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American Society of Landscape Architects


August 2007 Issue

Accidental Parks
Cities are creating open space from urban remnants. But can remnants effectively bind the city together?

By Peter Gisolfi, ASLA

Accidental Parks 106 Group

Cities are more and more often developing new parks from leftover bits of land. Granted, these cities are almost completely developed, so there is little land left over for parks. Nevertheless, the current park model is very different from the grand urban visions of the past, when land for parks was deliberately set aside in the city plan.

The earliest city plans, which are still celebrated, placed the main open space at the center. Examples are the cities of Boston and New Haven, Connecticut, where the town surrounds a green or a common. More elaborate plans include the systematic integration of multiple greens within gridded plans, such as those found in Philadelphia and Savannah, Georgia. In the second half of the 19th century, the parks movement embraced a grander vision. Central Park in Manhattan, Prospect Park in Brooklyn, and the Boston park system were created with ambitious social and environmental objectives in mind. The reformers believed intensely that bringing the pastoral beauty of the countryside to growing cities would remedy the social ills brought by the Industrial Revolution and teeming immigrant populations.

After the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893, the city beautiful movement focused on transforming existing cities in a manner similar to Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann’s interventions in Paris. From that movement came the great boulevards we continue to recognize today—Mosholu Parkway in the Bronx, Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn, Commonwealth Avenue in Boston, and the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia. The purpose of these boulevards was not only to bring green space to the city core, but also to transform the city plan by creating new processional connections.

After World War II, the greatest urban open space intervention in America unwittingly turned out to be the Interstate Highway System. No matter what we think about the urban renewal efforts of that era, the construction of interstate highways through and around major cities was one of the most significant events. Picture Hartford, Connecticut, split by I-84; New Haven, Connecticut, cut off from Long Island Sound by I-95; I-90 intersecting Commonwealth Avenue in Boston; or I-5 on two levels at the edge of Puget Sound in Seattle. These were the great urban open-space initiatives of the 1950s and 1960s, even if they did not produce green space. Swaths of asphalt cut through the existing urban fabric to create the largest continuous open-space systems in the history of American cities.

What are we doing now to create open space? By necessity, we are focusing on remnants from previously used land within the city. But does this method of selecting open space bind the city together?

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