City parks are of particular intrigue to me. We of course know by now that green space – natural or deliberate – contributes significantly to the monetary value of an area; when, however, a city, through the course of her development, elects to set aside open space for the sole function of “park” or “public green space,” it is a clear reflection of her value system and a symbol, in particular, of those priorities related to aesthetics, health, and mental well-being.
It is not only the park itself, however, and its mere existence within a city’s bounds, but rather its specifics and design, especially with regard to one park as compared to another only blocks away, and – funding aside – what a park’s design indicates about its function, what signifiers the community includes to direct the park guests in a.) its proper use and b.) the surrounding neighborhood’s values. It can be said that not all parks are created equal, and to say that a park exists nearby is not knowing much without experiencing it firsthand.
There are four parks within a 5-10 minute walk of my apartment. Each and every one is entirely unique in its design and, as such, sends unique messages to those who enter it.
Park #1: nestled amid a quiet but upscale residential area (consisting predominantly of condo buildings), it’s kept largely ungroomed, with mature trees and considerable undergrowth along its fenced edges; it is one of two parks in the area serving as an informal playplace for dogs, where owners will congregate just after 5 p.m. to let their companions off leash. Though there is a leash law in place, here the dogs more or less roam as they please. Both the trees and the dogs are left to their devices.
Park #2: Just two blocks away from the first but surrounded by high-end retail in addition to the residental, and secured by sidewalks that see considerably more traffic, this park is equipped with both a fence and, instead of grass, a growth of bushes so high and dense that they prevent any actual use of the park beyond the concrete path cutting quickly across it. The first time I took my dog here, a woman approached me and asked me not to let him walk in the vegetation.
“We’re trying to let them grow back,” she said.
I eyed the bushes, overgrown and tangled in weeds, thinking but not saying what I thought of the “growth’s” obvious sufficiency; thinking but not saying, also: 1.) “who is ‘we?‘” and 2.) “what makes ‘you‘ (plural) the authority on proper park use?”
Such is the reflection of “their” values: that this park might look “pretty” to them but never be used for anything.
Park #3: a quiet path beyond wrought iron, with tremendous tree walls and ceilings and cobblestone underfoot; lined with benches and marked, in the center, by a driftwood horse twice the real-life size; this park is the least groomed and, as such, the most poetic – an obvious place of “pause” and “reflection,” it is not a place for “play” and certainly not one for “poop.” A sign outside the gate (which exists and is often used in closing off the entrance) plainly reads: “no dogs.”
Park #4: By far the largest, bounding across a city block; stretching to encompass two softball fields, tennis courts and a running track. Here, like the first park, dogs are frequently let off leash, many of them sprinting across the field after balls. The park’s clear message is “recreation,” “athletics” and “play.”
It might be concluded, then, that to truly enjoy a park, we must first be fully aware, either as individuals or as a community, of our own values, and secondarily find one that complements and plays to them.
My own park use is dictated largely by my dog… so while I walk to the first park twice every day, I have only once been to the third.