Essay On Parks And Gardens

A review of Public Parks: The Key to Livable Communities, by Alexander Garvin. 2010. ISBN: 0393732797. New York, USA: W. W. Norton & Company. 224 pages.
And City Parks: Public Places, Private Thoughts, by Catie Marron. 2013. ISBN: 0062231790. New York, USA. Harper. 304 pages. 
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The last part of the 20th century and the first decades of the 21st represent a new “Golden Age” for city parks. Certainly, looking at the American and international urban landscape, beautiful and expansive new public parks have popped up all over, while many historic parks first created in the 19th century, have been restored through novel public-private partnerships. Why is the creation of big new parks happening in so many cities, and what does this portend for global social trends? In my view, this “peacetime arms race” for bigger and better parks reflects several goals—parks are important parts of making cities more environmentally sustainable and people healthier, but they are also magnets that attract both investment and newly mobile tech workers, who can work anywhere but are choosing cities for quality of life. Parks—and the lifestyles they enable—are part of the attraction, and in the global competition for the young and the talented, parks are part of the winning formula for cities.

Parks are essential to human interchange and to the growth of the human soul.

As parks have become touchstones, defining and enabling the resurgence of cities, several authors have tried to document that phenomenon. Two books published in the last five years provide a fresh perspective on parks around the world and across centuries. One book focuses on the common factors that make great city parks, addressing many of the practical “mechanics” that lead to good design and management of parks; the other likewise builds the case for parks as an attribute of livable cities, but mostly from the point of view of untrained, but highly perceptive, park users. Both attempt to get “inside” parks, but one comes in more through the brain, the other through the heart and soul.

“Public Parks: The Key to Livable Communities”

Alexander Garvin, who describes himself as a “strategist of the public realm,” is the CEO of AGA Public Realm Strategists. The Yale-trained architect and city planner has worked extensively in both the public and private realms and has also taught at Yale for more than 45 years as an adjunct professor. Among his many professional accomplishments was the development of an innovative plan to try to lure the 2012 Olympics to New York City (which ultimately went to London), and many master plans for communities across the country, including a plan for the Atlanta Beltline.

It is clear from this book, and from his many projects, that Garvin adores parks and sees them as essential keystones to livable cities. Garvin, whose professional focus has been on larger-scale cities and communities, rather than on individual parks, sees landscape architects as planners and, perhaps, planners as landscape architects. In fact, he dedicates his book to Frederick Law Olmsted, stating that Olmsted “conceived of parks as an essential component of metropolitan living.” “That is a metropolitan planner’s conception,” Garvin adds, “taking the same comprehensive approach to urban and suburban planning to which I, as a planner, am committed.”

Garvin provides a great resource to professionals in the park and city planning, design and management realms, as well as to citizen activists and civic officials, beginning with a concise but illuminating history of the emergence of public parks in Europe and the U.S. In that initial chapter, he tries to answer the question about what is the world’s first public park. While he argues that the first purpose-built public parks are either the Derby Arboretum or Birkenhead, both in England, he also makes the case for much earlier royal parks and pleasure grounds that were at least partially open to the public prior to being fully opened or owned by the public. He follows this historical introduction with thematic chapters that manage to encompass his notions about the common elements that make great parks, while also providing a “user’s manual” for how to develop, design and manage parks, from “Site Selection” to “Finance and Governance”—two of 12 chapters that are replete with examples and beautiful color photos taken (mostly) by Garvin himself.

While the chapter headings thematically group parks, the chapters act as ample vessels for taking the reader around the world in 80 parks (or so), allowing Garvin to explicate, from a city planner’s perspective, how parks both define and are defined by the cities in which they are created, and how different circumstances—such as abandoned rail lines and industrial sites—can be reborn as magnificent new parks (as in the now well-known High Line in New York City, as well as less-well-known but equally compelling urban trail parks, such as the Cedar Lake Trail in Minneapolis, and Boston’s Southwest Corridor Park, built over an underground subway line that replaced an old elevated rail line).

While Garvin’s global gallivanting to provide examples is enjoyable, those who work in the park management realm may find his four concluding chapters, which address Stewardship, Finance and Governance, the Role of the Public, and Sustainability, to be most illuminating. In those chapters, Garvin neatly summarizes the many strategies developed in recent decades to create, restore, fund and manage parks—no small trick when many pressing needs absorb the bulk of the urban treasury. With some focus on examples in New York City—where the park conservancy model was born and perfected—and also with a diverse set of examples from cities across the U.S., Garvin explains the many different funding and management models, from more traditional public funding, to business improvement districts and conservancies that belie the notion that cities can’t afford to have great parks. Though Garvin provides excellent examples of the mechanics of designing great city parks and restoring and managing them, it is clear in his summations that these mechanics, and indeed the parks themselves, are in the service of a larger goal—livable cities. The book’s concluding paragraph enumerates “the roles that every great park must play: enhancing well-being and improving public health, incubating a civil society, sustaining a livable environment, and providing a framework for urbanization.”

“City Parks: Public Places, Private Thoughts”

Catie Marron, philanthropist, former chair of the New York Public Library, and current chair of the Friends of the High Line, also takes readers on a tour of parks around the world, but she does so not through the mind of a professional planner, nor exclusively through her own mind. Instead, she visits parks near and far through the experiences of others, mostly highly regarded authors of fiction and non-fiction, but also a movie star, a world-renowned architect, and the 42nd President of the United States.

Whereas Garvin takes a thoroughly professional, mostly distant perspective on the parks and related themes he writes about, Marron’s approach is highly personal. She is joined in the endeavor by photographer Oberto Gili, who took pictures of the 18 cities (and 22 parks in those cities), and more importantly, by the 18 authors of the essays about the parks.

The result is a highly entertaining set of personal excursions into space, but also into time and emotion. They are wide-ranging: President Bill Clinton’s essay is a functional combination of personal experience and history in Dumbarton Oaks, the spectacular but intimate private garden designed by Beatrix Farrand, America’s first great woman landscape architect, which is now open to the public (though it is not technically a public park). President Clinton mixes unveiling personal memories of visiting Dumbarton Oaks as a college student at Georgetown and, later, with his wife, Hillary, but also tells the story of how the mansion that the garden surrounds was the site of the WW II-era Dumbarton Oaks Conference, held by allies to plan what was to become the United Nations. President Clinton, in his short essay, takes great pains to point out that the garden was the product of the efforts of the two “strong women who created it,” Farrand and then-owner, Mildred Bliss—and one can’t help but notice a bit of “product placement” for “strong women.”

Most of the other essays are by professional writers of both fiction and non-fiction, and though the approaches vary, the quality is mostly high. I most enjoyed Andre Aciman’s essay on the High Line. Aciman, a New Yorker and prior documenter of the role of parks in the lives of the locals, uses a “then and now” narrative to call out not only the history of the area, but also the contrast of the functional, muscular steel framework of the former freight rail viaduct to the contemporary “high-tech, new-age, eco-friendly, cutting-edge green park” that was inserted into it. In gazing at the old warehouses and factory buildings that still surround the High Line, Aciman conjures some images of the paintings of Edward Hopper, but mostly of fellow NYC painter John Sloan: “This is Sloan country. If while staring north on the High Line, I can no longer dispel John Sloan, and if John Sloan intrudes on my vision, then his paintings become the visual equivalent of a soundtrack.”

Some of the others are even more personal. Historian Jonathan Alter recalls his childhood in Lincoln and Grant Parks in Chicago, including the checkered history of Chicago parks that involved a race riot in 1921, the police beatings of protestors in 1968, and the culminating historic moment on Election Night, 2008, when President-elect Barack Obama gave a victory speech outdoors, “quoting Lincoln in Grant Park.”

When people think about or write about their personal experiences with parks, loved ones often intrude, as in Candice Bergen’s hilarious memory of her grandmother, Lillie Mae, who took her on visits to LA’s Griffith Park. Bergen’s grandmother protected her “incredibly pale skin” with a hat made from the grocery store paper bag she had used for bread crumbs to feed the ducks, fashioning a “humiliator” that mortified the young Ms. Bergen. And invariably, the “romantic landscapes” of many parks both spark romance and bring back memories of love—familial, unrequited, lost, found, or re-found. Zadie Smith summons up a trip with her elderly father to Florence, and an ultimately unsatisfying trip to the Boboli Gardens that occurred shortly before her father’s death; she also documents finding relief in mourning her father’s passing in the wild beauty of Rome’s Villa Borghese park.

Both Andrew Sean Greer and Amanda Harlech summon up very personal, deeply felt memories of romantic encounters in the Presidio—not yet then the refined National Park it has become in San Francisco—and in the Luxembourg Gardens of Paris, respectively. Recalling the specific walk in a park and an unrequited love that failed to blossom on the other end, Harlech writes:

I have never forgotten that morning in May in the Jardin du Luxembourg. Often when I’m staying in Paris I will retrace that walk and stand, lost in the passing moment of the past, in the beat of the present—in the rain, in the magnification of snow, in early spring when the orange trees and palms are brought out and unwrapped from their winter cladding, or in the blinding blue of July—and sense the haunting of first love in Paris.

For that is the intangible power of parks. In her introduction, Marron notes that “each park has its own soul, one that has profoundly influenced the culture of its surroundings and the multitudes who enjoy it. Yet the parks’ similarities speak to the fundamental needs of urban dwellers workdwide. Parks are essential to city life, and they have been since the mid-eighteenth century, when cities became crowded and people needed an escape from the tussle and bustle of chaotic, noisy, dirty street life.” As the writers of these essays universally imply, each in a different way, parks are essential to human interchange and to the growth of the human soul.

Adrian Benepe
New York City

On The Nature of Cities

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About the Writer:
Adrian Benepe

Adrian Benepe has worked for more than 30 years protecting and enhancing parks, gardens and historic resources, most recently as the Commissioner of Parks & Recreation in New York City, and now on a national level as Senior Vice President for City Park Development for the Trust for Public Land.

One of my walking routes into FT HQ in central London takes me under chestnut trees and oaks, past hellebores, snowdrops and early narcissi where green woodpeckers forage for ants, and over a bridge where willows frame a long view of distant buildings. Lucky me, lucky every city resident with access to decent green space — but how long will it last?

Funding of urban parks on both sides of the Atlantic is fading as fast as cherry blossom in June.

And while urban parks lubricate property prices and local business, they struggle to make a penny for their own futures. The cherry on this particular cake comes from Donald Trump, who trademarked the name “Central Park” in the 1990s but we’ll come back to that.

The UK government has made swingeing funding cuts to the Royal Parks, an organisation that manages 5,000 acres from St James’s by Buckingham Palace to Richmond in the west. Lesser known urban parks face similar funding onslaughts as a Heritage Lottery Fund report in 2014 outlined: “We predict that the quality and condition of many parks will dramatically decline if action is not taken now to address this emerging risk.” It found that 45 per cent of local authorities were considering selling parks or transferring their management; 86 per cent of park managers had reported cuts to revenue budgets since 2010; and 81 per cent of council park departments had lost skilled management staff since 2010.

The story is the same in the US, a notable exception being New York’s Central Park. After recovering from its 1970s drug-infested dereliction it is thriving on private-public enterprise. Can this model work for other parks?

In 1980 Central Park neighbour Elizabeth Barlow Rogers, landscape architect Doug Blonsky and others created the Central Park Conservancy (CPC) to clean up the park, add some security and release it from dependency on city taxes and remote bureaucracy. Today the CPC raises 75 per cent of the park’s $65m annual operating budget and looks after all aspects of its maintenance, as well as capital improvements and restorations. Philanthropy is the main funding source. As Blonsky, CPC chief executive, points out: “Central Park is one of the few places where you can give philanthropically and . . . get to see and use the return.”

That is great for a high-profile park in one of the world’s richest cities. What about more modest urban parks?

Yale University, under the weather eye of Colleen Murphy-Dunning and Mark Bomford, has been looking at some ingenious new ways of valuing, maintaining, conserving and funding US parks; and in the UK a host of organisations, from the Garden History Society to the Heritage Lottery Fund, have been doing the same.

For instance, in the UK, Beam Parklands Partnership Project has created a park-cum-flood management system in east London. Floodwater flows into the brownfield site during storms and, when flooding subsides, the area reverts to being a wetland park for residents. It is funded by organisations committed to flood prevention.

In other words, when urban parks are valued for other qualities — such as storm control, carbon dioxide conversion, wildlife diversity, noise dampening and offsetting city pollution — new funding sources sometimes materialise.

If urban parks care for the environment, they also care for public health. I have lost count of the number of respected research papers that cite green space as being key to mental and physical wellbeing. Natural England, the government’s adviser for the natural environment in England, estimates that if everyone in the country had easy access to green space, it would save the healthcare system £2.1bn per annum.

In Birmingham, Alabama, the theory has translated into a $10m investment for parks from the local health authority to address the fact that 66 per cent of the city’s adults are obese or overweight.

So a few authorities are coming up with some imaginative funding. Yale, for example, has created a couple of model farms where local people can learn everything from growing their own food to tapping maple syrup and keeping bees. The university also helps people create parks from derelict land so that children no longer have to play in the street. Funding comes from a mix of federal, state and university sources.

Then there is straight philanthropy. In Louisville, Kentucky, entrepreneur Dan Jones has co-founded 21st Century Parks, a public-private, not-for-profit group, with the aim of creating 4,000 acres of new parkland. And in Tulsa, Oklahoma, energy and banking tycoon George Kaiser has donated $350m to fund a park created from 100 acres of waterfront along the Arkansas river.

And in Grand Rapids, Michigan, residents have voted to contribute an average of $45 a year per household to upgrade and maintain the city’s parks.

Perhaps developers should be forced to pay for urban parks. Donald Trump recognised the value of association with Central Park in the 1990s when he trademarked the name and used it to help him flog everything from beds to chandeliers.

Trump is an extreme case but he is not the first to recognise the value of association with green space. In 1806 John Nash was commissioned to design Regent’s Park in London. The park was the bit that would help achieve tremendous prices for Nash’s villas. Just down the road, Argent, which is in charge of the 67-acre redevelopment of King’s Cross, has created small parks, green roofs and a freshwater pool with water filtered by the plants. A splash in the ocean, perhaps, but these parks are created and run without the taxpayer having to fork out. On the other hand, there is the Walkie-Talkie skyscraper with its car-frying tendencies and top-floor “public park”, where access is a matter of pre-booking a timed visit. The park is rumoured to be one of the reasons that this appalling eyesore was allowed.

Attractive parks pump up local economies. The CPC estimates that the “Central Park effect” boosts the New York economy by $1.045bn a year. In London Knight Frank estimates that property to the south of Hyde Park, for instance, carries a 220 per cent premium.

Unfortunately, these long-term arguments won’t wash with the politicians and their officers doling out the money. As the Royal Parks has discovered.

Six months ago Apurv Bagri, who chairs the Royal Parks’ board, wrote: “Despite the immense popularity of the parks and the key role they play in London’s tourism industry and ecology, we continue to face ongoing reductions in our government grant. The organisation now self-generates over 60 per cent of its running costs [but] there is a large maintenance backlog, which now stands at around £56m.”

This deficit is the reason for Hyde Park’s ghastly Winter Wonderland, which puts 13 per cent of the park out of use for two months a year to all those who would like to use it in the way it was intended. The grass barely has time to recover before the unpeaceful, un-bucolic rock concerts begin. Effectively, one chunk of the park is not open to anyone who wants to use it for peace, fresh air, greenery and respite from the city.

The Royal Parks is in a difficult position but it has options. The Queen could cough up. The Crown does not pay a halfpenny for the rolling acres which are manicured right up to Her Majesty’s front door and which give her splendid views across London.

More money for all urban parks could be generated from philanthropy, and from non-intrusive activities. Perhaps Kim Wilkie’s genius at London’s Natural History Museum could be repeated at Hyde Park. His fundraising shop and restaurant is being built under an area which will effectively become a public park. Oxford Botanic Garden’s brilliant low-maintenance border also offers a model for lower maintenance costs without lowering aesthetic standards.

It is possible that the proposed merger of the Royal Parks’ management and the money-raising Royal Parks Foundation will help give Hyde Park new direction and resources. As the CPC’s Doug Blonsky points out, those who give to parks like to see a clear connection between the people receiving donations and those using them.

Money, that glorious gardening tool, is critical now that more than half the world’s population lives in towns and cities. We just need to realise the true value of parks. Where Trump leads . . . 

Jane Owen is editor of House & Home. This article is a version of a talk she will give at the Saïd Business School in Oxford on February 11 for the Oxford Botanic Garden

Photographs: Getty Images; The Parklands of Floyds Fork; The University of Oxford Botanic Garden; Kim Wilkie; Yale Sustainable Food Project

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