The Changing Nature of Parks

On Good Authority Episode 40 – Photo of Linda Pollock

EPISODE 40 - Tulane historian Linda Pollock discusses the history of parks and green spaces. Pollock walks us through how the design of parks and our experiences of nature have shifted throughout history and will continue to evolve within the tight constraints of urban living. We explore how race, ethnicity, gender and class impact what parks and gardens look like, who they're designed for and how that shapes communities. 

Transcript ▾

Speakers
Aryanna Gamble, director of special projects, Tulane Communications and Marketing
Linda Pollock, John Christie Barr Professor, Department of History, Tulane School of Liberal Arts

 

Gamble
Welcome to On Good Authority, the podcast from Tulane University, where we bring you leading experts to talk about issues of the day and ideas that shape the world. I'm your host, Aryanna Gamble. After two years of lockdowns and many of us shifting to hybrid work, the daily walk outside is becoming an important ritual. For people stuck at home, urban parks, gardens and green spaces are even more of a lifeline for clearing their heads and de-stressing. How we have designed and experienced parks has shifted throughout history. So today, we're sitting with Linda Pollock, a professor at Tulane who teaches a class about the history of green spaces in Europe and the Americas, to talk about the evolution of parks and where we're going next.

So, what is it about being in nature, surrounded by green space and beauty, that connects with us as humans on a really primal level?

Pollock
I'm going to start by problematizing that question, because it's actually a product of the 18th and 19th century. And we're so imbued with that notion, that that's how we should experience nature, that we don't even stop to think, is this the only way to appreciate nature? It comes from Capability Brown in the 18th century. And it was passed on to America through Frederick Olmsted, and he thought that landscape was a place where you experienced beauty in the eye to stimulate associations and words in the mind. So he thought you walk through nature, and you looked at beautiful views, and you had feelings and associations and thought lofty thoughts. But it's a particularly controlled, constructed view of nature. But when you asked that question, it shows just how much it's passed into the ordinary way of thinking about the natural world.

Gamble
So how we experience green space changes throughout history?

Pollock
Yes, it's all related to how we view nature. In the Middle Ages, they thought nature was very threatening. They built small, walled gardens to keep all the wild beasts out, keep murderers out, and to make them feel safe. Time you get to the 17th century, they wanted to dominate nature in the era of the absolute as monarch. So you have places like Versailles, which have massive straight lines and massive canals and massive amounts of clipped shrubbery, that all show that you could control nature, you could dominate it. When you get to the 18th century, we call it the natural style, but it's the most artificial natural style. It's planned natural. It’s the style that gave us the long green lawns, the clumps of trees, the serpentine lakes that we think looks like nature. But actually, they were impressive jobs of engineering to create the so-called natural landscapes. So all through the centuries, we've had different ways of looking at nature. And it's really not till you get to the 20th century, where they decided that nature shouldn't just be looked at in our ordinary gardens, we could do things in them, that they did a more, what we call a more accessible modernist gardening style, where form was meant to follow function. So you could have swimming pools, and you could have barbecues, and you could have paving and not lawns. That took a long time to come in.

Gamble
So, what is the social significance of parks and how has that changed over time?

Pollock
People love their green space, and they will fight for it. Every time any government, local community plans putting a road through some green space, there's going to be a lot of protests. I even see in New Orleans after Katrina how much money was invested by volunteers, and how much time was invested by them in restoring places like City Park that were really devastated. In the 19th century, it was decided that green space should not just be for the rich and wealthy. All the gardens we had were like the lavish villas of Italy or the landed estates in England. So they were going to create public parks that were meant to be the lungs of the city, that give people living in crowded housing a breath of fresh air. And they were also meant to be for the floods of new immigrants into places like New York and London and give them some access to green space. One of the unfortunate things about it is that urban parks were founded on the principles of open access, public use and democracy. But whenever we put a park in a city, all the property values around about it go up in price a lot, and we drive the working classes out.

Gamble
You've talked a little bit about some of these topics, but design, location, biology, security, governance, all of these things. There are so many layers to what makes a park successful. How do all of these elements work together?

Pollock
Parks take a lot of planning. You have to think first of all, who's going to use it? Bicyclists, dogs, horses, pedestrians, kids, older people. You're going to, you have to think how they're going to maneuver around the path. You have to lay down your walkway system. You have to think about drainage, if you're going to have water features. You have to think about where you want to put grass, what kind of shrubbery and foliage and plants you can use. Then you have to think about other issues apart from maintenance. Is this a safe place? And in fact, America has decided that for the most part, after dark, parks are not safe places and they shut them down. Parks have shrubbery and foliage and bushes, so you can hide behind these for drug deals, which threatens the well-being of the families. But one of the groups we've targeted to exclude in the modern period are the homeless. They tried to drive them out of the parks at night, even designing park benches that homeless can't sleep on. So much for public, we've always regulated who the public is, and what type of public are allowed into our so-called public parks.

Gamble
How do race, ethnicity, gender, class impact what parks and gardens look like in different places?

Pollock
All the major designers were male, up until the 19th century. Women don't come in as landscape designers until the 19th century. They couldn't get access to universities for landscape design, even when they started. So most of them are wealthy women who could tour Italy and look at the gardens or to England look at the gardens, and who could have, through their family, contacts, private mentors who would train them. And at the same time that women came in, the flowers came in. If you look at the Italian gardens, or the English landscape gardens, they have statues and shrubbery and green grass, water features, but they have very few flowers. The Arts and Crafts movement is one that's dominated by flowers. And it was really led by Gertrude Jekyll in England and Beatrix Farrand in the U.S. And these are the garden style that, if you ever go to England, you see them, the herbaceous borders, overflowing cottage style of plants, kind of a ride of color everywhere. So I always say to my students, you know, here come the women and here come the flowers. And I don't think that is coincidental. Today, we really try to push community gardens, particularly in the poorer areas of cities, because we call them food deserts. They have a lack of access to fresh produce and fresh vegetables. And one of the ways of sorting this could be growing your own. And also, these gardens are meant to bring more than just food benefits, more than just nutrition benefits. They help you build relationships with your neighbors. They help get some stress relief from your job. They help you, they help you interact with nature, which is more interesting than doing housework or going to the grocery store. At the same time, a lot of middle-class people are pushing these community gardens onto working classes. A lot of working-class people not only work long jobs, but could work two long jobs, and they don't think it is quite as rewarding to go into a garden for two hours. And it may rather than alleviate their stress, increase their stress. There's also a problem with community gardens, you need a lot of knowledge about how to run the gardens. Most people know how to vary crops, but they don't realize you have to vary the categories of crops, otherwise, they don't produce very well. So I think there could maybe be some local investment in community gardens. I think they're a good thing to have. But I don't see why the people who have the least time should devote most of their energy and time to actually working in the gardens.

Gamble
So there's a fine balance between preserving green space and making it accessible to people without having negative or lasting impacts on these spaces. How do we find that balance, so that popular parks and national parks like Yellowstone are accessible, but then continue to exist for future generations?

Pollock
That balance has always been a problem. The parks have never been open to all, and you've never been unregulated in them. When we created the national parks, we did so with a concept of wilderness, which is actually an unnatural concept of nature. The concept of wilderness dictated that nature had to be emptied of people, devoid of history, emptied of people. And of course, in your national parks, a lot of indigenous communities were living, Native Americans, and we moved them all out. They did the same in Australia to their indigenous populations. They were all moved out of the parks, so it could be empty of people for white people to enjoy. It is a very odd notion. We also have regulated parks, you could never just do exactly what you wanted in them. And even today, you can't skateboard in parks, you know, you can bicycle or walk. But with the national parks, they've got two problems. One is they attract too many tourists. And the other problem is they don't attract enough minorities. So there's really a campaign to attract more Hispanics and African Americans into the parks. It is a little bit difficult because you usually built on ground that has some stressful history to it, and they have to think of a way to present this to their new audiences. But also, they have a lot of tourists, and tourists damage parks. Because not just people walk through them, they need paths to walk on, otherwise you trample over more vegetation. They need parking lots, they need restrooms, you know, a lot of facilities. The park service has tried to control this by dictating a lot of the parks “wilderness areas,” which means you can't do any developing, development in them. They don't even have cell phone towers, that in itself is a problem, because a lot of these areas have sites of national historical importance, and no one can get at them. There is an example in a state park in South Carolina. It's built in a swampy forest, but they built cattle mounds, rain cattle mounds. So when the floods came, it's in a floodplain, the cattle get to the top of the mounds. These mounds were built with enslaved labor, and are one of the only remaining rain mounds left in the U.S. No one can get to see them. The NPS won't even mention that they're there because they're in a designated wilderness area, which means nobody goes. The other issue is what do people want to do in parks? The NPS is really pro-preservation and not really pro-recreation. They do allow some recreation, like fishing, but they're really reluctant to add more sports. And there's a huge controversy at the moment up in Yellowstone, because people want to kayak down one of the canyons of the black can, the Black River. It gives you a lot of very fast rapids. Yellowstone kayakers, usually they go in there even though they're not allowed to, but the NPS is trying to keep them out. It doesn't want to add any of these recreations. But people, they want to do things in the parks, that we've sort of gone beyond the model of just wandering around saying, “Oh, that's lovely. Oh, that's lovely.” And these are really fast rapids that they'd like to use. The other issue is, we have satellite communities around all these parks, state parks and national parks, we call them gateway communities. And they've usually got a lot of small businesses in them that really make their living off the parks. Ecologists and preservationist and biologists don't like business around parks, in parks or around it. The gateway communities will make the point that the parks are their living. They're not going to destroy the parks. They help maintain them, they regulate the tourists, too. They bring much needed money and funding to the parks. If you don't have tourists, you don't get any state funding or national funding, you've got to bring some people in. And they say there is a way to survive with businesses and with preservation, they don't actually have to be in conflict. I have sort of anti, you know, I believe in preservation and ecology. But when it means you can't do anything except look at things, like this is such an antiquated model now. Nature doesn't have to be just looked at, and it has to be experienced. I think we're now at the stage where we could give up this concept of it’s something as just a set of visual pictures. I mean, if you walk around Yosemite, or you walk around the Grand Canyon, there's so many viewing platforms. And everybody goes to the viewing platforms, and they all say, “That's a lovely view.” They take lots of pictures, then you move on to the next viewing platform. And I don't think anybody stops to think, “Wait a minute, this is not how nature presents itself.” This is how some designers decided we're going to look at nature. It's also we need to get rid of this concept of wilderness, there has never been a land that really is devoid of people or untouched by people. So why do we think we're preserving nature by moving people out? We moved also, not just the Native Americans out of the lands, but we moved homesteaders out. You're not allowed to be working nature in these national parks. And I think it might be time to stop and think, “Okay, what can we do in these parks that doesn't destroy the environment that is a much more interactive relationship with nature?”

Gamble
In your class, you don't just talk about the history of parks and green spaces, but you're actually doing physical work in City Park. What is that experience like for your students?

Pollock
The students I have in this class, they have to do service learning in the botanical gardens in City Park. And they all love it. They've always loved it. They love it even though they're hot, they're sweaty, they're dirty. They're quite often scratched with thorns. They're crawling underneath bushes. But they all tell me just the feeling of working in nature is so restorative that they just they look forward to going every week.

Gamble
As a child growing up in New Orleans, City Park is definitely, it stands out in my mind as a pivotal part of my childhood. Playing on the playground, especially with kids I didn't know or would probably never have interacted with. How important are these kinds of spaces for families and childhood development?

Pollock
Parks are vital. Every parent knows that you get your kids out to a park, they run around, they get tired, and then they sleep at night. So then it gives the parent a breathing space too. And it is great for socialization. What's interesting, though, is your question also refers to City Park. And you have a vision for City Park that the city did not actually share for a long time. They got that land in 1850. And it was not developed by the city. Eventually it was developed in the 1890s by a private group who wanted a public park for the city. But the city itself didn't want African Americans in the park, so it took a long time to build it. And then it really took off in the early 20th century with the WPA, who, who built a lot of the buildings and the rose garden a lot of the parts of City Park. And today, I think most New Orleanians can't imagine life without City Park. Every kid has gone to the the Storyland garden, they’ve run through the botanic gardens, they’ve sat on porch swings, they’ve climbed over statues. It is a very important part of the memories of your childhood.

Gamble
Great cities typically have great parks, Central Park in New York, Hyde Park in London. But many of these are historic cities. When we look at newer cities like Houston, you get very different types of green space. How do we continue to expand? What does the future of green space look like? How do we learn from what we've done to create new spaces within these landlocked areas?

Pollock
All of the parks you've mentioned, and then there's also parks like Forest Park in St. Louis and Balboa Park in San Diego, they're all products of the late 19th and early 20th century. And no city now has either the ground or the money to create parks like that. What we're doing now is looking at old industrial features, or old industrial entities, and trying to reclaim them as parks. So we have the High Line in New York, which is as narrow linear park that runs straight down through Manhattan. And it's actually built on the old railway line. And they've left a lot of the railway line intact and designed the vegetation so it's indigenous plants that kind of bleed through all the struts and everything like that. And if you ever look at any videos of it, you'll see how many people walk up and down the High Line every day. We have other industrial parks that are called drosscapes. We have one that's actually also in Brooklyn up in New York, which is a park built on six abandoned industrial piers. We have Crescent Park down in New Orleans, which runs along the river between abandoned wharfs and the railway line, and they've repurposed everything. They reuse those wharfs now as musical sites for exhibitions or festivals. We also have, the very latest park is Ariel Sharon in Israel, which is built on an old, abandoned garbage dump that was closed in 1998. And it is going to end up being three times the size of Central Park. We infill in very small spaces. I mean, there's the growth of pocket parks all over the cities. And if you go to somewhere like New York, they have Paley Park, which is a very small park that's been very well designed with a particular type of tree, birch trees, and running water to camouflage the sounds of the city. And it is used by people wanting a break from lunch or somewhere to sit on a busy day. We have parks in Toronto, which they've inbuilt in commercial areas, and they've tried to make them as a series of little rooms where you can have an ecology lesson during your lunch break. And we do have a movement to use cemeteries. We have Mount Auburn Cemetery that was designed by Downing that is actually a park. There is some resistance to using cemeteries as parks, but they are available green space, and we have lots of them.

Gamble
Thank you so much for joining us today, Linda. It's been a wonderful conversation. But I do have one last question for you. What's your favorite park?

Pollock
That's a very difficult question to answer. There are so many different park designs, and I've been in so many, and I do love a lot of the various designs. I'm actually drawn to the landscape designs of Prospect Park in Brooklyn and Central Park in New York. But I love Balboa Park in San Diego. It's one of the few Spanish Colonial Revival parks, and it is a magnificent park. But I'm going to urge people to view the state parks. I mean your national parks are gorgeous, but state parks are one of America's underrated gems. You have so many of them. They all look sort of similar on the surface because they're built mainly by CCC labor. So they all have rustic bridges and rustic cabins, but each one has something different and they're really not used for the full capacity. And I think it would be nice if everybody spent a few weekends a year discovering their state parks.

Gamble
Thanks for listening. I hope you've been enjoying this edition of On Good Authority from your favorite path or park bench. For more episodes and information, visit tulane.edu/on-good-authority. If you like our show, please subscribe wherever you listen to podcasts.

Host: Aryanna Gamble
Editor: David Gladow
Producer: Audrey Burroughs
Production team: Marianna Boyd, Keith Brannon, Audrey Burroughs, Chelsea Christopher, Faith Dawson, Roger Dunaway, Aryanna Gamble, Becca Hildner and Roman Vaulin

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