Land Matters: Where Do I Play?

What makes a successful public space, the design or the program? Of course, programmers believe it’s the program and designers believe it’s the design, and the debate reverberates throughout our profession and in the pages of this issue. In reality, the answer is “everything”: location, constituency, quality of materials, and, yes, both design and program. There are parks designed and programmed for a vast array of interests, from skateboarding and sailing to music and water, to family outings and sports. You name it; there is a park for it. But the main objective we should focus on as designers and program advocates is to fit the park to the community.

From Discovery Green, Houston’s highly programmed park discussed in this issue, to New York’s High Line and Chicago’s Millennium Park, what makes a park successful is how well it represents the personality of the area. Does the park capture the imagination of the time and place? We’ve all been asked to name our favorite parks and cannot often limit ourselves to just one. Among my favorites are Gaudi’s Park Guell in Barcelona, which captures the imagination with fascinating designs in an architecture of tile and color; Parc André Citroën in Paris, a poetic space with fabulous gardens in black, white, red, and gold; and Olmsted’s iconic Central Park, with its roads, bridges, water, and trees.

Parks, like communities, vary. I’m a proponent of public process as the way to determine people’s desires and dreams—and to build a constituency—for their park. Whether you are designing a new park or renovating an older public space, you have to build the constituency. Listening to the community and introducing them to new possibilities and ideas is an engaging process that people can actually enjoy. A certain amount of drama is always involved (I refer to community process as often resembling civic theater), but I dislike hearing designers and programmers talking past each other or offering their views in a negative way that downplays other perspectives. It is incumbent on us as professionals to work together to build the best public space possible for a community, given the reality of land, time, and—often primarily—budget.

Can a park be overprogrammed? Unfortunately, yes. A dizzying array of activities is not always what we want in a park. Restful and quiet are good too. And while designing parks in Boston, Atlanta, Miami, Barcelona, and Milan, what I’ve heard in public meetings is the same request: Make the park beautiful. It is a straightforward wish, but complicated to achieve. And it should be a main goal of every park designer and advocate.

Early in my career, in my ongoing and often harried attempts to combine motherhood and profession, my three small children would accompany me to visit new parks I wanted to experience. On one such outing in suburban Washington, D.C., we looked at flowers, fountains, game tables, and sculptures, and took in the bandstand, views, and landscape. I thought it was going pretty well until my middle child piped up, “You said we were visiting a new park. Where do I play?”

And so we find that, in the end, park design and programming must together answer two simple questions. Is it beautiful? Where do I play? Kudos to Gaudi and Olmsted. They got it right. My hope is that we all do the same.

Barbara Faga, FASLA
Executive Vice President, AECOM
Chair, LAM Editorial Advisory Committee

One thought on “Land Matters: Where Do I Play?

  1. Ed Wilmot 11/13/2009 / 11:21 am

    “Is it beautiful? Where do I play?” These two questions are really the same side of a coin.

    Some sociologists and health professionals will tell you that good health and looks require a playful, participatory life. If that is true, should not we also apply the principle to our landscapes?

    If a park is not played, enjoyed and participated in, what happens? History has shown us built environments that do not take in account the local inhabitants way of life, way of use and way of play almost invariably fall into decay. Decay reveals itself in poor upkeep, graffiti and desolation. Without “play” a place becomes “ugly and unhealthy”. Hence, constituency is a must in the design process.

    Designers can not be the moral compass of either the design process or the end product. Designers that think they know better than a place’s inhabitants will inevitably incur the criticism of the public. Certainly, we designers have a wealth of knowledge that can mediate between the needs and wants of the public with the demands of sustainable economic programming to create spaces that are both utilized and enjoyed for their beauty.

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