Working on the Hidden Garden Steps project in San Francisco and joining the San Francisco Parks Alliance (SFPA) Parks Policy Council recently has, naturally, made me even more of an advocate for accessible and welcoming public spaces than ever before.
My love for public parks and public spaces is nothing new. Having grown up in a California Central Valley town where one of the most accommodating and appealing resources was a well-maintained park along one of the town’s natural waterways, I’ve appreciated and benefitted from the availability of those areas as places to sit with friends, take a walk, or read and write and think. Visiting and working in a variety of large and small cities throughout the United States and other parts of the world, I consistently find myself drawn to parks and libraries as places that reflect the best of a community’s values and aspirations. They are the places I first turn to in an effort to develop a sense of cohesion or isolation within the communities they serve.
It’s no surprise, therefore, that I was completely fascinated by and immersed in Urban Green: Innovative Parks for Resurgent Cities (2010), an engagingly concise exploration of innovative approaches to developing urban public spaces. Peter Harnik, director of the Center for City Park Excellence at The Trust for Public Land, does a magnificent job, in 160 pages of text and additional resources listed at the end of the book, in exploring two significant themes: issues to consider in discussing the creation, nurturing, and maintenance of urban parks, and how successful parks advocates across the United States are finding ways to create more open space and to better use the current spaces we have.
The table of contents itself serves as a resource for inspiration and a checklist for those of us interested in seeing how well our cities stack up against other’s as we review the list of ideas for “finding park space in the city”: buying it; utilizing urban redevelopment; community gardens; old landfills; wetlands and stormwater storage ponds; rail trails; rooftops; sharing schoolyards; covering reservoirs; river and stream corridors; cemeteries (now there’s topic worthy of open discussion for all it invokes in terms of our attitudes toward life and death and how normally-separated uses of a space might work in complementary ways); boulevards and parkways; decking highways; closing streets and roads; removing parking; and adding hours rather than acres.
Harnik comes across as both realistic and visionary: “To be fair, none of us can fully comprehend the complexity of the urban labyrinth. It may be possible to construct something visually pleasing with evenly spaced green polygons on a color-coded map or to arrange artful golf courses in a ‘simulated city’ computer game, but real-life cities have too many physical impediments, political interferences, and cultural and economic exceptionalities for simple standards to rule (pp. 1-17),” he writes, then returns later with the idea that “Cities change all the time and every change holds opportunity. If there is room for a single new building, or even a new parking lot, there is room for a new park, as has been seen recently in Kansas City (Ilus Davis Park), Cleveland (Whiskey Island), San Francisco (Visitacion Valley), Washington, D.C. (Canal Park), and Newark, New Jersey (Nat Turner Park)” (p. 71).
He’s a realist, reminding us that dreams have to have concrete foundations including budgets and specific timelines for completion: “The budget elevates the plan from platitude to reality.…A plan without a timeline and a budget should more accurately be called a ‘hope.’” (pp. 57-58). He also is an inspiration as he helps us examine the use of public spaces through a three-way classification system developed in Portland, Oregon: “people-to-people” places, “people-to-nature” places, and “nature-to-nature” places (p. 23).
But one of Harnik’s most encouraging achievements is his ability to make us look at what he documents and then see our own communities through the framework he provides. Which, for me, produced encouraging results: looking around San Francisco, I see that the incredible collaborations supported by our colleagues in City/County government, local nonprofits including the San Francisco Parks Alliance, neighborhood associations, and thousands of individual volunteers who become engaged in specific projects they adore. I see the innovative approaches fostered by the San Francisco Pavement to Parks program and the San Francisco Department of Public Works/SFPA Street Parks Program collaboration and marvel at how relatively small and underutilized or long-ignored spaces are transformed, piece by piece, into a cohesive pattern of public spaces that bring local and extended communities together in ways that would not otherwise be possible.
We may not be able to “fully comprehend the complexity of the urban labyrinth,” as Harnik has suggested, but through our individual involvement in developing, supporting, and sustaining community collaborations, we make the urban labyrinth less difficult to navigate. And we find yet another opportunity to reduce conflict and divisiveness by working together upon the common ground we find and cherish.
N.B.: For more information about urban parks across the United States, please visit the Trust for Public Land ParkScore® index online.