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Late 1800’s Article on Parks: Need for Well Distributed Spaces

Columbus Park in Manhattan, New York was opened in 1897 after concerns that the very tightly-packed area lacked any form of recreational space.

The view of urban parks from policy leaders of the late 1800s shows the differences and similarities with how these spaces might be viewed today. Through the gift of Google, we have access to an American Statistical Association journal article by E.R.L. Gould, a respected economist and sociologist on issues such as parks, public health and housing from that time.

In a sign of how cities were built in Gould’s time, he asserts that they “do not extend in area proportionately to their advance in numbers. They grow rapidly in height, but not so fast in length or breadth.” He argues that given this tightly packed environment there is a need for “adequate out-door breathing spaces” and “wholesome facilities for recreation.”

In the many years since Gould’s study cities have instead sprawled more than concentrating growth through compact arrangements. But recently there has been a return to walkable neighborhoods that put more emphasis on building within rather than expanding out. Today there is just as much a need in making these areas attractive and livable through such “breathing” and recreational spaces.

The article provides an interesting glimpse into the park statistics of yesteryear (i.e. acreage per resident, percent of land area in parks, etc.). And the author asks the question cities still today are pondering: What is an ideal park system ?

Gould’s answer: “Undoubtedly the most important requisite is small open spaces, well distributed over a city, but numerously located in populous districts.” As in the past, it is not necessarily realistic or even good policy to provide an overabundance of open space within cities, but a system of walkable neighborhood parks (along with some larger spaces) that act as the front and back yards for residents. The more things change the more they stay the same.

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