Dave Harvey on ‘The uses of neighborhood parks’ — Parks in the Radiant City

I love Jane Jacob’s ideas on cities—and Death & Life is a masterwork of community activism and urban intelligence. I agree with many of the things she says about parks in this chapter, and I also differ with her on a few points.

With Death & Life being 50 years old, of course, our cities have changed and the challenges our cities and communities face have changed.

I’m going to start with what she got right on parks:

  • She is very critical of the Radiant City model of towers in large open spaces – “people do not use city open space just because it is there.”Many of Toronto’s tower communities are victims of too much dead open space. There is a lot of park space but it is not the kind of spaces that serve the needs of community residents – they want basketball courts, community gardens, markets, activities, cricket pitches. Thankfully, there are efforts being coordinated by community groups and the City’s Tower Renewal office to animate these spaces.

    'Springing in Spring' by Hernan Seoane
  • “In cities, liveliness and variety attract more liveliness; deadness and monotony repel life.” And she makes a similar point for parks, praising an “effective diversity of use”. The key to Toronto’s successful parks has been the City and community bringing in year-round activity: rinks, picnics, pools, playgrounds, splash pads, concerts, festivals, bake ovens, markets, movie nights, community gardens. In R.V. Burgess Park in the Thorncliffe Park neighbourhood, a community group has turned their neglected park into the community’s meeting place with a Friday night bazaar, new playground equipment, a community garden and soon a tandoor oven.
  • “Magnificent views and handsome landscaping fail to operate as demand goods”. I have mixed opinions here. There are examples of beautiful parks such as High Park, Toronto Islands and Scarborough Bluffs that attract very large numbers because of their great natural areas, open spaces and views. But for most city parks, she’s right. What attracts people to city parks are amenities and programming. People want something to do in a park: playgrounds, recreation, art, farmer’s markets, great design, cafes, skating rinks.
Day of Delight in Dufferin Grove Park, by Dave Pijuan-Nomura

However, I think she underemphasizes the potential of good city parks to make a big difference in our communities:

  • “In modern cities generous scatters of open space promote air pollution instead of combating it.” Her point here was that large parks promote sprawl but she ignores the air pollution absorption of trees, the potential of bike trails and how with good planning we can integrate good parks into good neighbourhoods.
  • She argues that a good park cannot transform a troubled neighbourhood – only the other way around. I’d like to emphasize that park revitalization can and does strengthen the health of neighbourhoods. In Toronto we have the example of Dufferin Grove, where an active group of residents turned their park into a dynamic community space, and this led to a further revitalization of the neighbourhood. Revitalizing Brooklyn’s Prospect Park was a critical component of transforming the community.

In many cases 1961 was the low point for city parks in North America – most were very formal, regimented spaces that limited public activities and many others were scary empty places. The last 20 years has seen the emergence of a city parks renaissance in North America with incredible new signature parks being built and a growing awareness of the key roles local parks can play in creating healthy neighbourhoods.

Also in 1961, one of Jane Jacobs’ key struggles was fighting Robert Moses and the Radiant City movement. Entire vibrant communities were being leveled and being replaced with isolated towers in large open dead spaces of golf-course-like lawn. The need for “parks” and “fresh air” was used as a justification to decimate existing neighbourhoods. One Toronto example is Regent Park, where a neighbourhood was eliminated and replaced with block buildings in green, open spaces. We’ve now learned from experience that these green spaces didn’t help build and nurture the community, they left them isolated and became magnets for crime. In the new redevelopment of Regent Park we’re seeing these green empty lawns replaced with dynamic new public spaces featuring playgrounds, pizza ovens, and community gardens, as well as beautiful natural treed areas.

'Woolner Community Gardens' by Steve Harris

Looking at the “parks” in areas of Regent Park that have yet to be redeveloped, you understand that Jane Jacobs was actually 50-years ahead of her time in criticizing these type of “parks”. Dynamic parks and healthy communities go hand-in-hand.

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