Recipe for a City Park's Success

The cultural diversity of its users can make or break an urban space.

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City parks are more than just patches of green where urbanites spend their lunch hour. So says Setha Low, president of the American Anthropological Association and director of the Public Space Research Group at the City University of New York. In the 2005 book Rethinking Urban Parks: Public Space & Cultural Diversity, Low and coauthors Dana Taplin and Suzanne Scheld explain how cultural diversity—or lack thereof—can make or break a park. Recently, U.S. News caught up with Low, who talked about the biggest obstacles facing parks, cities making big strides to improve their public spaces, and her favorite park. Excerpts:

How do social factors affect a park's success?

Sometimes we talk about greening and ecological sustainability without thinking about the importance of social and cultural diversity. Maintaining that diversity—especially through the preservation of places of cultural and social significance—helps maintain the vitality and health of the city. It enhances a sense of inclusion and participation that ultimately leads to more democratic practice and community empowerment. In your view, what makes a successful park?

For me, a successful park is one that has diverse kinds of people in it. In large, heterogeneous cities such as New York and Philadelphia, parks that serve just one group of people don't thrive. If people aren't represented in a park, or if their histories are erased, they won't use the park. This comes from a study of Independence National Historical Park in Philadelphia, where the African-American monuments were essentially torn down to create a sort of colonial park in the 1950s. When you interview African-Americans and ask them why they don't visit, they say, "We're erased," or "Our history isn't there." That happens in a million cases. If a particular group isn't represented—if there's no invitation to them—they don't tend to use the park. At the other end of the spectrum, Orchard Beach in New York City's Pelham Bay Park has created symbolic markers to invite people in. A salsa night each week attracts new immigrant groups into the park. What are the biggest problems facing parks today?

Unfortunately, there are many problems facing parks, and many are financial. Maintenance is very expensive, and parks are not seen as high priorities by cities with shrinking budgets. A good thing that happens in culturally diverse parks is that people will appropriate parts of parks and take care of them on their own. In most cases I've seen, neighborhood groups have done a lot to help parks survive. The guys who like handball courts and chess players will work to make sure the space is safe, clean, and well kept. Which cities are making the biggest strides to improve their park systems?

Chicago has fantastic parks—the mayor there is really committed to having open space for everyone. Seattle is another city that has made a huge commitment to parks, and Paris is revamping its park system. What are some trends brewing in the design of urban parks?

Park managers are struggling just to maintain their parks in a safe and healthy condition. It's hard to think about innovative design in a period of economic recession. On the other hand, neighborhoods and social groups can help to maintain and restore parks, making the job of the manager easier. What we need, however, is a better understanding of how we can keep parks diverse as we allow conservancies and alliances to take over park finances and restoration. What is a park to which you have a personal attachment?

I live by Prospect Park in Brooklyn, and my interest in parks started there. It's a jewel with niches for everyone and a loop road where we can all mingle. Another favorite is the beach in Los Angeles where I grew up. Many of the beaches in Los Angeles are becoming more homogenous because of limited access with residential development. We need to find better ways of working with private homeowners and beachgoers so that we do not lose these important public spaces on both coasts.