In Defense of Open Space

How "focal points" and pavement are ruining America's parks

By Charles A. Birnbaum

In the age of video games and attention deficit disorder, "open space" has become a dirty term. Open space in America's parks is being wiped out, revised, or populated by new structures and parking lots. Municipal officials tend to see such space as a void that must be filled, "programmed" to amuse all comers. With the rise of bottom-up planning, community representatives now decide, ex cathedra, that for our parks to succeed, they must have ten "focal points" and "ten things to do at each focal point," to quote the Web site of the Project for Public Spaces, a nonprofit in New York City.

Earlier this year, I visited several urban parks around the country, among them Piedmont Park in Atlanta, City and Audubon parks in New Orleans, and Seneca Park in Rochester, N.Y. I found them under siege from a variety of threats, including zoo expansions (proposed for both Rochester and New Orleans' Audubon), new parking lots (planned for Atlanta), and new "destination features" like sculpture gardens (in New Orleans' City Park). These parks' collective plight left me dispirited and angry. When was it decided that strolling in dappled shade under a canopy of trees or roaming a sloping lawn is not a sufficient experience in its own right? When did we stop valuing the sound of running water, the humanizing scale and tactile marvels of nature? Who still appreciates historic, moss-covered walls and paths or a landscape designer's choice of plants and ornaments?

This national trend—the cluttering of reposeful park grounds with activity-oriented "focal points"—is lamentable and perplexing, not least because park users themselves aren't demanding change. According to surveys conducted over the past two decades, between 70 and 80 percent of American park users visit them specifically for passive, reflective experiences, not for entertainment.

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