Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Parks! Parks! Parks! Parks! Parks!

The N&R editorial board this morning made a thinly-veiled, vicious attack on me.

(Just kidding, Allen and Doug.)

But this morning's lead editorial was a rather oddly-worded attempted refutation of my earlier post about parks. I say "oddly-worded" because, even though their piece is obviously a point-by-point response to the arguments I made against a new park at Southside, the questions I raised are attributed to vaguely specified persons in the editorial: "Some wonder ...", "But won't these parks ...?" etc.

Narratological issues aside, I don't think the editors make a very compelling case for the Southside park, largely because they don't address the fundamental problem of park planning that Jane Jacobs discusses -- namely, how to create a dense and economically diverse neighborhood around the park. Nor do they take into account the current abundance of parks already in the area, and their closing argument is just a restatement of the fallacy that Parks are Good, supported only by a little Joni Mitchell nostalgia.

The south end of downtown, especially south of MLK Boulevard, is pretty sleepy, and few of the existing buildings there can accommodate much housing. A park there will do nothing to increase intensity of activity, which is the sine qua non of a good urban area.

The editors say the new park will be for "socializing," but you don't need a park to do that; Southside has good sidewalks, shops, and a nice square with a fountain that can easily accommodate that kind of informal activity. I visit that square frequently, but I've never seen anyone in it. If that little square is usually empty, what does that say about the need for a whole park?

I wonder, too, whether the N&R staff has actually looked at a map of the existing parks in that area. Here's one I made for their benefit:

All these parks (existing and proposed) are within a half-mile radius of Southside. Really now, how many parks do you need? And how much are they now used? Take a look at some photos I took of Douglas Park, just a few blocks from Southside, at lunchtime on a sunny, warm spring day.

It's a beautiful, empty park.

The N&R editors, along with the Piedmont Land Conservancy, also stress the need for green space in the center city, writing as if there isn't much of it. In fact, that was the rationale for establishing the now-under-construction park in the Ole Asheboro neighborhood, which is adjacent to Southside and downtown. Here are some photos I took of the area within one block of that new park.

Now, it's not pretty green space, but my point is that this area has way too much under-used land. This area needs buildings, economic activity, and people -- not more parks. (I note in passing that the new Ole Asheboro park does not seem to conform to the park planning principles in the city's Ole Asheboro Redevelopment Plan.)

The current push for new downtown parks is coming from well-meaning nature-lovers and suburbanites, who seem not to understand that central city, suburb, and country are, and should be, very different kinds of places. An abundance of green space and nature has never been a defining feature of successful urban spaces. Have a look at the urban landscape of Florence, Italy, one of the world's best cities:

Notice that the people in these pictures are not hanging out in the small amount of green space available. They are on sidewalks and in squares (which they share with cars, bikes, and scooters), and they are there because of the many cultural and commercial amenities that Florence offers.

The N&R editors write, "There's a lot more to a vibrant downtown than asphalt and brick." Absolutely. Vibrant downtowns have a critical mass of people whose activity and creativity conjure a rich culture that includes business, food, art, music, markets, drama, architecture, dance, festivals -- you name it. A good downtown is indeed a paved paradise. You don't need a park for any of it.

Putting another park at Southside is simply the dullest and least creative solution to the problem of what to do with an empty space in downtown Greensboro.


Greensboro Teach-In said...

"Putting another park at Southside is simply the dullest and least creative solution to the problem of what to do with an empty space in downtown Greensboro."

Amen. We need public art. A town square that isn't "just another empty park" that you've photoblogged so well. A statue. A small amphitheater. Build it and they will come, sit and listen.

Jeez, live blogging with sound! Just think of the possibilties!

Seriously, another park by Southside isn't the solution (although handy green land for a dog park seems potential-filled) but Greensboro rarely votes down park bonds (I said, "rarely"). Parks have a new definition, that is, public space, and I'd love to see some new thoughts on that exact concept.

Hat. Off. To. David. Again.

jimcaserta said...

Great post and awesome pictures, however, Greensboro will never be Florence. There should be examples of comparable cities that might be more effective. Couldn't they poll the residents of Southside to see what community activity would get the most use out of the area?

jhs said...


I'm not from GSO, but I used to clean carpets all across the triad. Aren't the two parks you cite in less affluent sections of the city where one is less likely to see people with ample leisure time floating about a quaint greenspace?

Aside from the trees and the grass, there's just not much to hold one's interest for hanging out there.

Just my observations.

David Wharton said...

Sue, you say "think of the possibilities" -- yes! Let's keep thinking. There's got to be something more interesting than a park to put there.

Jim, GSO never will be Florence, but that doesn't mean the same principles of planning don't apply. People + commerce + culture = success.

Jeff, there were a number of people walking about in Ole Asheboro when I took the pictures. They just weren't in the park. Hmmm.

Anonymous said...

What about something as simple as restaurants, cafes and coffee shops, with the buildings abutting the sidewalk and creating a walled courtyard. Picture kids with ice cream running around and adults coming downtown to spend and afternoon -- and what's in their wallet. An obvious idea is as good as a genius one. People eat.

Anonymous said...

Forgot to mention the inspiration for the idea was picking up a copy of the Hamburger Square Post today at lunch and realizing it was named for the existence of a hamburger joint at each corner of the Elm/McGee square. Southside's eateries are more diffuse and low-lying and the tie to history is a gimmick, but gimmicks work. A downtown courtyard with hamburger joints that harkens back to a historical marker has a fighting chance of drawing the young family crowds -- precisely the group we want downtown thinking about living and shopping there. Having once been a young parent, I can also say the idea of an outdoor square to let them "run wild" would have been attractive -- something you can't really do at Friendly or Four Seasons.

Darkmoon said...

Got to this a bit late, but it seems like Jim hit on something there and so have you David.

Strangely enough, parks and green are great... especially in a downtown area where there are not many "green" things to look at. But, in the end, what drives people to social circles isn't parks. It's festive communal watering holes such as the restaurants, cafes, places to drink, talk, act snobby... etc.:p okay, maybe not the last one.

In any case, like I've pointed out before: walk around at night on a friday or saturday night in Asheville. There's some green there, but as David mentioned with Florence, people are all in the cafes that are open aired and spilling out onto the sidewalks.

Maybe what we're missing is a lesson on the Romans. They knew how to build great congregational areas.

David Wharton said...

Is that a request, Darkmoon?

Careful what you ask for!

But I just realized that the photo above with the obelisk is from the Piazza del Populo in Rome, not Florence. The obelisk was taken from Egypt by Augustus, and was in the Circus Maximus for centuries before it was moved to its present location.

Greensboro Teach-In said...

We need a small amphitheater with perma-seats and available fast food (even if it's carts, one of which should have fancy coffee). Small-sized public gatherings and shows. "Greensboro's Little Theatre."

Outdoor space with a little retail and toss in a sculpture. We have a landmark.

Great idea-post, David.

Anonymous said...

Dave - This is a great resource for envisioning uses for the space. In particular, browsing through the Great Public Spaces really gives you a sense of what could be, and also serves as kind of a menu of options. If you've already posted this, sorry -- I linked to it a while back and visit often in envy.

Roch101 said...

I like Jim's idea a lot. Not sure if we need a third downtown amphitheatre.

Anonymous said...

How about a rock climbing wall?

Anonymous said...

I think Greensboro could use some more outrageously expensive condos in town that will NOT sell...particularly ones without balconies, please....and then put the affordable housing where it should be--way out in the suburbs where people have to drive to get to the Harris Teeter down the street.

OK, sarcasm off. Your ideas are great, and any reasonable person would see what you are writing of in terms of more people/less empty parks.

An aside from this topic---You should not wear shorts with a long sleeved button down shirt, even if you are in a city far away from home. Doesn't Italy have a good fashion police force???? ;) Just kidding (well....)...enjoyed reading your blog today-

David Wharton said...

Dang, and I thought I was stylin'.

Please don't call Stacy and Clinton!

Anonymous said...

Or maybe a big nude statue somewhere of Perseus holding Medusa's head would attract people. That should go over real well.

I love the photos of Greensboro parks, I grew up there and that's exactly how I remember them. Just one of the reasons I now live in Brooklyn. :)