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Urban Ecology Series
No. 6: The City as a Park
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Over the centuries the word park has come to have many meanings. Originally, the word was used to describe an enclosed area of forest or meadow set aside for the chase, a hunting or grazing area. Parks in this sense of the word were part of the great estates with their castles and manor houses. They were private lands reserved for the exclusive use of the owners and where poachers might be dealt with quite severely.

Parks in the sense of public recreation areas came into being in western Europe in the 17th century and were lands set aside in or near cities, towns, or villages for the common use of the townspeople or villagers. Undoubtedly these public parks were closely related to the commons, where livestock were grazed and held prior to their sale or use in the villages or towns. Cities throughout the world may still have remnants of these parks and commons, and the city of Boston, as well as many of the New England towns, is still famous for its commons. Now, of course, such areas are used exclusively as parks for public recreation. Almost all towns and villages have parks, and large cities may contain within their borders thousands of acres of parkland all lineal descendants of the parks of the 17th century towns and villages.

The word park, in addition to its use to describe recreation, may also apply to a great diversity of activities and circumstances. In each case the park in question is a tract of land set aside for a special purpose. There are ball parks, industrial parks, air parks, amusement parks, playgrounds that are referred to as parks, memorial parks, historical parks, military parks, and others. In 1872, the term park in the sense of a "national park" entered the English language with the enactment of the Yellowstone National Park Act of that year.

The common element in all these uses of the word park lies in the sense of reservation and dedication to special-purpose use. It is clear that the diverseness becomes simplified when the purpose and uses for setting aside land are classified. Then it is apparent that the spectrum of meaning for the word park extends from wilderness areas, where the purpose in setting aside land is to preserve natural ecosystem processes, to areas set aside as places for man's technology. Parks, in this context, contain proportional elements representing either wilderness or naturalness or technologically developed special-use areas. In a broad sense, the park is a setting or habitat for some activity or process that is considered to be of value to man.

If this global view of park is set aside temporarily and attention is focused on parks for recreational purposes alone, the factor that tends to distinguish these areas is their state of wilderness or naturalness or their contrast with development for the accommodation of man.

Parks that are parts of cities are often considered as places to escape from the city. Spending the day in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco is to spend the day in an island where the pressures of the city are left behind. The great barrier beach and shore areas adjacent to major cities on the coasts all have beach parks with beach homes that become places to escape from the cities' summer heat and frenetic activity. City parks are places that contrast with the city; natural areas set aside for the pleasure and enjoyment of the public. Public beaches, such as Coney Island, with their accompanying amusement parks are places to get into the sun, have fun, and spend a day away from the city. In recent times, many of these coastal beach areas have become year-round communities that support resident populations who live there and commute to the city to work instead of commuting to the beach for recreation.

Many of the "new town" developments of metropolitan suburban areas advertise themselves as "recreation communities" and include swim clubs, private beaches, tennis and golf clubs, and bridle paths, located in rural settings where the residents "live in a recreational setting the year around." And, of course, the famous parks of great cities that are considered outstanding achievements in the history and development of landscape architecture strived to provide this variety of environment and habitat so that visitors could enjoy the experience of formal gardens, fountains, and the naturalness of pastoral scenes in the city. Two outstanding parks, Central Park in Manhattan and Prospect Park in Brooklyn, were built during the peak of human labor input at the time of the Industrial Revolution and were places to escape from the drudgery of industrial living.

Some city parks are, in their own rights, botanical gardens. Kew Gardens outside London, for instance, is a scientific collection of living botanical specimens as well as a popular park. The Missouri Botanical Garden and the New York Botanical Garden are parks as well as scientific collections, as is the Boyce Thompson Desert Arboretum at Superior, Arizona. The flower garden on the Quai Wilson on the shores of Lake Le Mans in Geneva, the carefully landscaped botanical gardens of Kiev, and the many Australian cities and towns that have botanical gardens are all examples of the combination of utilitarian scientific collections and city recreation. Chapaultipec Park in Mexico City is perhaps one of the world's outstanding examples of the city park, and includes historical monuments, gardens, lakes for boating, restaurants, museums, historical residences and palaces, art galleries, zoos, and open space where people can play or stroll or picnic or sit and talk in natural settings in the heart of the city. And, of course, the National Museum of Anthropology in the heart of Chapaultipec Park is perhaps the finest example in the world of a blend of architecture and design that demonstrates the early history of man and his technological development.

While not designated as such, the older parts of many cities are parks in the sense that their restoration has revealed the aura and ambience of life of a past era and provides enjoyments associated with the look and feel of the early city. The French Quarter in New Orleans, Greenwich Village in New York, and Georgetown in the District of Columbia are all good examples of restored old towns that have become highly desirable places to live and popular places to visit for their shops and restaurants, quaint streets, and pleasant settings. In the general ecological viewpoint, parks, all parks, are special habitats. They serve special functions and their environments are structured to favor certain activities. Some public parks emphasize aesthetic qualities and are designed and developed to feature formal gardens and walks, hedgerows, fountains, and sculpture. Others, Yellowstone National Park for example, remain as close to their natural state as possible. One of the primary functions of this type of park is to serve as a sanctuary for plants and animals.

But whatever their size or function recreational parks are places for getting away from it all; places to renew our spirits, our vitality, and our outlook. In this sense the recreational function of the park is to enhance our feelings of well-being, whether as a place to have fun or as a place to observe nature in its unspoiled state.

Man invented parks to fulfill his needs for special habitat and to serve as sanctuaries. Whether a park is a habitat for industrial activity, for recreation, or sport or a sanctuary for wildlife, the park's success depends upon ecological and environmental management. One does not normally think of urban and suburban development as ecological problems; these activities are more easily understood in terms of city planning and city engineering. Furthermore, the principal engines of urban and suburban development are and have always been economic, a condition that has prevailed in all countries of the world regardless of political or economic systems. Only recently has man regarded a city as an ecological entity, and even now this view is confined to those population elements least likely to control economic activity except through the powers granted citizens acting as individuals. There may be a lesson to be learned from the study of ancient cities and those parts of major cities that have been preserved as examples of history and antiquity. Many of these areas have been declared historic parks and districts and many of them, in their restored conditions, have become extremely fashionable places to live. But whether they are London townhouses restored to Victorian elegance or Sturbridge Village (a "colonial town" synthesized from authentic buildings moved from all parts of New England to a common site at Sturbridge, Massachusetts), they all have common elements that relate to the way man lived in an environment that conceived and contributed to his requirements, unaided by high-speed transportation.

Georgetown, in the District of Columbia, is the oldest portion of the city and is undergoing a renaissance. New construction follows the style of earlier buildings and many of the older buildings are being reconstructed and restored. Georgetown was built as a port on the Potomac River and was a gateway to the Chesapeake Bay and ocean commerce. Georgetown was the starting point of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal and was once a busy warehousing depot and trade area. Its origin and relationship to the canal and the river are now obscured by an elevated freeway that completely obstructs the view of the river and by a shift of commercial activity away from the canal to the busy streets. Portions of the canal have been restored, and areas along the waterfront are capable of reclamation, but the full potential has not been exploited. Georgetown was not built in the nation's capital as a charming, fun place with quaint buildings. It was built to serve the commercial interests and needs of the times. Its present recreational value and desirability as a place to live are due to the fact that its characteristics and qualities relate to activities that accommodate man in his size, shape, and speed of travel.

Harpers Ferry in West Virginia is being restored in part to its original condition. It is and was a small factory town at the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers, and it was the site of important events just prior to and during the War Between the States. Some of the historic view of Harpers Ferry has been obliterated by railroad bridges and rights-of-way. The old factories that relied upon the ready source of water power are gone. Nevertheless, the compactness and arrangement of the city, despite the narrow flood plain and fairly steep valley slope it occupies, give it a quaintness and charm that attract large numbers of people who visit there to immerse themselves in history and move about the narrow streets and walkways propelled by their own power. Their reward, as Thomas Jefferson expressed it, is a vista "being in itself worth an Atlantic crossing to see."

Old Economy, located in the small steel town of Ambridge, Pennsylvania, 16 miles down the Ohio River from Pittsburgh, has been restored and is a fine example of the busy industrial farming and commercial riverside settlements of the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

In Greenwich Village, one of the oldest portions of New York, charming housing has been fashioned from what were formerly stables, and today Greenwich Village fights for its life amid the clamor for redevelopment in lower Manhattan. The integrity of the area has been preserved primarily because the population in residence is able to politically withstand the economic forces of "development." What they are fighting to save was originally built to accommodate the business and economics of a century or more ago. The original designers and builders of Greenwich Village did not have the same values in mind when they built the city as do the present residents who are fighting to save it.

Mystic, Connecticut, a seaport on Long Island, daily looks more like the 19th-century whaling village that it once was. Williamsburg, Virginia, is a classic example of historic restoration that has set the example for similar projects elsewhere. The urban center of Savannah, Georgia, is being converted from a ramshackled slum with deteriorating and derelict buildings in various stages of decay to an alive, vibrant community whose beauty and elegance have been extolled by some present-day architects as a model of city planning for our time.

The charm, beauty, quaintness, vitality, and curiosity-compelling historic fascination of these towns, villages, and river ports do not stem from the fact that they were built as recreational areas, but from the fact that they represent the habitat of man, the places where he lived and worked, was born, begat children, and died. They are living examples of simple engineering and architectural design created when the principal technological device to be accommodated was man himself. They were not designed for man the social animal; they were designed for man the draft animal. However, since they were designed for man, they are easily adapted in these times to provide the amenities that make urban living worthwhile. Those amenities are convenience, the ready identification with the community as a whole, and the interest and curiosity that stem from variety and diversity, It must be emphasized strongly, however, that when Georgetown, Greenwich Village, Williamsburg, Mystic, and other such desirable urban communities were built, it was not to satisfy the requirements of modern urban living. These communities were designed for utilitarian purposes. They were built as trading posts, fortifications, or settlements necessary to run mines or operate factories.

When the areas were rehabilitated, they were not intended as parks but each fits the definition of the term in that all are easily accessible to the public and have great recreational value because they refresh the human spirit and provide enjoyment while allowing us to recreate in our own minds the historical periods for which these areas are living monuments to those who inhabited them. The events in the lives of these people are secure in history and preserved in the historical habitat in which they occurred.

As a footnote, we should comment on the problems that arise when one device of modern technology—the automobile—is added to one of these charming and fascinating relics of our past.

Bourbon Street, in New Orleans, is part honky tonk, part carney show, part hokum, but it is a progenitor of a bona fide aspect of our musical heritage—New Orleans jazz—which flourishes unaffected by the exploitative aspects of the street. When autos used the street, pandemonium and chaos ensued; when cars were banned from 7 p.m. to 3 a.m., the vibrant hours of the day, Bourbon Street was once again part of the Vieu Carre.

San Juan Antigua, is a similar case in point. The 450th anniversary of Puerto Rico was celebrated recently and for many of those four and a half centuries San Juan Antigua occupied the same space it occupies today. The old town in areal extent is small, but packed in that smallness is the whole world of the ancient Spanish ports, the harbor, and the history of Spain in the new world. The blue cobblestone streets, constructed from ships' ballast picked up in the Azores on the voyage to the New World, are a simple but elegant testimony to the tonnage of material that moved out of the port to Spain. That small section of modern San Juan contains all the variety and diversity required to service and operate what was for the day a major port of the world. San Juan was a transshipment port where cargoes of the new Spain, shipped by smaller sailing vessels over calmer waters of the Caribbean Sea, were transferred to larger vessels for the Atlantic crossing. Everything needed to make that port work was contained inside the impregnable walls of the great Castillo de San Filipe El Morro and Castillo de San Cristobal. Man, horses, and donkeys were the draft animals and machinery consisted of simple levers, pulleys, capstan, and the like. Now that the automobile has descended upon San Juan Antigua, movement in the district is virtually strangled. The congestion, bustle, pollution, and noise contrast sharply with the simple but elegant architecture, the interest and variety of the shops and stores, and the artistry of streets, buildings, plazas, and churches. The beauty and splendor of San Juan Antigua now must be viewed through the muddled screen of disparate and incongruous modern technology. There are no great distances to travel in the old city—there is time enough to walk from one end to the other, from the waterfront to Castillo San Cristobal, from Plaza de Cristobal Colon to El Morro. Transportation, if required, could be provided by continuous shuttle service through the old quarter and thus eliminate most, if not all, of the present congestion. Allowing people to live in and move through old San Juan as it was when it was one of Spain's most important ports in the new world brightens the experience of recreating the sense of the times when the city flourished. A competent systems analysis incorporating the people-moving concepts of Disney World, but without disturbing the antique arrangement and aspect of the city, might go a long way to the restoration of the district and to improvements in cost:benefit ratios.

San Juan Antigua was an important 17th-century industrial city. Today it is a park. People live there, modern commerce goes on there, but it is a park. A park because it is a desirable habitat for man. A park because it looks like a park and makes residents and visitors feel that they are in a park. Although it was not built to entertain or inspire modern visitors, it does so because the modern visitor can instantly relate to it, understand it, and consequently, can emotionally interact with it. Although the visitors interacting with it are modern, they can readily identify with the plate fleets, the exploration of the new world, the struggles for dominance, and the emergence of commerce through historical time. The common heritage of Western man is embedded in the ballast stones in the streets, the plaster of the stucco walls, and the engineering master works of the great fortifications. San Juan Antigua is being restored architecturally; its street life should also be restored by recreating the physical ambience of its 16th- and 17th-century existence.

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Last Modified: Wed, Mar 20 2003 10:00:00 pm PDT