In Defense of Open Spaces

The Sept./Oct. issue of Preservation magazine from the National Trust for Historic Preservation has an essay called “In Defense of Open Spaces.” Some excerpts:

« 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 corners.

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. …

In Seattle, Occidental [Square] is an open, European-style square with a Jones & Jones-designed glass pavilion — now used mainly by transients — and cobblestone paving. The Project for Public Spaces would like to overhaul the space completely, removing its trees and the glass structure and painting the facades of surrounding historic buildings. The group has even proposed replacing the uneven cobblestones with Astroturf! …

Other public spaces are in effect being privatized. This can be seen in the partial closing of Manhattan’s Bryant Park for two months a year due to special events — for example, the Mercedes-Benz New York Fashion Week and a car show — and in construction of new additions elsewhere … When such additions appear in previously open parkland, the character of the whole landscape is changed irrevocably.

All are associated with more parking and more pavement, all adorned and embellished with off-the-shelf outdoor furniture and lights. Strip away the historic. Make way for special interests (this is often the real objective).

In many urban settings today, fractured communities abut public landscapes where old and young, rich and poor must coexist. These spaces can work. … People who live near and play in these cities’ parks have become their greatest defenders.

Those of us who value continuity are increasingly cast as “standing in the way of progress” or “out of touch.” Imagine that we didn’t use such labels. Imagine that we built a common foundation of knowledge to guide the planning process before new designs were given form. »

The essay is by Charles A. Birnbaum, a landscape architect, who is the coordinator of the national Park Service Historic landscape Initiative and the founder of the Cultural Landscape Foundation.

Link to full article at National Trust web site.