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Room and a View: Rutherford Platt’s Reclaiming American Cities

By Peter Harnik

A city is much more than merely a physical entity. But for our purposes, as park lovers, let’s stay in that place for now: the physical city as the sum of its physical parts. What is the proportion of structures and open space that we seek? And of the open space, how much is for pure utility (fast-moving streets) and how much for social intercourse (sidewalks, plazas, boulevards and parks)? How do we get things cooking economically while keeping the kitchen tolerable? Too many buildings means too little breathing room—like a smoky wood stove choked with oxygen-starved logs. Too much open space means not enough humanity—the stove with just a few twigs, unable to heat up.Reclaiming American Cities Cover

Getting this balance right is remarkably difficult. A look back at the wrenching changes that have wracked our cities over the past century—booms, busts, blights, renewals, fads—reveals that neither government nor the private sector uniformly understands what makes for excellent urbanity. And, frankly, the conflicting pressures from different flavors of citizen activists hasn’t helped.

One problem is that advocates for conservation and advocates for housing barely interact. This is due to both philosophy and language. The two sides tend to disagree about what needs fixing most—environmental pollution or poverty—and they also literally cannot understand each other. The acronyms, descriptions and explanations, the methods for solving problems, particularly the government and private programs that are available, are unintelligible to the uninitiated in each camp. One side talks only about “housing the poor,” the other only about “saving nature,” and the gulf remains unbridgeable. We need a new paradigm: making cities great places to live, for rich and poor alike.

Rutherford Platt has started us in this direction. Reclaiming American Cities: The Struggle for People, Place, and Nature Since 1900 (University of Massachusetts Press) is perhaps the only historical narrative that seeks to gather up the disparate physical urban threads—housing, transportation and parkland—in a complete package that reveals the contradictions and blind spots (as well as brilliant insights) that have guided our lurching city building movement for the past century.

This book is not about parks, per se. It is about what Platt sees as the 20th century’s three waves of urban planning styles—“patrician” (top-down and inspirational, a la Burnham, which he says is bad), “technocratic” (top-down and scientific, a la master builder Robert Moses, also bad) and “humane” (small-scale and locally-based, a la urban gardening guru Will Allen, which he likes). Platt is strongly infused with a Jane Jacobs mentality, although he is probably more pro-planning than she was. Though not solely about parks, I read it of course with park-oriented eyes.

Platt, himself, is an unusual collection of disparate parts—a geographer, lawyer and historian, and also an optimistic liberal. But I must jump immediately to the revelation that sticks most vividly in my mind: the delicious irony that Daniel Burnham’s 1909 Plan for Chicago would have resulted in the destruction of Jane Addams’s Hull House.

Burnham was the leading exponent of the parks-oriented City Beautiful movement. Addams was the leading exponent of the anti-poverty-oriented Settlement House movement. Both were national figures of the highest order, and their offices were both in Chicago, scarcely two miles apart. This almost poetic confrontation provides Platt with a neat opportunity to teach about the two political viewpoints and the many ensuing movements and programs that grew from them over the decades, including “Radiant City,” “Garden City,” parkways and boulevards, “Model Cities,” “urban renewal,” “urban removal,” housing vouchers and a whole lot more. (He also uses the Chicago locale to weave in a discussion of the battles over “nearby wilderness” by telling of the epic struggle over the once-wild Indiana Dunes southeast of the city.)

Minor spoiler alert: Burnham’s grand plan was not fully realized, so Hull House was not razed. However, half a century later, a vast highway-and-renewal scheme with Burnhamesque hubris, took out the entire impoverished Halsted neighborhood that Hull House had been serving. Hull House itself was preserved as a historic landmark.

How many conservationists talk about poverty, race and housing? How many housers and poverty activists talk about urban wilderness and natural refuges? This is a conversation that needs to happen, and Reclaiming American Cities provides an excellent study guide for just this in-depth discussion, both within and between these groups. Of all general-purpose urban histories, it provides the best elucidation of the role that parks play (and don’t play) in the swirl of forces that constitute the urban conversation.

Peter Harnik is director of The Trust for Public Land’s Center for City Park Excellence and author of Urban Green: Innovative Parks for Resurgent Cities.

A Green Mile

Each month, City Parks Alliance names one “Frontline Park” as a standout example of urban park excellence, innovation and stewardship from across the country. The program identifies city parks that find innovative ways to meet the unique challenges faced as a result of shrinking municipal budgets, land use pressures and urban neighborhood decay. In recognition of its innovative practices in community engagement and fundraising, Scioto Mile has been named a Frontline Park.

As a state capitol and university town with a solid population base and diverse economy, Columbus has historically fared much better than other Midwestern cities during national depressions and recessions, but it is not immune to the problem of vacant properties and disinvestment from the urban core. The existing amenity with the most potential to help reactivate downtown Columbus was the Scioto riverfront, which was also the most neglected. A massive public-private partnership was formed between the city of Columbus and local companies to design and fund the revitalization of the riverfront, which would refurbish and connect the two anchor parks on either end of the mile. With an initial $20 million commitment from the city and American Electric Power, construction on the ambitious plan began in 2008 and the riverfront was re-opened to the public in 2011.  Continue reading

Rebuilding Tattnall Square

Each month, City Parks Alliance names one “Frontline Park” as a standout example of urban park excellence, innovation and stewardship from across the country. The program identifies city parks that find innovative ways to meet the unique challenges faced as a result of shrinking municipal budgets, land use pressures and urban neighborhood decay. In recognition of its innovative practices in partnerships and neighborhood engagement, Tattnall Square Park has been named a Frontline Park.

“Month after month we’ve looked to the Frontline Parks highlighted on the City Parks Alliance website for best practices for non-profit park groups,” said Friends of Tattnall Square Park Board Chair Andrew Silver. “We’ve posted links to these inspirational stories on our own social media and sent them to city officials so they could better understand our national models, and to encourage the city to see our public private park organization as a long term partnership. To join the ranks of these remarkable nationally recognized park models is a powerful acknowledgement of the thousands of hours of volunteer labor and the hundreds of thousands of dollars of investment we’ve brought to this diverse and historic park.  We’re thrilled to be part of the 21st century movement to cherish, restore, and reinvigorate our public parks.”   Continue reading

Balancing the “Private” in a Public-Private Partnership: Orange County Great Park

Recently I talked with Mike Ellzey, the Chief Executive Officer of the Orange County Great Park Corporation, the nonprofit public benefit organization charged with the design, construction, and maintenance of the Orange County Great Park in Irvine, California. We spoke soon after the city struck a new deal with the project’s related housing developer that puts the park back on solid ground after the 2008 real estate crash and the state’s dissolution of its redevelopment agencies threatened its completion.

OCGP2The Orange County Great Park is the official name for the park portion of a reuse plan for the decommissioned Marine Corps Air Station, El Toro, in Irvine, California. The 2002 voter approval for this very ambitious project ($1.4 billion budget) – after 3 previous initiatives failed – envisioned a team of partners to bring off the project, including a public nonprofit corporation charged with the design, construction, and maintenance of the Orange County Great Park.

Following the annexation of the property by the city of Irvine in 2003, the Navy held an online auction for the El Toro property. Miami-based Lennar Corporation purchased the entire property for $650 million and entered into a development agreement with the City of Irvine. Under the terms of the development agreement, Lennar was granted limited development rights to build the Great Park Neighborhoods in return for land and capital – $200 million – to allow the construction of the Great Park. Continue reading

Community-Led Park Partnerships: It’s Not Just the Money

The Cully neighborhood is considered the most “parks-deficient” neighborhood in Portland. Citywide, 40 percent of residents live within a quarter-mile of a park. In Cully, only 24 percent do, with almost 23 percent of neighborhood children living in poverty.

Cully 1For over twenty years, Cully residents set their sights on the conversion of a 25-acre grassy field in the neighborhood, well-located and large enough for a range of community activities – even if it happened to be the site of a former landfill.

Tony DeFalco, Coordinator for Let Us Build Cully Park! (LUBCP!) recalls, “The community wanted it badly enough to figure out a way to build it. You had 25 acres, active methane collection and multiple partners involved in managing the site. We knew we needed to raise capital to organize a working coalition.”

Verde, a non-profit dedicated to building wealth in low-income communities, has been working with residents of Cully Park but as early as 1996, residents and the Cully Association of Neighbors negotiated with the mayor for a parks master plan. In 2010, Verde spearheaded development of LUBCP!, which was formed with the help of a $150,000 grant from the Northwest Health Foundation. Their coalition included 16 other organizations to maintain the community’s presence with municipal, environmental, and public health agencies through the redevelopment process for the site. Continue reading

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