Comparative Book Review #4: Parks

Jacobs opens with, “Parks are volatile places,” and, “Ask a houser. . .  a zoner. . . a planner. . . [they] will envision a future of more open space. More open space for what? For muggings?” [116,117] Do not take this for black-and-white face value, however, she’s not a cynic through and through- as we all know by now. Garvin begins his chapter with the concept that simply due to parks’ huge area (by the norm) they make a, “major impact on the development and character of every city.”  But after Jacobs continues her argument, I see that it is easily argued the influence may be paid the other way around; a park’s success and use (sheer number of bodies, perhaps not doing what the park was intended, as illustrated later) is impacted by surrounding use. She strongly states throughout the chapter that surrounding buildings must be of mixed use in order for a park to be successful. “Parks are not automatically anything.” [119]

Jacobs continues on the cynical wagon to introduce the concept that, “in modern cities, generous scatters of open space promote air pollution instead of combating it.” [119] While this statement is an afterthought in a footnote, I thought this turned the modern (and I’m sure modern at the time of her writing as well) viewpoint of how parks are the lungs of the city on its face. It got me to thinking- what if parks were intensely high density, with no sprawl whatsoever, and parks were simply on the outskirts of the city? What if the time spent commuting was rather spent getting to greenspace on the weekends? If public transportation was added to that, we’d have a much higher concentration of people, making for a lower concentration of frustration when trying to get around downtown parks, and  less fumes to combat in the first place. Look forward to this being a SimCity study after I finish this series.

Garvin points out all the lovely things modern and historic parks have done correctly, while somehow getting around to making a conclusion out of all of the research and analysis. Jacobs does this with ease, and condenses it to a simple concept: having variety and intricacy (ex: changes in foliage, height of foliage, water features, uses (defined and undefined), and slight elevation changes) in a park’s landscape is crucial in its success and long-term endearment by the community, and ultimately, usefulness for all.

Garvin is quick to whip out a theory. He insists that city dwellers would be diverted by recreation from a life of crime. I feel like he belittles citizens to cats playing with a ball of tinfoil at this point. Which is an exaggeration, I’m sure, but I don’t think the shininess of a new slide is going to keep any mean-spirited kid from exploiting it or defacing it. Jacobs is quick to give personal examples and proven methods which have been practiced in real cities, be they city-induced or not. She argues that parks are used as landscapes for poorly named ‘street’ crime which everyone know occurs in parks thanks to the fear-inducing local news. But realistically, if you were to commit a crime or agree to an illegally-driven fight, wouldn’t you want an open area (or an area that has lots of places to hide and jump out of, like from playground equipment) that few people are in at night? This may be another chicken and egg situation, but who regularly utilizes their own private park- their backyard- at night? Other than the odd stargazing and  fake camping experience, odds are not too often. I define the chicken as the lesser number of eyes and the egg as violent crime due to this opportunity. The biggest reason why a park fails and becomes a bigger liability than it is an asset, she insists, is when they are built in places where there aren’t enough people (and therefore eyes!) there to begin with to self-police that responsibility. I completely agree with this. (See: vest-pocket parks and adventure parks in NYC- both circa late 50s-60s.)

Thank you, Boston Biker

Simplified Map of Boston's Emerald Necklace

Against what Jacobs preaches, Boston’s Emerald Necklace and Chicago’s South Park System are both intensely successful long, riverfront parks. (She disagrees with their placement because it goes against her centering mindset, as illustrated below.) Garvin points out that this success is because both designs utilize a huge variety in landscaping, uses, sizes, shapes- it bleeds variety and intricacy. I’d be very interested to visit one of these iconic and successful parks one day.

Jacobs always has a wonky real-life example, it seems, and this chapter included perhaps my favorite example thus far. On page 144, she tells of a frustrated shopping center manager whom every morning was met with a mysteriously dirty ornamental fountain. One night he stayed after hours to spy. He found that children snuck in to wash and polish their bicycles. There was no other place for them to go. Simple, small, specific uses like this would be useful everywhere. Examples include bike repair shops, kite shops, a place to repair or build a kite, host an ethnic family gathering, large shallow fountains by summer, and emptied to be theatre circles by fall and winter where anyone can go and speak, act, or play.

“The finest centers [of parks] are stage settings for people,” Jacobs says. Her four elements of success for a park are intricacy (as explained above), centering (central gathering places), sun (shade, especially that created by tall surrounding buildings, is an eraser for many park-goers during the two longest seasons of fall and spring), and enclosure (without proper mixed use surrounding the park, it lacks diversity of use, time of that use, and formality or casualty of those uses.) Garvin also has a list of things he finds to be most successful in parks at the end of his chapter as well, but I found it to be mostly dribble from the mouth of a businessman, not a strategic and well-rounded planner.

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My goal was to keep at about 1,000 words- I ended up at 1,005. Success! I think this is my best piece yet. I feel like I could really get into parks planning professionally- my interest and enthusiasm just doesn’t seem to fade! I feel like I’m getting more concise. Thoughts? Feedback? Everyone’s a critic- and everything’s appreciated.

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About Aascot Holt

Staff News Writer for the Easterner. Urban and Regional Planning Major. Senior. Has fingers in all proverbial pies.

2 thoughts on “Comparative Book Review #4: Parks

  1. you have an interesting blog! i agree that parks are places where graffitti and vandalism tend to occur but, are schools teaching kids what parks are for? do parks have security cameras?

    • Schoolyards are for schools, yes, but this is covering the issue of city parks only. Perhaps I’ll write something about schoolyards in the future- thank you. Not many parks have security cameras, at least anywhere I’ve been. I imagine they would be more prevalent back East, though.

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