We asked Peter Harnik to answer some questions about his new book, Urban Green: Innovative Parks for Resurgent Cities, that covers how cities can plan for parks as well as how to create them in “all built-out” settings.
Your book addresses many age-old questions about parks and cities. Let’s start with the big one — how much parkland should a city have?
“Should” is the wrong verb. “Should” implies that the outcome is decided by planners. The right verb is “want”: “How much parkland do we as residents and taxpayers want?” It’s a political issue, and it’s got to be approached politically by building a base of active park supporters. Every city has a different geography, a different history and a different culture — it’s not one size fits all. I think people sometimes use the word “should” in the hopes that someone else will do the work for them. No great park system was created solely by planners using official standards.
But still — don’t even advocates need to know how their city compares to others?
Oh, definitely! That’s why I give some comparative numbers in the book and many more on our web page (at http://www.tpl.org/cityparkfacts). If you take a trip to Boston or Minneapolis and like what you see, you can compare what your city has with them — everything from acreage to playgrounds to recreation centers to swimming pools. Which is why I always say it’s not just about gross acreage. One place may have lots of young people primarily interested in sports fields, another may be tilted toward older folks who want walking trails through bird-filled marshes. The environment also matters: some cities easily support lush forested parks, others are built on arid deserts where trees are essentially alien species. But the most important factor is population density. Crowded New York and San Francisco have so much concrete everywhere that every added pocket park is magical. Roomy Jacksonville and Oklahoma City, with thousands of large suburban-style yards are already halfway natural even not counting their parks. Density has a major impact on how people think about parks and how they use them.
The subtitle of the book is “innovative parks for resurgent cities.” What does it mean for parks to be innovative?
When cities are young, small and expanding, parks are added on the leading edge of the growth margin. They consist of natural lands that are donated or purchased — farms, forests, woodlands, wetlands, deserts. The process is known as conservation.
In older cities that are “all built out” there is nothing natural to conserve besides the already-existing parks. New parks there must be created through development rather than conservation. To make a park from a derelict parking lot, for instance, you wouldn’t conserve it — doing that would merely retain a derelict parking lot. You’d have to tear it up, regrade it, plant it, and fit it out with a playground or a sports field or a fountain or whatever the community wanted.
The goal in built-out cities is to use innovation — acquiring no-longer-needed parcels from other government agencies, sharing land with other users, utilizing previously wasted surfaces like rooftops and highway air rights, installing gardens in gap-toothed neighborhoods, pushing developers to donate land for parks, even just making better use of existing parkland. Every one of these approaches is happening in some city right now, and a few cities are doing almost all of them.
The book touches on the different kinds of parks, from social spaces to those nearly devoid of people but full of nature. How can cities deal with such a broad spectrum?
After Gertrude Stein said, “A rose is a rose is a rose,” you’ll notice she didn’t say “A park is a park is a park.” The large number of park types, ranging from insect-filled wetlands that have no human visitors to center-city brick plazas that have no grass and sometimes even no trees, can be confounding to any planning process and even to a general conversation. The vast number of activities that can and do take place in parks makes the discussion even more complex. I don’t use the confusing words “passive” and “active,” but I do like the new concept coming out of Portland, Ore., where planners talk of a spectrum that ranges from spaces of extreme sociability to spaces of extreme ecological purity. They created a three-way classification they call “people-to-people” places, “people-to-nature” places, and “nature-to-nature” places. The former two support different types of human recreation, the last is for pure conservation (or what some people are now calling “green infrastructure”). The Portland system is based on the relationship among experiences, settings, and activities, with experiences being paramount.
Are parks important in spread out cities and sprawling suburbs?
People with large yards don’t need parks as much for things like barbecue picnics, playing catch or kicking a ball, going to a playground, or sitting on benches, but they still need them for many other reasons: organized sports fields, greenway trails, large forest reserves. But there’s something else. As America seeks to reign in sprawl, we need nodes to build some density around. The most powerful nodes are probably transit stations, but I believe parks are just about as significant. If someone has a beautiful park a block or two away, he or she may be much more willing to live without a yard in a townhouse or an apartment in a walkable neighborhood with other nearby conveniences. It’s called park-oriented development and it could have a big impact on our cities and suburbs.
You suggest numerous ways cities can add parks — decking freeways, sharing schoolyards, using old landfills, greening rooftops, and much more. Is there a place to start? What do you say if a mayor asks you what’s the biggest bang for the buck?
Again, every city is different. Dallas has a below-grade freeway segment that is just crying out for a park deck to link uptown with downtown and serve as a seed for redevelopment. Boston happened to have a perfectly located 100-acre landfill that was all filled up and ready for conversion to sport fields. Space is so tight in Brooklyn that New York was forced to tackle the complexities of an agreement to use formerly locked schoolyards as after-school parks. The creative folks at Oakland Cemetery in Atlanta are committed to making that space as absolutely park-like and inviting as possible. The purpose of my book is to open people’s eyes to the many possibilities out there — all of them proven — but each will have to be analyzed on the local level as to feasibility.
If there is one piece of advice you could give to a city, what would it be?
I would say, “Lead with your parks.” The two blockbuster infill parks of the 21st Century — Millennium Park in Chicago and The High Line in New York — have each generated well over a billion dollars of redevelopment and renewal, not to mention tourist revenue and all-around “buzz.” It’s similar with innovative parks in St. Louis, Denver, Houston, Boston, Atlanta and other places. If park advocates and mayors create beautiful, exciting and fun spaces in the hearts of cities, developers, tourists and residents will quickly follow.
For those in New York, Peter will be presenting on the book at The Arsenal in Central Park on July 27th at 6 p.m. (cost is free).