactly the type of residents today's cities want to attract, and extra-snazzy parks -- like light-rail and waterfronts -- are seen as a way to do so. Today, a rendering of a park that doesn't include some sort of high-design element risks being seen as a wasted opportunity by the people choosing the winning proposal, says Gravel. "If you just drew a plan of Bryant Park, and you were trying to sell your client on what a great design this is, it looks kind of boring," he says. "It' a big rectangle of grass with a few trees around it."

Gravel contrasts this with Parc André Citroën, built in Paris in 1993. "It's really beautiful in a way; it has these beautiful gardens, a big esplanade. Until you try to use it -- you walk around and there are paths at different levels, and you can't get from one to the next. You're looking at a garden and you want to get to it, but you can't without physically leaving the space."

This move toward highly controlled spaces is also a reaction to the bad old days, not so long ago, when city parks were the realm of junkies and muggers, says Berger. "There's a worry that they'll turn into homeless encampments or high-crime areas," he says, thereby negating their function as property-value boosters. "There's this consideration that everything has to be well lit and uber-safe."

The problem with that is, a park filled with architecture and amenities looks derelict the moment it starts to get a bit shabby. A little shabbiness suits a park filled with rambles and groves. It adds charm to a place like Runyon Canyon in Los Angeles or Fairmount Park in Philadelphia. Shabbiness is an explicit part of the appeal (in my opinion) of Governors Island, a 172-acre former Army base reachable only by ferry, the epitome of unkempt mystique since it opened as a park in New York harbor in 2003.

Unfortunately, the island's mysterious, almost spooky solitude just 800 yards from the din of Manhattan will formally end this summer when the city ambitiously redesigns it. The new design, created by Dutch landscape architecture firm West 8, will remake the park with artificial hills, a restaurant, play areas, baseball fields, and signage, seating and lighting. "It transforms Governors Island into a destination, takes advantage of its unparalleled setting in the harbor, and provides a varied set of experiences," says the trust overseeing the redevelopment.

The trust's assertion that the new design will "enhance the visitor experience" is never questioned. Also left unspoken is the fact that, eventually, part of the island is expected to be developed with real estate. Ideas have been floated for everything from a new NYU dorm to a luxury hotel -- whatever it is, its value will certainly also be "enhanced" by the park's transformation. In an otherwise positive review of the plans, architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff noted this conflict. "The plan for Governors Island," he wrote, "raises its own questions about whom these projects ultimately serve."

Using parks as tools for gentrification is nothing new; Central Park itself, built back in the 1850s, was created expressly to goose the price of uptown real estate. But its designer, Frederick Law Olmsted, believed that the secret to good park design was to make that design invisible. Many of today's parks seek to do just the opposite. Whether you like that or not is a matter of preference. For those who like their parks a bit wilder, simpler and lush with age, there are plenty of those still around, literally growing into themselves with each passing year.

By Will Doig

Will Doig writes the Dream City column for Salon


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