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American Society of Landscape Architects

 

September 2007 Issue

The Focus-Grouped Park
Cities are building new parks at a rate not seen for 100 years. There is an increasingly heated debate about what to put in them.

By Jon Weinbach

The Focus-Grouped Park C/O Orange County Great Park Corporation, courtesy Great Park Design Studio

There’s a new status symbol for American cities, and it’s not a soaring office tower or retro stadium. To many civic leaders, nothing says progressiveness and prosperity like an elaborate urban park.

On a scale not seen since the “City Beautiful” movement of the late 19th century, public green spaces are proliferating. In Irvine, California, work has begun on a $1.1 billion recreational area that will be 60 percent larger than New York’s Central Park. Private donors in Houston financed the bulk of a $93 million downtown greensward, while the mayor of Louisville, Kentucky, wants to ring the city’s borders with 100 miles of trails. In all, 29 of the nation’s biggest cities have added nearly 14,000 acres of new parkland in two years—the equivalent of about 11,000 football fields.

But even grass and trees can be complicated. Citizens and planners across the country are getting tied up in a larger debate about what a park should be—one that often pits people who believe in peace and quiet and the soulful contemplation of nature against those who prefer zip lines, Frisbee golf, and hang gliding.

In the Twin Cities, some residents don’t agree with the decision to build a public sports field with artificial turf. Park builders in Dallas are trying to find room in one new project for a backgammon area. And an effort to rehabilitate Manhattan’s Washington Square Park has been met by three lawsuits so far—including an attempt by preservationists to keep the city from moving the central fountain about 15 feet to the east. “You’d think we were proposing to build a nuclear waste dump,” says Adrian Benepe, the city’s commissioner of parks and recreation.

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