Monday, November 8, 2010

New York City Parks: Alternating Urban Landscapes

Landscapes are not a record, but the recording reflecting much more than a human action and agency. Through people’s engagement with them, according to Barbara Bender (Bender 2002), the landscapes gain their particular historicity and spatiality. With the various phenomenological approaches, we try to understand how people move around and how we attach meanings to places, connecting them with memories, stories. To summarize Bender’s notion of space: like time itself, landscapes are never stagnant (2002: 103). So in addition, particular landscapes are supposed to be certain spaces that exist only by the virtue of being contextualized and experienced by people. Yes, we continuously re-evaluate, re-interpret and change places. However, I was more intrigued by B. Olsen’s article (Olsen 2003) and questions he raised on how these landscapes move us and affect our daily lives? How are we, being subjects, constructed by the objects around us?

As an example I was intrigued by the New York City parks, a phenomenon forming a significant marker in our daily lives. The first parks were meant to be an antidote to the city, a place where urban elite can pretend they were actually residing in the countryside. Through history, cities were regarded as places where one should spend a limited amount of time. Thomas Jefferson wrote that the ``the great cities are pestilential to the morals, health and the liberties of man``. The early thinkers regarded the country life of farmers as the moral ideal and cities were no more than a necessary evil. It is from this line of thinking that the early American urban parks evolved. The planning of the first parks was organized as an attempt to block out city’s smells and unpleasant sounds.

Long Meadow (Prospect Park, Brooklyn) featured real pastoral scenes in the early 20th century

Long Meadow (Prospect Park, Brooklyn) featured real pastoral scenes in the early 20th century

As proposed by Frederick L. Olmsted (1822-1903), the father of American landscape architecture, and one of the chief planners of Central Park: ``provisions for the improvement of the ground, pointed to…the formation of the opposite class of conditions…remedial of the influences of the urban conditions. Two classes of improvements were to be planned for this purpose: one directed to secure pure and wholesome air, to act through the lungs; the other to secure an antithesis of objects of vision to those of the streets and houses which should act remedially, by impressions of the mind and suggestions to the imagination. (Olmstead).

By the turn of the 20th century, the role of parks in New York changed, shifting towards a ’reformed’ version which allowed all kinds of festivities and cultural events to take place.

The beginnings of recreation in Prospect park (tennis playing, circa 1885)

Parks were considered as places that bond all that is good about the city and all that is good about the country, rather than just a simple escape from the hectic urban life. They started to act as a part of a ‘neighborhood’ together with businesses, sewage, streets and transportation networks. Advancing society by concerning about its wellbeing was the ultimate reason for developing green areas within New York City. Bringing together people beyond the ties of family and socializing in a shared public space was emerging as the new idea. With its open spaces, playgrounds, recreation trails and public gardens, New York started to build the foundation stone of American urban ideology.

With recent years, talks of preserving urban wildlife have stirred the latest talks in park management. The new concept of park wilderness arises. As R. Louv points out: Cities and suburbs are still wilder than we think, with deeper roots than we know. In 2002, the New York Times reported that remnants of virgin forests still stand in the Bronx and Queens – a 425- to 450-year-old, 75-foot tulip tree in Queens is the oldest lining thin in New York City; in Pelham Bay Park, in the Bronx, according to the Times, “rare birds and vegetation flourish among trees that have been growing since the 1700.” (Louv 2008).

Urban parks, existing today have produced a plethora of pursposes for humans to engage within their boundaries. They act as the lungs of the city, providing fresh air and clean water in a densely populated areas of NYC. Acting as a common ground, the parks in our city, help the members of the community to interact and intersect. They present haven for the escapees from urban frenzy and aspire all kinds of recreation. They perform the task of housing multiple war memorials: surrogate graves for the fallen soldiers that died in foreign lands. NYC’s parks serve as areas where citizens can elevate themsleves by indulging in the various theatrical events (dances, shows, concerts).

Therefore, New York City’s parks depict a model in the landscape discourse. Through its qualities, we become aware that these green patches of urban landscape in fact, form and influence our lives. It makes us wonder how much we are indeed entagled and depended on their presence. So we should definitely reconsider network-approaches where everything within culture is a product of mediation with heterogeneous networks linking various kinds of entities.


References and Links:

-Bender B. 2002. Time and Landscape, Current Anthropology, Vol. 43, The Wenner-Gren Foundation for Antropological Research.

-Louv, Richard. 2008.Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature-Deficit

Disorder. 2 ed. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.

-Olmstead, Frederick Law.2008. "A Review of Recent Changes, and Changes Which Have

Been Projected, in the Plans of the Central Park." American Earth:

Environmental Writing Since Thoreau. Ed. Bill McKibben. New York: Literary

Classics of the United States.

- Olsen. B. 2003. Material Culture after Text: Re-Membering Things in Norwegian Archaeological Review, vol. 36, No. 2.


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