Urban Parks Debates in a Nutshell

Here’s the shortest version of an urban parks debate: the parks don’t serve everyone equally! How can you choose some users over others?

Here’s a slightly longer version: Jamaica Plain’s South Street Mall (at the corner of South Street and Carolina Avenue) has just reopened after three years of renovations. The Jamaica Plain Voice has a video of what looks to be a pretty spiffy little park, with young shade trees-to-be, benches, perennials, and a crazy wavy wire fence that gets lit from below at night, looking spooky and cool at the same time.

But – but! – the Jamaica Plain Voice piece also hosts comments. The first two comments read as follows:

“I used to live nearby on Goldsmith St. and am happy to see this big new plus for the neighborhood.”

“Are you serious? This is a glorified expansion of the sidewalk. Mature trees were taken down for this? What happened to the concrete tables and chairs where people could sit and play dominoes? You know why they aren’t there? Because the neighbors didn’t like seeing black folks out there “hanging around”. So I guess it’s a plus for some people and not for others.”

And that, my friends, is the urban parks debate in a nutshell. The park was ugly– it certainly doesn’t look terribly  appealing in the above 2002 photo– but it was used by some people who didn’t have much influence over the renovation. The new park doesn’t have any tables or movable chairs, just benches. It’s not as fun to play dominoes on your lap. I can’t comment on the neighbors’ motivations, but it sounds like most of the younger folks weren’t getting much out of the park.

The Rappaport Institute’s “Heart of the City” site says this about the old park:

“CONDITIONS: This 0.44-acre mall contains two tennis courts bordered by a tall chain link fence. The courts are not inviting to passers-by. There is a passive sitting area along the edge of the busy street. There is no grass on the site, only small tree pits with trees in them. The park does not create a feeling of peace and seclusion from the city, but is frequently used as a resting place for older people in the community and for the homeless.”

… which is echoed by the comments on the Universal Hub site.

Now let me admit right here that I have not visited the new park, and I can’t remember touring the old one. I don’t know how the community at large feels about this place. But I see the same themes echoed in discussions of the Boston Common, Cambridge parks, and really any space that’s green and open in a diverse neighborhood: that “those people”–whether they’re homeless, alcoholic, mentally ill, developmentally delayed, or just funny-looking–don’t belong in “our” park, and we should make the park less attractive to them.

But the poor will always be with us. People who have nowhere else to go will sit where they can. Public parks are for the public–and at any given time, a certain proportion of the public is demented, or smelly, or shouting at themselves, or from an ethnic background that makes some other people uncomfortable (whereupon the people from that ethnic background start feeling uncomfortable). How can you keep *everyone* feeling safe? What is a true disruption, and what is someone just blowing off steam? How can we all live together? The debate goes on and on.

If you’d like to hear a more high-falutin’ overview of Boston Parks, the Friends of the Public Garden are holding a panel titled “Great Parks=Vibrant Cities: Keeping Parks Healthy in Hard Times” next Wednesday, October 6, at the Boston Public Library Main Branch (Copley Square) from 4:30-6:30 pm. Mike Dukakis will be there! You’d better sign up quick.

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