Feature Article - November 2007
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Parks with Purpose

Preserving the Past, Designing the Future

By Emily Tipping

"We are the children of our landscape; it dictates behavior and
even thought in the measure to which we are responsive to it."
—Lawrence Durrell

t is easy to take our surroundings for granted. Often, it is not until we walk into a landscape very different from what we are used to—whether it's a beach dweller traversing the Rockies, a city dweller walking in the woods or a public garden, or a Midwesterner visiting the ocean—that we begin to take a closer notice of the surroundings. Yet people often have a profound influence on the landscape, whether it's through intentional design by a landscape architect or unintentional damage through poor planning, or traffic and congestion. Proper attention and planning of park landscapes can create a new, tuned-in awareness for park visitors, educating them about the historical and cultural context of a place, entertaining them with well-placed art and music, and ultimately engaging them in their surroundings, so that when they return to the landscape of their daily experience, they do so more aware of their ability to interact with and affect their environment.

Finding balance

One issue for landscape architects and park planners is how to accommodate increasing demands for various amenities from residents with the need to preserve existing parks and open space. According to Charles Birnbaum, president of The Cultural Landscape Foundation, a nonprofit foundation dedicated to increasing public awareness of the importance and irreplaceable legacy of cultural landscapes, it's not necessarily a case of adding something versus adding nothing.

"We create this false schism that somehow these things can't be accommodated," he explained. "Very often they can be accommodated, but siting is a challenge. A lot of the parks have the carrying capacity, but the question is what's appropriate. Just because you have a large, open meadow doesn't mean you put a skatepark in it."

As an example, Birnbaum cites the city of Louisville, Ky., which developed a new skatepark in its downtown area on a former brownfield site. In its Cultural Landscapes as Classrooms series, an online education module that won an honor award in the Communications category from the ASLA, TCLF describes the development of the Extreme Park as a way of expanding the original vision for Louisville's parks, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and his firm, to meet younger generations' recreational needs. The module invites visitors to imagine what would have happened if park planners had chosen to site the skatepark on historic Cherokee Park's scenic Baringer Hill, with an image that demonstrates how this would have ruined the view.

Because the Extreme Park was sited with careful planning, a crucial Olmsted-planned vista was preserved, and "now if you go downtown at midnight, the Extreme Park is hopping," Birnbaum said. "It's become an engine to serve what was a non-neighborhood."

He contrasts this with Freeway Park in Seattle, a first-of-its-kind park built over a freeway, designed by master landscape architect Lawrence Halprin. "The park was meant to be an engine for revitalization downtown, but then the development came in and the buildings turned their backs on the park, and the park becomes unsafe," he said, referring to the influx of undesirables, including drug dealers, which resulted in the 2002 murder of a homeless woman in the park.

"Because of that, we have to create change, so they were going to remove a third of the park's inspiring central fountain to create what I call a pu-pu platter for the ADD generation, where you go into the community and say, 'what do you want?' and then splay it all out there."