Parks as Magnets that Shape Sustainable Cities

Amy Hahs, Parkville, Australia, has posted this interesting metaphor of a magnet and iron filings  as personal take on the attraction value of urban parks

Parks with strong “magnetism” can potentially exert forces of attraction and repulsion for people.

The pull and push of highly valued green spaces

I am a glass half full person, but I am also a realist. In the days that followed my visit to the park, I started to think about what goes into making a park like that. If I rolled back the turf on that fabulous big hill, what would l find? Where do those beautiful boulders come from, and what will happen if we keep gathering those rocks to use in other parks? Are there enough weathered logs to feed our desire for naturalistic playgrounds? And how can we make sure that these parks are distributed equitably now, as well as into the future? These are some critical questions that I would like to explore in the remainder of this essay.

A useful analogy to help with this discussion is the relationships between magnets and metal filings. The forces of attraction and repulsion combine to reveal the shape of the magnetic fields by creating clearly defined areas with and without filings. Some magnets have quite strong fields and produce very clear patterns, whereas others are much weaker and barely make an imprint.

Strong (left) and weak (right) magnetism result in different patterns of iron filings along magnetic fields. Images © Flickr/Windell Oskay/ Magnetic Fields – 12, Magnetic Fields – 23

If we think about parks as being magnets in an urban area, the filings are a way of visualising the impact they have on the economic, environmental, and social dimensions of the urban landscape. Outstanding and engaging parks, such as the one I described, have stronger and farther-reaching magnetic fields compared to the smaller parks with fewer resources, which have only a limited effect on a smaller number of filings. However, these strongly magnetic parks also create more obviously binary landscapes, and accumulate a much larger volume of filings.

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The new revolutionaries: Landscape architects reinvent urban parks

Here’s a rant that is the full monty for Landscape Architects to get off on – I wonder if anyone else gets to read this stuff! It is a bit American – but then according to them (Americans – i.e. those whose fathers emigrated from the original England. Jersey, Brunnswick and oh yes and York and were homesick at the time they were naming the New places…) they invented Landscape Architecture, Urban Design and a whole lot more .. From Grist by Rebecca Messner Via Land Reader

Name one landscape architect. Any one will do. No, I’m not talking about the guy who does your

Frederick Law Olmsted hisself -- still the only household name in landscape architecture.

landscaping — I’m looking for genuine, bona fide landscape architects, the ones who analyze, plan, design, manage, and nurture natural and built environments.

What was that? “Frederick Law Olmsted?” You mean the grandfather of landscape architecture, the man who built Central Park? Good. Now name a landscape architect who hasn’t been dead for more than a hundred years.

Hello? Can you tell me who designed the High Line, the most famous urban park in the country right now? You can’t. That’s what I thought. Well, for future reference, it’s this guy, James Corner — but that, right there, is my point:

The present generation of landscape architects is doing truly groundbreaking work, building parks like the High Line in places nobody expects them. If Olmsted is a classical composer of yore, James Corner and his contemporaries are like Lady Gaga. They’re like Bob Dylan plugging in. They’re the electric guitar after years and years of classical music. BUT YOU’VE NEVER HEARD OF THESE PEOPLE!

And so, on Olmsted’s 190th birthday (April 26 — prepare your celebratory picnic baskets!), I decided it’s time to show these landscape architects a little love.

But first, allow me to geek out about Olmsted for a quick sec. I can’t help it. I wrote and produced a documentary film about the guy. Plus, to understand the revolutionaries working today, you have to understand where they came from.

Central Park, New York City. (Photo by asterix611.)

People still, after all these years, love Olmsted’s parks. Just check out Central Park on a sunny day. Or Prospect Park in Brooklyn. Or theEmerald Necklacethat winds through the neighborhoods of Boston. Or the park systems in Louisvilleand Buffalo. The man carried out over 500 commissions to design urban parks, parkways, park systems, residential communities, college campuses, government buildings, and country estates. His sons, Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. and John Charles Olmsted (who was technically Olmsted’s nephew — it’s a long story) designed thousands more, including major city plans for Baltimore and Seattle.

Olmsted landscapes are practically trademarked — rolling hills, open meadows, patches of thick woodlands, wide, winding paths. Olmsted didn’t want you to notice the design — and, unless you’re looking for it, you don’t. The man even hated flowers because they call too much attention to themselves. You’re supposed to lose yourself in Olmsted’s parks — the paths were designed so that you’d never come upon a right angle and have to ask yourself, “Which way?”

The High Line, New York City. (Photo by David Berkowitz.)

Turns out that tired, overworked city dwellers really appreciated this — which is why it’s still hard to find a blanket spot in Sheep Meadow on a Sunday in June. But for all the reverence Olmsted still earns from the public, he set the bar so high that many landscape architects resent him. In an interview filmed for the documentary, urban studies expert Witold Rybczynski told us:

It’s a little bit like being a composer right after Mozart or Beethoven. People just want more Mozart or Beethoven. They’re not interested in Joe Smith — you know, they’ve been exposed to something, and they just want more of it … I mean he’s bigger than Mozart, because he doesn’t just do great parks, he also sort of invents the whole profession. It’s as if Mozart invented musical composing, which of course he didn’t.