“Possibility of Parks Unbounded”, Environment, May 1988

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May 1998

Possibility of Parks Unbounded

by Paul M. Bray

The long, uneven and continuing experiment in the social invention of parks to preserve natural and cultural resources for future generations and foster their beneficial enjoyment today ranks as one of the finest of human collective efforts.

It is timely and useful to think about the idea of parks in light of the increasing attention paid to bioregional, cultural landscape, greenway, heritage area and ecological planning and management. As Professor Gordon Nelson has pointed out, ‘In the past, we have thought about parks as the major approach to special places’.1 Yet, many new approaches, particularly in the USA, are being tried with at best indifference to their park lineage. Some like the heritage area approach in the USA have specifically rejected association with the idea of park.

Why hasn’t the many limed park idea become the predominant guiding force to realize growing and increasingly complex and intersecting environmental, social and economic goals’ Why haven’t we created a new generation of parks of people and nature’ What do we lose when new approaches fall far from the trunk of park tradition’ This article addressing these questions draws primarily from the United States experience, but there is global relevance as ecological and cultural planning and management is a global challenge and phenomenon.

Park Tradition

Part of the answer may lie with the paradox of parks as both an island fortress separate and apart from their natural and human communities while also being an important, creative guiding, unifying and integrating force in urban and regional planning.

Frederick Law Olmsted’s urban parks like Central Park in New York City were refuges, clearly separate and apart from the remainder of the city without the simplest reminder that the park was in a thriving metropolis.2

Yet, Olmsted did not believe that an individual park was complete in itself. He envisioned park systems including parkways as the organizing element for cities. In the words of Louis Mumford, ‘Park planning cannot possibly stop at the edges of the parks. The park system is thus the spearhead of comprehensive urban planning.’

Galen Cranz in her history of urban parks in the United States points out that, ‘Park administrators claimed that zoning was a natural outgrowth of their work, since parks presented the first major commitment to a relatively fixed land use. Charles Eliot, landscape architect, represented common opinion when he claimed that parks should be used as the basis for city planning. (After securing open areas and replacing derelict structures, Eliot recommended multiplying playgrounds and open landscaped areas and, above all, providing every family dwelling with a piece of arable ground.)’.3

The dynamic notion of urban parks that Eliot and Mumford advanced was not realized as urban parks administrators played an increasingly minor role in urban planning. Instead of parks as a defining force, they have, in effect, been, ‘…one, but only one, of the physical elements that a planner could use to help give identifiable shape to a community.’4

Changing needs and conditions

The marginalization of the urban park continues today even as the idea of park expands beyond the public estate or facility to encompass entire urban settings. The park’s integrative functions -historical, social, political, aesthetic-have been called upon to help guide the rebirth of traditional cities. Cranz identifies this as the 4th era of urban parks which began in the 1960s. ‘There was a fluidity at their perimeters, so that park flowed into city and city into park. This went with the characterization of the park as an epitome, or ideal reflection, of the city and with the use of parks for experiences of the pattern and flow of urban life-for the contemplation of the city itself as a work of art.’5

In Lowell, Massachusetts, the canals, mills and other physical features related to its 19th century industrial history were the making of a National Historical Park. But even when the park plan became the urban plan as in the case of urban cultural park plan for Lowell, there is a general inability to accept the notion of the city as a park. Traditional park administrators either were unable or unwilling to participate in the larger arena.

For certain traditionalists in the United States parks are green spaces, period end of discussion. And the urban planners, city officials, historic preservationists, local boosters and others in places like Lowell that hitched their wagon to urban cultural parks or heritage areas appeared to have little if any attachment to the idea of park except that it seemed to be working for them.

The idea of park represented in natural parks has also been driven by the idea of being parks with gates. Yet, Yellowstone National Park, the icon and epitome of a natural park, has increasingly become a prime example of the region or ecosystem as the park.

For example, management of far ranging wildlife herds like Yellowstone’s bison is based on ecosystems and not the political boundaries of a park. Whether civilization arguably stops at the park’s border or exists within it as it does with European national parks, parks and their viability depend upon and influence a wide range of natural, social and economic factors.

At a Forum on the growing intersection of park experience between Italy and USA in February 1997, Prof. Roberto Gambino opined that nature parks as islands are obsolete. He commented that:

They can’t be any longer considered as nature sanctuaries , different and separate from their territorial context, since they are nodes of broader ecological networks need- ing to involve the whole territory. They can’t any longer be considered as special areas conceived essent- ially for public enjoyment, since they are always (at least in Italian and European experience) inhabited territories and cultural landscapes, where the public enjoyment must be admitted or permitted only when and if it can improve and doesn’t trouble ecological, cultural and economic local balance.5

Three alternatives exist for the nature park: to be substituted by broader environmental policies applied in regional systems, to be nodes in highly connected environmental networks or to be the framework for whole natural and cultural landscapes. While examples of these alternatives have been tried, there has been little discourse on what should be the preferred alternative.

Expanding the park idea

My approach would be to build on the park notion using accumulated tradition and experience to create an expanded park idea that will give us the city or region as a park.

Too much has been invested and learned from the evolution of the park notion to ignore it at this time of challenge and opportunity. The idea of stewardship, methodologies of organization in institutions like the U.S. National Park Service and of management, bodies of law and professional practice and the wonderful educational and communications approach that developed in the U.S. National Parks under the rubric ‘interpretation’ are too valuable not to be used to full advantage. And let us not forget that parks as we have known them are the premier icon of positive public endeavor.

Heritage area example

But all to frequently we ignore this tradition when, for example, greenways and heritage areas are created. In the United States we have a growing and diverse collection of ‘heritage areas’, the proponents of which have tried to distance this very park like initiative from being perceived as park making.

Heritage areas are multi-resource urban and regional settings with a coherence or distinctive sense of place based on factors like rivers, lakes, transportation systems (canal and historic railroad lines) and cultural heritage. They have been called partnership parks because of the diversity of stakeholders (including private land owners, NGOs and multiple units of governments and functional governmental agencies) involved in the planning and management for the area’s intersecting goals of preservation, recreation, education and sustainable economic development like cultural and eco-tourism. Successful heritage areas keep current residents in the forefront in terms of ownership, control and celebration.

Heritage areas have evolved with both their proponents who have generally not had much experience with parks in any form and traditional park professionals who are fearful of new unfunded responsibilities being at best ambivalent at connecting this new model of park with traditional parks. In fact, Alvin Rosenbaum who took over leadership of the National Coalition for Heritage Areas has made it a cause to separate heritage areas from the notion of park. He associates the park model with boundaries and rules and regulations and eschews both for a notion of protecting qualities of place through heritage development which seems to be primarily related to tourism development.6

In New York State which initially adopted the park idea in creating a system of heritage areas called urban cultural parks in 1982 has recently dropped the name urban cultural park in favor of calling designated areas ‘heritage areas’. Now that U.S. Congress has created a number of heritage areas connected to the National Park System, the National Park Service in trying to organize the national heritage areas has, as an example of how not to learn from your successes, rejected the idea of organizing heritage areas into a system. These and similar actions reflect a notion of park that is frozen in time.

Adaptability of the park idea

But one of the finest aspects of the park planning model has been the ability to evolve and adopt to change. Galen Cranz identifies four eras of urban parks: the greensward, reform playground, recreational facility and open space.7 Each responded to the needs of the time of their creation and each has adapted to be integral features in the eras the succeeded the time of their creation.

The Adirondack Park which was created in 1892, has 130,000 permanent residents within its 6 million acres and encompasses the largest wilderness area east of the Mississippi River. It has been called a park in the painful process of becoming a park since its creation and contested terrain because of conflicts between some park residents and environmentalists. This has been a frustrating and daunting circumstance over the Park’s long history. But the benefits from the contentious history are undeniable.

As a writer of an Adirondack Park Centennial essay pointed out, ‘the park’s most renewable and enduring (economic) resource turns out to be the park itself’. The Park made each individual hamlet and attraction in this vast park part of a vision much greater than itself and thereby strengthened a tourist economy. Being a park has kept the Adirondack Park high on the State’s conservation agenda leading to continuing additions to the public land holding in the Park and development out-of-door recreational facilities.

In National Parks for a New Generation, the Conservation Foundation reported that in the 1960s and 1970s the idea of a park in the USA was itself broadening in so called greenline parks, human settlements are viewed as integral to the landscape to be protected and interpreted, rather than as intrusions on the natural scene.’8 Parks have been in fact reinvented since the 1960s. But the denial by many that we have been park making costs us the benefit of the full advantage of our valuable park tradition.

When future generations look back at efforts to create heritage areas and greenways and to manage countryside and cultural landscapes for values of bio-diversity, sustainable development and recreation, I think they will see these approaches as an evolution of park making. I simply suggest that if we had greater awareness of this fact our chances of success would be enhanced by being more directly able to tap into the rich park tradition that we have available to us.

End Notes:

1. Nelson, Gordon. ‘Special Places: Planning and Management’, Parks: New Directions in Resource Planning, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, 1989.
2. Hiss, Tony. The Experience of Place, (New York: Vintage Books, 1990. Hiss points out that Olmsted and Vaux established the design principle of: ‘The separation of parks from the city. This is done by planting the edges of the park thickly and by forming berms, or hills, just inside the edges of the park and planting the berms with trees’.
2. Cranz, Galen. The Politics of Park Design: A History of Urban Parks in America, (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1982), p. 246.
3. Cranz, p. 247.
4. Cranz, p. 138.
5. Gambino, Roberto. ‘Italian Parks and European Networks’, (Rome, Italy: Unpublished 1997).
6. Rosenbaum, Alvin. ‘Heritage Development’, (Unpublished 1996).
7. Cranz, pp. 3-154.
8. National Parks for a New Generation. A Report of The Conservation Foundation. (Washington 1985), p. 117.

Partnerships in Parks & Preservation (Proceedings and Bibliography), National Park Service, Albany, New York, 1991.