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Jane Jacobs hates public parks and I do too

May 28, 2010

Kept reading Death and Life of Great American Cities. An interesting thing came out that Jane Jacobs wasn’t eager about the proliferation of public parks. Don’t get me wrong; my subject title exaggerates. Public parks that are used and that cement the neighborhood around them are crucial–but parks that aren’t needed, aren’t used, are just a waste. I found this idea very exciting; when I lived in Atlanta, there was a lot of talk about how Atlanta lacked public green space in comparison to other cities, which never made sense to me. Atlanta is one of the greenest, most nature-y cities I’ve ever been to AND there is no sense that public parks now are at capacity. So instinctively, I was pretty suspicious, but I didn’t know much about it, so I just ended up a crank who was suspicious of everything. (Key thing my dad taught me a long time ago: when you are a crank who is suspicious of everything, ride it out. A lot of those things you’re crazy about disliking but you don’t know why — well, there turn out to be quite sound reasons to be wary.)

The parks thing is pretty interesting and might bear out for Atlanta too. For example, one thing I constantly see in all these urban planning things is “clear delineation.” So if there is to be a thing, it should be clearly marked from other things, so that it can be made special. So another issue with parks in Atlanta, is that there are so many beautiful public lawns with so many trees that when you get to a park with MORE trees and more greenery–well, it’s not that special and not that interesting. And I mean, this sort of goes back to the heart of it all, right–that Atlanta is not a real city, or rather it is not a classic city, so maybe comparing it in terms of green space to NYC makes absolutely no sense. Because it has nothing of the density of a classic city and so to compare it to NYC or any place else with density is a little silly.

I had a flicker of a thought yesterday that a good project might be to pick an unused public-private space (these are actually specific places that are privately owned but that are designated for use by the public through a program that started in 60s? 70s? wherein buildings can evade some tax/or land use restrictions if they offer space for public use.) The question then would be, what role can graphic design/environmental design (i.e. anything “light” — no re-engineering) play in reviving a space? That’s exciting because it’s a nice little question to research, and I myself don’t yet know the answer. But as I was walking around yesterday in Manhattan, it occurred to me that there are already a LOT of public spaces that are well used. Some of these public-private spaces are poorly designed, that’s true. But maybe it’s simply too much to ask that EVERY single public space in Manhattan be in use? It’s unclear.

One interesting thing is that NYC is such the successful urban space. Not that it’s heaven on earth to live here or anything, especially or me, but in terms of public policy, for an uninitiated amateur like me, it seems like NYC usually goes in the right direction: bike lanes, more and more restrictions on cars, green spaces to buffer traffic. So it’s a little tricky to find an issue right now that needs to be “solved”–more or less NYC DOT is already solving it. But I will keep up with this public spaces thing for a bit and see where it goes.

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