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It's All Happening at the Park

More than ever, we need common ground where all kinds of people can interact, learn and have fun

| by Jay Walljasper

On the Commons helped frame a day-long planning meeting with officials and employees of the Dakota County (Minnesota) Park District about creating a new park in a fast-growing suburban area. The following article is drawn from remarks delivered during a presentation and workshop about parks as commons.

Milwaukee’s Lake Park, one of many national treasures designed by Frederick Law Olmsted. (Photo by Julia Taylor under a Creative Commons license from flickr.com)

Olmsted’s parks around North America—New York, Boston, Chicago, Seattle Louisville, Milwaukee, Buffalo and Montreal—are treasures ranking with the Parthenon an Grand Canyon.

Parks stand as the foremost symbol of the commons because they are literally common ground—a place where everyone can come and rub shoulders, interact, share an experience, get to know one another better. They are the foundation of community and democracy.

Parks are also one of America’s great gifts to the world. Not only did we introduce the idea of national parks with Yellowstone in 1872, Frederick Law Olmsted earlier showed the immense promise of public parks with the creation of Central Park. Until then most of the major work by landscape architects such as Capability Brown was done on private estates. Olmsted showcased the idea that the public sphere could also inspire us with beauty and grandeur, an idea he developed based on the work of British designer Joseph Paxton.

Olmsted’s parks around North America—New York, Boston, Chicago, Seattle Louisville, Milwaukee, Buffalo and Montreal—are treasures ranking with the Parthenon an Grand Canyon. Yet sadly, some of the these parks have not been treated with the care worthy of masterpieces. Buffalo’s Delaware Park now is bisected by an expressway and Detroit’s Belle Isle is in disrepair. Indeed, even Central and Prospect Parks in New York City were deteriorating in the 1980s until citizens’ groups came forward to help the financially-strapped park board maintain them.

Do We Still Need Parks?

Too often, there is a sense from leaders that parks are not as necessary as they used to be. It’s not Olmsted’s era anymore when most people lived in tenements with no access to nature. Now the great majority of people, especially in suburban areas, live in houses or apartments with yards. Parks aren’t a top priority—especially in these times of tight fiscal budgets.

But actually, we need great parks as much as ever:

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