The problem of parks
I’m a little late, but I thought that Blair Kamin’s recent pieces on “park deserts” in Chicago brought well-deserved attention to the problem. The gist is that away from Chicago’s glitzy downtown and lakefront jewels, the city has a dearth of parkland, particularly as you go far into the Northwest and Southwest sides along the river and canal corridors.
An occasional trek out to the justifiably celebrated lakefront doesn’t replace the convenience and importance of a close neighborhood park. I live only three miles from Lake Michigan, in a neighborhood that isn’t afflicted with a particularly sever shortage of open space (although Logan Square to the northwest is), and I can take the train downtown or the bus to the lakefront very easily and be at either within half an hour. But none of these replaces a neighborhood open space within closer proximity to me.
This lack of urban space in Chicago relates to a criticism that I have of Gary Hustwit’s otherwise excellent Urbanized, which I saw at a special screening last week. Hustwit traces the familiar path of postwar suburbanization, arriving at one of the classic urbanist nightmares, Phoenix. He interviews a developer who argues that Phoenix shouldn’t be condemned as “sprawl,” but rather accepted as the prototype of postwar automobile-centered development. The developer ends with a defense of his love for his home, pool and 3/4-acre lot, but an unflattering close-up and lack of any mitigating commentary cast him in an unsympathetic light.
This portrayal of the developer, whether or not it was intentional is a weakness emblematic of a larger fault of the film. Not only does it provides fodder for anti-urbanists — “Look at those snobby urbanists, they have nothing but contempt for Joe Suburbanite, they can’t relate to ‘real’ Americans” — but it also dismisses American suburbanization and urban sprawl with a simplistic appeal to individualistic greed on the part of people who just want a big house, some land and some space.
There are many reasons for suburban allure, of course, with the germane reason here the offering of parkland. In theory, classic American suburbia offers an unbeatable mix of urban and rural: live close to the city, but surrounded by your own green grass. American suburbanization certainly can’t be attributed solely to a cultural yearning for green space — what with mortgage incentives, the interstates, redlining and other factors, it’d be a shock if the nation hadn’t suburbanized on a grand scale — but it’s undeniable that there is something in our cultural psyche.
While Hustwit does mention the Garden City movement and portray the slums of contemporary developing-world cities, I still wish that he had addressed the pull for suburbanization in more detail: the film paints a gorgeous picture of the appeal of city living, making it easy to dismiss the suburbs as a cultural wasteland; yet the majority of Americans are housed in them and our culture makes an easy contrast between the lush, green suburbs and the overcrowded, run-down inner cities. Not at all an accurate comparison, but certainly a compelling one, especially when so many cities do lack the open spaces that are (theoretically) an advantage that suburbs offer.
In a way, it’s telling that a comment on the Curbed Chicago blog entry that featured Kamin’s pieces dismissed the need for more parks in Chicago, what with the plentiful private green space and the forest preserves. While the forest preserves, and places like the Chicago Botanic Gardens, are indeed great green spaces, these types of locales are found largely in the suburbs and on the outskirts of the city. From the vantage point of lawn- and forest preserve-filled suburban Chicagoland, it’s easy to miss the need for green space in the city.
And, of course, private green space doesn’t benefit the majority of city residents who don’t have access to these spaces. In this vein, I was lucky enough to visit Lake Point Tower’s private park during the Chicago Architecture Foundation’s Open House Chicago event this past weekend. The condo/apartment building, the only one east of Lake Shore Drive, has a tower of residences built on top of a wide parking garage. Instead of the standard rooftop blacktop filled with mysterious blocks puffing out steam and hot air, there is a park. It’s a respite from the city — although never far from the din of Lake Shore Drive — with a pool, winding paths, playground and fairly impressively large trees, for being planted in topsoil above a parking garage.
The takeaway from the Lake Point Tower park is not that the private park should be made public, of course, but rather than when you build parks in cities, particularly old, densely-built-up cities that it’s often necessary to be creative in the way that you allot open space parkland. Parks in urban areas need to be accessible by a number of means, be designed with public safety in mind and often require creative use of space. The Lake Point Tower park, the Bloomingdale Trail, Chicago’s Riverwalk and New York’s High Line are all examples of this type of use.
Parks and well-designed open spaces are important. It is difficult to see from either the largely affluent lakefront or outer suburbs of Chicagoland, but many parts of the city away from the glitzy center are starved for open space (or, as Kamin notes, afflicted with too much open space, but that’s a separate but related problem). At their core, vibrant urban neighborhood require a mix of everything: mixed ages of people, mixed uses, mixed history of buildings and a mix between built-up and open spaces.