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It’s All Happening at the Park

Jay Walljasper / Feb 22 2013

For Release Friday, February 22, 2013

Jay WalljasperParks 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 and Calvert Vaux 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 and Vaux showcased the idea that the public sphere could also inspire us with beauty and grandeur, an idea 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 and Grand Canyon. Yet sadly, some of 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. 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.

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 natural areas. 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 we need great parks as much as ever.

  • In a time when bitter divisions and increasing alienation characterize American life, parks are one of the few spots where people still connect in a congenial setting. They are the literal common ground of our democracy, where people of all backgrounds can realize how much we share in common.
  • As economic inequality deepens, and spreads to suburban areas, it is important to emphasize that for most people, the park system is their equivalent of a lake cabin, a performing arts center, a country club, a health club, grandpa’s farm, and a classroom for continuing education. As the gap in personal opportunities and quality-of-life between people of different income levels is increasing, the park is one place where everyone counts. That experience is critically important for lower- and middle-income people to feel a continuing sense of possibility for the future of their families.
  • In post-World War II suburban communities, where typically fewer people walk and enjoy fewer opportunities for spontaneous encounters on the street, parks play an even more important role than in older cities. Whether at sports facilities, beaches, trails or public events, the park is central to people’s sense of community and belonging.
  • More than just pleasant places to play, parks are places to learn. Even beyond environmental education, parks are an ideal setting for classes, workshops, and experiential learning of all kinds. Many people might be more drawn to programming in a park than in a library or local school, and the opportunity for hands-on experience are more plentiful.

Jay Walljasper, author of The Great Neighborhood Book and All That We Share: A Field Guide to the Commons, chronicles urban life for a variety of publications. His website: columns are not copyrighted and may be reproduced in print or electronically; please show authorship, credit and send an electronic copy of usage to


  1. Jack Bass
    Posted February 22, 2013 at 9:09 pm | Permalink

    No mention of Olmsted’s footprint in Atlanta

  2. Posted February 23, 2013 at 8:13 am | Permalink

    Parks’ are not one of America’s gifts to the world – One of Olmstead’s inspirations was Birkenhead Park, England 1847 which was the world’s first publicly funded civic park designed by Paxton

  3. charlene simmons
    Posted February 23, 2013 at 10:27 am | Permalink

    San Francisco’s glorious Golden Gate Park was designed by Olmsted, as was a lovely park in Ashland, Oregon. There may be others deserving of mention as well.

  4. Posted February 25, 2013 at 10:00 am | Permalink

    A worthy column. To clarify a previous comment, though, Golden Gate Park is not an Olmstead park, but was designed by WIlliam Hammond Hall and refined by longtime park superintendent John McLaren.

  5. Posted February 25, 2013 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

    Ashland’s wonderful Lithia Park was actually designed by John McLaren. (who was superintendent of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park for over 50 years.) But as this article mentions, certainly followed the principles of Olmstead’s genius of place.”