Thoughts on the Boards

A place for my updates and pseudo-ruminations  

Book Review: Large Parks, Important Ideas with a Parochial Sample Size

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Large Parks is an exemplary discussion piece of contemporary thought in landscape architecture. Its essays are the culmination of a conference, exhibition, and several colloquia held at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design in 2003. The authors mention the initial conference, saying, “the topics of the city, ecology, process and place, the public, and site history were used to frame and launch a discussion about the impact and significance of size relative to the planning, design, and management of parks, past and future” (Hargreaves 7). These were timely topics in 2003 and they continue to be (if not more so) 14 years later. In an age where the transition from industrial to service economies has left many abandoned sites, and where shifts in environmental values have led more people back to dense urban living, the authors posit that urban parklands can be the key to a more sustainable and equitable society.

 

Where it Excels

Large Parks introduces new ideas and bold innovations for designers to think about in their process. The authors are clearly well coordinated in their content choice. From Lister’s viewing of parks through an ecological lens to Pollak’s ruminations on matrices and constructing identity to Czerniak’s commentary on legibility and resiliency, each chapter presents a uniquely provocative view of the contemporary park while at the same time fitting soundly into the collective framework. To the prospective reader who is pressed for time, George Hargreaves’ essay on the concept of Large Parks, Anita Berrizbeitia’s essay on rethinking process in designing large parks, and John Beardsley’s essay on the increasingly contested definitions of public and private open space are of particular importance—at least in my opinion.

Hargreaves’ essay Large Parks: A Designer’s Perspective rightly deserves the role as the book’s eponym. It expounds on some of the case studies from GSD students and aptly captures the essence of the original conference and exhibition, putting forth a sort of central thesis for the work, claiming that the “large park—in this case, one greater than 500 acres—affords the scale to realistically evaluate the degrees of success or failure of many of the issues embedded in public landscapes: ecology, habitat, human use and agency, cultural meaning, and iconographic import, to name a few” (Hargreaves 121).

           

Where it Falls Short

The complaints I have against Large Parks, while minor, are significant. The foremost of these is that the essays as a whole make ambitious claims about large parks—claims which I largely agree with and which are important to discuss in the current design moment—yet offer a relatively small and rather theoretical sample size of precedent studies to support those claims. Throughout the entire book, there were perhaps no more than 10 parks discussed with any significant depth, and the majority of those were quintessentially western in their scope. If an essay was not discussing aspects of the Fresh Kills or Downsview Park design competition pieces, it was certainly engulfed in a dissection of Duisburg-Nord or Bois de Boulogne. This is surely not a bad thing—such parks are fabulous precedents to look at and there is good reason for them to be the main focus of discussion—but if such is done under the guise of a far-reaching, seminal work in landscape architectural thought the title becomes rather misleading. In a more globally aware design culture, I am surprised there was not even one essay that discussed the meaning of large parks in less “visible” areas of the world. Perhaps the authors should consider adding subtext in the title of a later edition that helps the reader to understand that the essays come from a parochial set of case studies taking place in a very particular setting (the GSD).

On the subject of Fresh Kills and Downsview, the authors seem to be infatuated with the entries from James Corner. Field Operations’ solutions for the competitions were mentioned in all but two chapters, and I do not remember reading even a sentence of criticism directed towards them, leading me to identify a suppressed mantra for the book: “ALL HAIL, JAMES CORNER FIELD OPERATIONS.”

Finally, the design of the book is both ironically and disappointingly small. There was a missed opportunity to layout the pages at a scale that would let the imagery support the content with power and allure. Instead, we are left with small images and even smaller captions that clearly look nice but are often a burden to interpret. Tisk tisk.

 

If It Had Been Written Today

There are also some essay topics I believe would be added to the collection had it been compiled today, such as large parks and terrorism, large parks and climate change adaptation, large parks in the age of smart cities, or designing large parks across disciplines. I also believe this is a book that has potential for updates or additions every decade or so. Food for thought.

To any prospective reader, I say Large Parks is timely and worth the read. If you go into it with an open mind, as well as being aware and accepting of its faults, I promise a thought-provoking read. Three stars.

 

Phillip Fernberg