Goldhagen: “Democracies Need Physical Spaces”

Sarah Williams Goldhagen, architecture critic for The New Republic, argues that America’s public realm is best served by physical urban spaces that can enable “non-structured and non-goal-orientated” interactions among many kinds of people. The best places for these types of interactions? Great urban parks. She covers the role parks have played in enabling democracy, traces the impact  of Frederick Law Olmsted’s pioneering urban parks, explores a few contemporary parks that fit the “great urban park” name, and outlines the rise of landscape urbanism, a theory that may be encouraging designers to better serve the public realm.  

Goldhagen believes that American society “has become more an archipelago than a nation, increasingly balkanized into ethnic, class, faith, and interest groups whose members rarely interact meaningfully with people whose affiliations they do not in large measure share.” This balkanization, which has helped destroy the public realm, has taken the form of flight to the suburbs starting in the 1950’s, and, more recently, the ubiquitous World Wide Web. “The Internet preaches an ideal of ‘customization’ and a cult of ‘communities of interest,’ creating ever-dividing microsplinters of social affinity and similarity, which are then further hardened by the new specialized channels appearing on cable television seemingly every month.” The Web is, in effect, filtering us out by our interests, to the detriment of the off-line public realm. 

For a long time now, urban and social theorists have been lamenting the decline of social spaces that give community form. Many see the public realm as something physical — “it is an actual place, a place in the city, a place to which people from various classes and walks of life routinely come.” In the past 30 years, cultural institutions, streets, and malls have been providing physical space for the public. The interest in street and neighborhood design started with Jane Jacob’s “The Death and Life of Great American Cities,” and continues on in new mixed-used, pedestrian-friendly urban developments (see an interview).  However, streets can’t provide a true social meeting space; “there’s too much chance of injury.” Cultural institutions and malls may help shape the public space, but perhaps to our detriment: they are causing the “commodification” of the public realm. Also, people may too busy looking at art or shopping to communicate with each other in a meaningfulway.

Instead, public spaces actually need to be designed for interactions that are “unstructured and non-goal-oriented, because humans, wired to concentrate on goals when goals are set before them, will focus on people whom they might not otherwise see (or whom they might otherwise choose to ignore) only if the pursuit of concrete goals is withdrawn.” Goldhagen argues that only in places that have been designed to foster these social interactions can people once again enjoy the company of strangers not interested in your specific “community of interest.” The obvious physical space for the public realm then is public parks, in all their forms, but particulary, the “great urban parks.”   

In Boston, Chicago, New York City, St. Louis, Seattle, some good and some bad major new urban parks have just opened, and other major cities like Houston, Philadelphia, and Toronto are planning more.  She describes the great urban park as “not be so large that inside it one loses a sense of the city. This type of park is typically important enough (and expensive enough) that municipalities work hard to weave it into the overall identity of the city. Over the course of a given year, many different activities and events happen there—concerts, rallies,festivals, fairs.” In addition, many are the result of opportunistic thinking — “Many sit on, or incorporate into their design, defunct artifacts of the American industrial landscape: railroad yards, lines, and depots; underutilized or disused ports— acres upon acres of cracked concrete or yarrow-covered property, asking to be re-purposed for clean living” (see earlier post).

Given the world is moving into cities at a rapid rate, making urban spaces as livable as possible is increasingly important. City administrators must invest in urban infrastructure, revamp existing transportation systems to include more options, and create affordable housing options. But perhaps, most importantly, as Katherine Gustafson, ASLA, argued in a recent interview, parks need to restorative, green open spaces if people are expected to live in high-density areas. “What is important about urban parks is that they are the only way to stop urban sprawl. Urban sprawl is linked with the energy crisis. Sustainability means trying to live in harmony with the planet. This isn’t possible if we don’t densify our cities to stop urban sprawl. The only way to densify a city is to have urban space.”

As models of new urban parks that succeed in large part, Goldhagen points to Chicago’s Millennium Park, the CityGarden in St. Louis (see earlier post), and the High Line in New York City (see a case study). For failures, she points to Rose Kennedy Greenway in Boston, which “offers a dispiritingly high number of cautionary tales and directives about the obstacles that lie in wait to stall out such projects.” The $22 billion project (the largest and most expensive public works project in U.S. history) is “not merely bad, it is dreadful, a useless wind tunnel bordered by busy multi-lane streets and skyscrapers of unfortunate pedigree.” It’s also underused, features “incoherent and eye-injuring” landscape design, and lawns park-goers aren’t allowed to step on. Goldhagen reviews a number of the issues that caused the mess, highlighting the lack of leadership and intra-bureaucratic squabbles, concluding: “The Boston experience suggests that for a major urban park to develop, there must be leaders with a strong vision and political clout, garnering public support and funding for the project, shepherding it from design to completion, ensuring that countervailing forces do not derail it.” 

To get a sense of what landscape architecture can do to positively shape to the public realm, we must return to Frederick Law Olmsted, America’s great landscape architect, who designed Manhattan’s Central Park and Brooklyn’s Prospect Parks. “Olmsted understood that the great urban park is more than a place for people to appreciate the structure of tulips and feel the grass beneath their feet; and more even than a place where different sorts of people could come at any time for free. Three distinctive features make Olmsted’s parks more than simply nice: aesthetic coherence, a deep narrative richly told, and the possibility of a transformative personal experience in the city.” As an example, in Central Parks’s 843 acres, there are many functional areas, including game fields, gardens, skating rinks, a boating lake, and winding paths, but these “dozens and dozens of different kinds and moments of experience do not compromise the park’s aesthetic coherence.”

Today’s landscape architects need to follow Olmsted’s lead and “embrace the full responsibility that naturally falls to them” with regards to their role desiging the public realm. The three new urban parks cited (Chicago’s 26.5-acre Millennium Park, St. Louis’s 2.9-acre Citygarden, and New York City’s High Line) have all managed to revitalize underused real estate, catalyze economic development, raise local property values, provide ecosystem services, and attract tourists, but what impact have their had on the urban public realm?

“Millennium Park is a collection of great moments rather than a great urban park,” says Goldhagen.  The initial master plan, drawn up in the 1990s by Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, broke up the gently sloping site into ‘rooms’ delineated by architectural elements and planting. While not an innovative idea, it is not in principle a bad one, having been used in formal gardens and parks for centuries. As private funds played an ever-greater role in covering the park’s $490 million cost, the sponsorship of these ‘rooms’ was doled out to various donors ($220 million from private private donors, though it must be pointed out that this figure includes the cost of the public sculptures and architectural elements).” As a result, all the different areas sponsored by different firms have created a “sadly incoherent” park, “aesthetically speaking,” almost rescued by Crown Fountain, AT&T Plaza, and Gustafson Guthrie Nichol’s Lurie Garden.  

In fact, only in Gustafson’s Lurie Garden is there a “successful public realm that bears the characteristics of a great urban park. Architecturally controlled, spatially and topographically varied, Lurie Garden offers visitors a powerful experience of quietude within the city, moments full of wildness, wildflowers, and an ever-changing story about the climate and flora of the Midwestern plains. Here Gustafson and her collaborators elegantly demonstrate how aesthetic coherence, spatial definition, and narrative poesis can create an excellent urban amenity.” The two other parks mentioned, the High Line, designed by James Corner Field Operations, and CityGarden, created by Warren Byrd of Nelson Byrd Woltz, are examples of smaller urban parks and will be the likely model for future urban parks. “The High Line is the superior design, but Citygarden is the more compelling example of the social good that a great urban park can bring.” However, Goldhagen sees both as legitimate successes that learned well Olmsted’s lessons.

On the designer of the High Line, James Corner, ASLA, Goldhagen says he’s perhaps the primary thought-leader in a new theory of landscape architecture: landscape urbanism, which aims to”reclaim landscape architecture from the preciousness of garden design by marrying it with regional planning and, especially, with urban design.” Part of landscape urbanism’s agenda is to throw out “coherent aesthetic programs and legible narratives” in favor of “networks and systems.” Designers should focus on developing “neutral forums that can host an ever-changing series of appropriations and ‘events.” Perhaps landscape urbanism then plays a key role in helping to ensure landscapes are designed for the public realm.

Read the article

Image credit: Lurie Garden, Millennium Park, Chicago. ASLA 2008 General Deisgn Award of  Excellence / Mark Tomaras

7 thoughts on “Goldhagen: “Democracies Need Physical Spaces”

  1. Nancy Thompson 10/23/2010 / 5:30 pm

    Aesthetic coherence indeed is the key to the enduring value of Central Park, in my opinion. While I think landscape urbanism is a very welcome trend in landscape architecture, most firms still seem to shine brighter when they are tackling a single-site project. And in that way, the recent new parks mentioned in this article all are superior public places.

    The High Line, CityGarden, and Millennium Park all make superior use of formerly underutilized, unremarkable, and/or downright ugly spaces. Their current popularity represents placemaking at its best.

    One can only hope that the landscape urbanism trend flourishes so that can we enjoy not only very high profile and very high expense places such as these three, but also simpler and less extravagant people-pleasing places at a cost that will allow a city to sustain many such outdoor spaces.

    • DMS190 01/27/2011 / 12:52 pm

      I agree that the Highline is wonderful but how can anyone ascribe Landscape Urbanism to it?

      By no means did The Highline grow out of LU thinking or approach.

  2. TH 10/23/2010 / 5:41 pm

    wonderful read.

  3. faslanyc 10/25/2010 / 7:53 pm

    nice article.
    there are a few things that seem important to mention- all three parks are incredibly expensive. It would be interesting to hear some discussion of vital public space that is not expensive. treating only these parks sustains the myth that great places must be expensive, and that necessarily involves large bureaucracies and companies (which comes with drawbacks).

    also, all three of those parks are extremely limited in terms of what you can actually do there- stroll, picnic, enjoy some specific programming or artistic composition of sculpture and scenery. all well and good, but what if you want to have a beer outside, work on your bike, build something, have a bonfire? this idea that people only move to the suburbs to get away from “others” does a huge disservice to the issue- many folks move away because they want a yard to grill in, a garage for hobbies, a garden to plant things, and a good school for their kids (more a matter of policy). Xenophobia is part of it, but it’s exaggerated- this isn’t the 50’s. Some discussion of how limited programming and recreation in public urban space is seems missing.

  4. Bill Badrick 10/28/2010 / 3:08 pm

    A fine article describing a critical part of city – making in the coming century.
    Please find an article and artworks illustrating a proposal to place a Park – Roof on the CRC Mega Bridge here in Portland. This park can connect the working class neighborhood on both sides of the Mighty Columbia , and create a world class experience of soaring above one of the great rivers of the planet , in a non – prescriptive way. Come and dream , come and nap , come one come all!

  5. Julian Agyeman 11/08/2010 / 4:21 pm

    An excellent, coherent argument.

    However, I’d like to pick up on the point about ‘physical urban spaces that can enable “non-structured and non-goal-orientated” interactions among many kinds of people’. In Setha Low et al “Rethinking Urban Parks: Public Space and Cultural Diversity” (University of Texas Press 2005) the authors note that:

    “in this new century, we are facing a different kind of threat to public space — not one of disuse, but of patterns of design and management that exclude some people and reduce social and cultural diversity”.

    Let’s be clear here, I’d like to challenge us to go farther than Goldhagen’s rather general assertion about urban spaces that benefit “many kinds of people”. Indeed I would argue that we should be aiming for urban spaces that I call “culturally inclusive spaces” but we should understand that these will only develop as a result of us adopting “culturally inclusive practice”……….

  6. Tobi Kester 12/02/2010 / 1:46 pm

    This article brings out a large number of significant points but is missing one element that I would love to hear the author’s perspective on – the responsibility of ownership and maintenance of public spaces. How has this changed over the years and has it amplified the denegration of public spaces because it has not been a focus of discussion?

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