James Corner, ASLA, George Hargreaves, FASLA, and Michael Van Valkenburgh, FASLA, all leading landscape architects, spoke at a panel organized by the Forum for Urban Design and co-sponsored by the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy. Held at the Museum of Modern Art’s education center in New York City, the session focused on the 21st century park. Despite concerns that park space will increasingly be viewed as an “extra frill” and be supplanted by “a virtual cyberworld” as part of a “retreat from public life,” parks are viewed as making a comeback. Some questions that framed the discussion include: Why do new parks have a different tactile feeling? Are new parks as adaptable as parks created in the 20th century? How is the relationship between city and park changing? How do parks relate to democracy? What role will citizens have in the 21st century park? Also, what about park networks in city regions, the next scale up?
James Corner, ASLA, Field Operations: Corner thinks parks in the 21st century play the same role as in the 17-20th centuries. Parks are “fundamentally ecological vessels” that are valuable carbon sinks, which preserve plant life, provide habitat for wildlife, and clean air and water. They are “great social spaces” that facilitate renewal — spiritual and otherwise. Parks also add great economic benefit to cities, adding value to the property along side parks. As cities become more dense, parks will become “all the more valuable.”
Corner broke his presentation into a few trends for the 21st century park: Big, Productive, and New:
Big parks provide connections, continuity, and are assembled across an urban area. As an example, Corner cited the Lake Ontario Park (which all panelists are involved in) as a single contiguous park system. 1,000 of square acres work at a regional scale, and help create a networked city.
Productive parks grow trees and food, renew soils, clean water, and have sustainable energy components. Corner mentioned the Fresh Kills Park, which will channel methane from decomposing trash into renewable energy. Corner also mentioned the Shelby Farms Park in Memphis, Tennessee, which is four times the size of New York City’s Central Park. Two-thirds of Shelby Farms Park is used for “alternative production uses,” including crop genetics research centers, biofuels, tree nurseries, and bird hatching reserves. The park focuses on bio-diversification.
In an example of New, Corner said parks need to be unique public spaces to prevent abandonment. Not all future parks can be “pastoral” like New York City’s Central Park, but must also provide a unique solution. As an example, the new High Line, which will open later this summer, is unique and is, at once, a trail, cultural instrument, source of economic development, and ecological corridor.
George Hargreaves, FASLA, Hargreaves Associates: Hargreaves divided his presentation into origins, sites, and identity. In discussing origins, Hargreaves argued that parks can orginate out of a number of sources — the community, specific communities interested in zoning, philanthropies, government planners. Parks can originate out of the need to deal with distressed, toxic sites, which he said are often in prime park locales — the center of cities. However, “park dollars are still limited,” which has led to changes in the public management of parks. New governing structures include non-profits, private/public partnerships, and foundations.
Major events, like Olympic games, are huge opportunities for creating parks, Hargreaves argued, and brownfield sites are almost always used for new spaces. Big events also have the added benefit of providing deadlines and budgets, which help get new parks off the ground. Hargreaves cited the London 2012 park which will re-develop a former “bombed-out area” and clean soils — the northern part will be an ecological park, while the southern part will be a festival park.
Hargreaves mentioned that, increasingly, an economic cost-benefit analysis needs to be done before a park is built. He saw this as a positive trend. Economic benefits can be quantified and broken out per visitor. However, he mentioned the need to prevent against the commodification of parks, with signs, booths, and other “revenue-generating attractions” provided by private sector funders of parks a real concern.
Furthermore, the major parks created in the 17-20th centuries had “good bones;” the basic character of many sites was solid. Many 21st century parks, which re-develop brownfields, don’t have this luxury. He also mentioned that new parks must respond to the enormous demand to “reconnect with water” — parks need to be used by both people and habitat, and further incorporate river systems into the design.
As for identity, parks need to be a unique experience for people, or they will be abandoned. Tired, underperforming parks need to be redesigned and have a conceptual strategy. They must also have an “active management” or sustainable management approach, including a vegetation strategy — maintenance can help make a site unique.
Michael Van Valkenburgh, FASLA, Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates: Van Valkenburgh addressed the “universal quality of parks” and started his talk with his admiration for Olmsted and his “appropriated romantic imagery.” He wondered how Olmsted, with no design education, could create such masterpieces, and cited his “supple, evolving practice.” Van Valkenburgh sees “landscape as an agent of urbanism,” and concurs they have great economic benefit. He cited Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, and the “migration of ideas” to explain how landscape architects aren’t “derivative,” but put ideas into practice.
Van Valkenburgh discussed how the concept of ecology and parks has changed over the past 30 years. In the 1970s, “ecology was viewed as perfection” (an ideal), but now ecology is viewed as a dynamic process central to parks. With ecology now so central to parks, Van Valkenburgh argues, the separation between architecture and landscape architecture could finally happen. Parks, which landscape architects deal with, are living, changing things (whereas buildings are more static).
Additionally, landscape architects need to use a “scientific approach” and heuristics to measure the success of parks on multiple levels. Part of this involves getting to know the “site circumstances,” and parks’ neighbours (which, in the case of the Brooklyn Bridge Park, hasn’t been fun for Van Valkenburgh).
All panelists focused on the need to renew post-industrial landscapes and use the opportunities presented by brownfields. Other common threads were designing parks for both people and wildlife, and connecting parks into the greater green infrastructure.
Learn more at the Forum for Urban Design.