Note: what follows are some current fulminations on the nature, identity, and purpose of parks and public space. It is still very rough, so if anyone would like to contribute either advice or scholarly resources, please do in the comment section.
Two days ago, as I prepared for my entrance into graduate school, I finished up my advising review and stepped outside. It was an overcast day, but there was a breeze and the temperature was mercifully hovering around 65º as opposed to the eighty degree days with brutal humidity that I have become accustomed to since moving out here. I had a few hours to kill before my next appointment, so I decided to take advantage of my last free day before voluntary M.Arch imprisonment and take a ride through Forest Park.
For those unfamiliar with Forest Park it opened in 1876, and can be seen from a height of 28 miles (thanks GoogleEarth!). A portion of it was borrowed for the 1904 World's Fair (which also included the campus of Washington University and the ever-so-ethnically sensitive named area that would become Dogtown) and, despite incursions and subsequent development of a highway, a surface metro line, a science museum, and a parkway, it still remains 1.4 times bigger than Olmstead's Central Park. I decided to ride the perimeter trail which is about 6 miles in length. After my ride I came to two conclusions: firstly (full disclosure here) I am way out of shape. Recently the sum total of my riding has been more or less to school and back; in my undergrad days that did mean conquering a 8 block long steep hill on the way home (really fun when you haven't slept in 37 hours I can assure you!) but here my route is mostly level unlike the picturesque contours of Forest Park.
The second train of thought is more substantive. Is there anything today that can rival the generosity and public benefit brought about by the parks movement in the late nineteenth century?
Obviously the parks movement has much guilt as a result of its association with the picturesque movement and that movement's subsequent corruption by the Jeffersonian/Lockeian ideal of property ownership and "free market" (I use it in quotes as the American market has never really been free -- look into agriculture subsidies if you disagree) into the unstoppable beast of suburbia. If we can set aside this admittedly culturally influential relationship and examine the unprecedented societal benefits brought about by the parks movement it is almost impossible to compare it to any present day phenomena. To use Forest Park as an example, there are not only typical spaces for recreation, contemplation, and socialization, but also three museums (art, history, and science) and a zoo. Both general museums (such as the Missouri History Museum) and science museums, as well as public zoological parks came out of the late-victorian mania for education and classification; these were modern concepts in the era of the park's inception.
There of course is a darker side and inherent contradiction to this seeming beneficence; these public institutions were created to pacify a somewhat rebellious lower class, to educate the torrent of uneducated European immigrants and indoctrinate them as members of an enlightened American populous, and to preserve the status quo from the feared corrosion of radical European movements (marxism et al) and the homegrown threat of unionization as a result of atrocious conditions. Thus, the parks and other public institutions served to an extent as bread and circuses (or almost the spectacle of Debord) but with the crucial distinction that unlike the carnage of Rome, or the empty spectacle/simulacra of the modern age, such institutions responded to a perceived threat by redirecting society in a positive manner toward greater education for all. If I sound less than radical here it is because the society reacting with positivity is most always preferable to the alternative. It seems that we are now fully in the grasp of the alternative; instead of reacting as those fearful Americans of the late nineteenth century did, we cannot even respond to the perceived threat posed by our on children without resorting to militaristic techniques of control.
At this point it might be a good time to consider the words of one of the most prescient minds of the twentieth century, Walter Benjamin:
"The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the "state of emergency" in which we live is not the exception but the rule. We must attain to a conception of history that is in keeping with that insight."
"Theses on the Philosophy of History"
Walter Benjamin: Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt (1968)
This militarization and transformation into a society of continuous control has momentous implications for all of the design fields. We, as architects, landscape architects, urban designers, planners, graphic designers, and industrial designers have been given this situation, and we must work constantly and to the best of all our collective abilities to turn these increasingly negative and dangerous responses to the ancient fears of terrorism, cultural difference, political ideology, and race into positive institutions, places, and objects that will contribute meaningfully to the public realm.
Books Cited in this article