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An overhead view of the PHS Pop Up Garden at the Viaduct Rail Park. Photo by Rob Cardillo.

On Urban Parks and Civic Life: Insights from Leaders at PA Horticultural Society, Trust for Public Land, High Line, Philadelphia Parks and Recreation

On Urban Parks and Civic Life: Insights from Leaders at PA Horticultural Society, Trust for Public Land, High Line, Philadelphia Parks and Recreation

An overhead view of the PHS Pop Up Garden at the Viaduct Rail Park. Photo by Rob Cardillo.

The Center-funded project, Pop Up Garden: An Exploration of the Philadelphia Rail Park, presented by the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society (PHS), introduced a series of imaginative public installations and creative community programs in 2016. A design by renowned artist Walter Hood and offerings by local artists and historians introduced audiences to the rich architectural heritage of the three-mile Philadelphia Rail Park, while also considering its future. Learn more here.>>

Inspired by this project, we invited PHS president Matt Rader, The Trust for Public Land’s Nette Compton, Friends of the High Line’s Gonzalo Casals, and Commissioner of Philadelphia Parks and Recreation Kathryn Ott Lovell to discuss the significance of urban parks in contemporary culture and the audience engagement opportunities these spaces can offer.

What are the various roles of an urban park?

Nette Compton, Senior Director of ParkCentral and City Park Development, The Trust for Public Land: “The role of the urban park continues to evolve, both in the performance of functional services, and our expectations for what purpose it can serve. As our nation and world become increasingly urban, we must rely more heavily on parks to provide us with many resources: open space and access to nature, recreation opportunities, environmental functions like storm water retention and cooling, beauty, and inspiration. An obvious yet often overlooked aspect of these public spaces is that they are free and open to all. At their best, parks provide an opportunity for ‘spontaneous democracy’ where people from all walks of life can interact in a positive experience. Parks must strive to foster the provision of these benefits to all members of society, and particularly to underserved communities, and that starts with active and meaningful engagement of the community in place, to ensure that the resulting space responds to the needs and hopes of its users.”

Kathryn Ott Lovell, Commissioner of Philadelphia Parks and Recreation: “Urban parks facilitate urban life. In cities like Philadelphia, faced with the juxtaposition of its recent millennial influx and serious poverty rates, parks serve as tools for greater economic and social integration. Urban parks are uniquely democratic public spaces where citizens across economic and cultural lines can and do gather regularly. The social and economic value of a neighborhood is intrinsically raised by the vitality of its public spaces. Urban parks are finally receiving universal recognition as economic and community drivers that raise property values, deter crime, and improve health outcomes. In Philadelphia, urban parks are job sites for new workforce development initiatives, such as PowerCorpsPHL, offering returning citizens and at-risk youth opportunities to gain skills in green jobs while contributing back to their community. Philadelphia parks are also artistic venues for performances, exhibitions, and installations that engage new audiences and infuse vibrancy into a community. Urban parks offer residents not just a connection to open space, but a connection to the community that surrounds it, and to the city at large.”

Matt Rader, President, PHS: “Urban parks offer the ‘other’ in cities in so many wonderful ways! By the ‘other,’ I mean a whole host of experiences, activities, and environments not offered anywhere else in a city—lush greenery amid concrete and paving, open-to-all access amid controlled environments, open spaces among constrained interior rooms, recreation amenities bigger and better than anyone has at home, places to gather amid busy streets, and places for unplanned interactions among networked and scheduled lives. As cities become denser, social life more planned, and spaces more controlled, all of these roles become ever more important.”

Gonzalo Casals, Vice President of Programs and Community Engagement, Friends of the High Line: “As cities around the world are experiencing rapid transformation, shedding their industrial pasts and embracing a new generation of urban dwellers, city administrators and urban planners are striving to understand how cities will look in the future. The role of public spaces, and especially urban parks, is at the center of any urban renewal conversation. In addition to providing opportunities for leisure activities, communal gathering, and learning, urban parks allow us to engage in biophilic activities, quenching our urge to affiliate with other forms of life. By 2050, 70% of the world’s population will live in cities, making urban parks instrumental in fostering biophilia. If newer generations raised in urban environments are not provided opportunities to develop the instinctive bond between human beings and other living systems, it may lead to societies that contribute to further ecosystem degradation and species loss.”

An overhead view of the PHS Pop Up Garden at the Viaduct Rail Park. Photo by Rob Cardillo.

What opportunities for audience engagement do urban parks offer that other public sites might not?

Matt Rader: “To the extent that parks mean spaces with significant green areas, they offer a unique opportunity to let people shape their environment by planting trees, creating gardens, and digging in the earth. In cities, there are few opportunities for individuals to actually take control of their environment and change its texture and appearance through the work of their own hands with few other tools or materials required. Gardening and greening enables that kind of direct action with no barriers to entry, and also provides a very open way for people of many backgrounds to work together.”

Kathryn Ott Lovell: “Unlike other public sites, parks are embedded in neighborhoods and therefore have inherent community ties. Community members have a tremendous sense of pride and ownership in their parks, and often identify themselves with their local park. Audience engagement can happen more readily and intimately in parks where participants already feel connected to the space. Additionally, parks are often pass-throughs that people use en-route to somewhere else, presenting the opportunity for serendipitous engagement among a wider range of participants than might be engaged at a more traditional venue. Urban dwellers and tourists alike walking through a park might be attracted to activities and become involved spontaneously. Urban parks engage citizens of all ages and across economic and cultural sectors. They offer the opportunity for hands-on engagement and projects, not just verbal interactions or written forms that might be intimidating due to language or educational barriers.”

Gonzalo Casals: “Urban parks, like the High Line [in New York City], are expanding the experiences they offer—from quiet pastoral refuges from city living, to active spaces with multigenerational, multicultural, and interdisciplinary programming. Recent urban parks, built in postindustrial areas, with unique horticultural designs, and activated with public art and cultural events, offer multilayered experiences that mimic the way we see the world. On the High Line, layers of urban history, ecology, artistic expression, and design overlap to create a unique platform to see the city in a different way, and allowing us to present rich and unexpected activities for folks to connect with the site.”

Nette Compton: “When asked to envision a park, we often think of an individual park, driven by iconic spaces like Fairmount Park or the parks closest to our home. Yet one of the distinct advantages of parks to engage communities is that they are part of a broader parks system. Each park itself may have the capacity for a range of uses, which can vary by time of day, week, or year; diverse park types aggregated across a neighborhood and city allow for a broader reach and programming for a range of users. This flexibility of use is combined with a sense of ownership that can be attached to parks in a way that other public spaces do not engender. Parks are the front and backyards of city residents, and this connection can drive a sense of belonging and frequency of use that is difficult to replicate in other public places. Any proud owner of a community garden plot, avid runner, or parent can attest to the consistent draw of these spaces. Parks offer a unique range of connections because of these factors; it is up to the caretakers of these spaces to allow that engagement to flourish.”