Monday, May 10, 2010

A Vacuum in the Distance

By Jason Yots

Two friends recently gave me thought-provoking books about urban planning. The first was Witold Rybczynski’s A Clearing in the Distance: Frederick Law Olmsted and America in the 19th Century (Scribner, 1999). Clearing is a well-told version of the life and work of landscape designer Frederick Law Olmsted. The book is a fairly linear biography, but its frankness about Olmsted as a person is very endearing. Amidst descriptions of award-winning journalism, noble abolitionism and monumental landscape creations, Rybczynski reveals a vulnerable, often depressed Olmsted meandering through careers and financially dependent on his indulgent father, until finally embarking on his now renown landscape design career when he was nearly 40 years old.

He may have been a late-bloomer, but Olmsted was simply prolific during his latter four decades. And he didn’t wade into landscape design; he tucked a cannonball and made a big splash with his very first project – New York’s Central Park. Not surprisingly, Olmsted and his partner, Calvert Vaux, received wide acclaim for their design for Central Park, and Olmsted himself continued to benefit financially from his ongoing “supervision” of the park until very late in life.

Perhaps more surprising, though, were the ways in which Olmsted’s association with Central Park hindered his career. The success of Central Park became oppressive at times for Olmsted. Rybczynski describes Olmsted’s frustrated efforts to move away from the Central Park model with future park designs, a plan that cost him a lucrative San Francisco commission when he refused to replicate Central Park for that city (a replacement architect gave the city what it wanted, and Golden Gate Park was born). And design issues were the least of Olmsted’s Central Park problems. He was repeatedly – almost comically – on the wrong side of the politics that drove the park’s governance, and he was fired and rehired by the park’s fickle board numerous times. According to Rybczynski, the stress from his involvement with Central Park deepened Olmsted’s depression, and yet he never could release himself from the masterwork that would hold and define him throughout his career.

Over a century after Olmsted’s death, Central Park has become almost hallowed ground. Objectively, the park’s exposure, usership and endowment would seem to have reached unprecedented heights. I would venture to guess that most New Yorkers would say that Central Park has never looked better. And yet, the grass may not be greener in New York City’s iconic pasture. At least not according to David Owen, the author of our second book: Green Metropolis: Why Living Smaller, Living Closer, and Driving Less Are the Keys to Sustainability (Riverhead Books, 2009).

In Green Metropolis, Owen argues that, while Central Park has many appealing features and enjoys a perception of high-use, it is underutilized and has a deadening effect on the urban landscape that surrounds it. Invoking Jane Jacobs, Owen explains that the 843-acre Central Park is forbidding to users, causing them to cling to the park’s populated daytime perimeter (an astute point, based on my own use of Central Park over the years). What New Yorkers are left with, then, is, in the words of Jacobs, an enormous “border vacuum” in their city’s epicenter.

According to Jacobs, border vacuums drain urban vitality and repel pedestrians by creating dead-end streets and intimidating streetscape voids. Owen goes even farther, noting that “Central Park is like a mountain range that functions as an impenetrable divide between the valleys on either side, turning them into distinct ecosystems.” Manhattan’s Upper East and Upper West Sides, argues Owen, are socially and culturally divergent primarily because a big park, of all things, rests between them.

Olmsted worked extensively in Western New York during his (and our) prime, and he is particularly revered in Buffalo, where everything from schools to a park conservancy bear his name. Personally, I’ve always accepted Olmsted’s Buffalo projects as positive for our city, but, if Jacobs and Owen are right, how do we reconcile the perceived attributes of our large parks and sloping parkways with their deflating impact on our urban landscape? If, as Owen argues, large urban parks are largely underutilized and, in many ways, akin to sprawling suburbs, how can we justify them?

The answer is pretty simple: unlike some other uses (convention centers, sports arenas, big-box retail), city park systems like Buffalo’s counter-balance their vacuum potential by offering varied, healthy and human-scale activities, natural beauty and a source of civic pride and investment. In other words, large parks can redeem themselves in ways that other monolithic uses cannot. If we can manage to honor Olmsted’s vision while heeding Jacobs’ teachings, we just might strike the necessary balance.

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