Parks, Recreation, and Open Space (PAS 497/498)

A Twenty-First Century Agenda

By Alexander Garvin

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What, exactly, is a park? What role have parks played in cities, and what will they need to be in the new economics and society of 21st century America?

To answer these questions, noted planner and planning educator Alexander Garvin first describes the parks agenda of Frederick Law Olmsted, which dominated the design of American parks for over a century, until the last 50 years of suburbaniz...

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Product Details

Page Count
Date Published
Feb. 1, 2000
APA Planning Advisory Service

About the Authors

Alexander Garvin

Table of Contents


Part I: The Olmsted agenda
Cities and suburbs in 1850 • Olmsted's Nineteenth Century agenda • Cities and suburbs in 1950 • Cities and suburbs in 2000

Part II: An agenda for the Twenty-First Century
The private realm reform agenda • The public realm action plan • A realistic agenda

List of references


"This report by Alexander Garvin was commissioned by the American Planning Association to instruct mayors and their staffs on the past, present and future of parks. Since Garvin is a member of New York City's Planning Commission and is also the planning director for the committee to bring the Olympics to New York in 2012 (he's also a Yale professor), gauging his thoughts should be of interest to the aspiring mayor who lurks within us all. Supremely well organized, and written with such nuanced accuracy and insight that almost every sentence is quotable, the report is a pleasure to read.

"The document provides a crisp analysis to the rise and fall of America's commitment to public space. Garvin begins with a brief, deft description of the implementation and legacy of Olmsted's agenda — the urban, regional, and national parks, the parkways, and the blueprint for an Arcadian suburbia. This achievement has been followed by a half-century of inaction and neglect — staffing for New York's parks is currently one-sixth of what it was 35 years ago, for example. Garvin concludes that Olmsted's agenda has been the victim of its own stupendous success. With so much exemplary open space already in existence, the public and its elected officials have had scant incentive to devote disputed resources to public open space. And there are other factors — the most important, perhaps, being the public's growing distrust for the government's ability to plan and manage.

"In this context of dwindling support, local governments have attempted, through mandated setbacks and zoning incentives, to shift the burden to the private sector by requiring private entities to provide open space. By drawing a conceptual link between superficially different urban and suburban policies (which are rarely discussed together) Garvin puts himself in a position to leverage a broad and convincing criticism. 'It is becoming increasingly clear that government regulation of private property is a questionable way to supply large number of people with large quantities of attractive, usable open space,' which, despite the continual efforts of planners often results in the creation of 'forlorn leftovers or hidden hangouts,' such as the sunken plaza surrounding the CBS building in Manhattan. In suburban developments, mandated open space often producers nothing better than 'a more pleasant parking lot,' as in the North Point Village in Reston, Virginia, or golf courses that are neither seen nor used by the public.

"In the report's final section, Garvin outlines a set of strategies for reinvigorating public open space, which he has developed empirically, extrapolating from a careful analysis of successful examples. His suggestions have the fine virtues of empiricism: specificity and a clear understanding of what works and what doesn't. He recommends, for example, that parks departments form alliances with the neighborhoods they serve, creatively reposition their existing assets, and utilize modern management techniques. Garvin's empiricism does not seem to allow him to critique the prejudices and limitations of the present moment, such as the current love affair with free-market capitalism. So there are no calls for a more enlightened political climate, and little acknowledgement of the limitations of the supposedly enlightened self-interest of wealthy merchants who border some parks but not others. And in a moment of heightened concern over sprawl, one wishes the book was somewhat less weighted toward urban examples, with more attention placed on suburbia. That said, were I an official (or public space advocate) in need of a guidebook to direct me wisely and productively through an inhospitable era, I would not leave home without this report."

—Reprinted from OCULUS, published by AIA NY Chapter Vol. 64 #2 October 2001

Parks and open space are community cornerstones. This report tracks the changes in U.S. society from the mid-1800s to the present by following the building of parks in cities and states, as well as the additional time working families have for recreation.

This informative volume discusses the duties of government (acquisition, financing, creation, development and maintenance) in providing parks and recreational opportunities.

The author explains the role that Frederick Law Olmsted played in designing parks and landscape settings across the country — from Central Park in New York City to Yosemite National Park in California. Olmsted's projects included public parks, playgrounds, boulevards and parkways, park systems, conservation, and suburban subdivisions. He also pioneered the nation's first effort at scientific forest management.

Olmsted, his partners, his son and his stepson were involved in 5,500 projects, including 650 parks and recreation areas, 900 private estates and 270 subdivisions and planned communities from 1872 until 1950.

As Garvin points out, parks began in the 19th century to increase the value of nearby property, create jobs, improve neighborhoods and provide protected habitat for plants and animals. These goals still hold true today. However, as the author points out, parks need to change and update to meet the evolving needs of users and the community. He suggests involving the community in both decision making about recreational needs and providing financial and sweat equity support for specific projects.

Garvin uses several case studies of redeveloped parks throughout the United States to illustrate how revitalized parks can provide new recreational opportunities for residents and nearby office workers while upgrading neighborhood values. These parks range from island gardens created in traffic circles and rights-of-way to sports complexes built on old waterfronts and brownfields to older, crime infested facilities renovated after falling into disuse from limited maintenance.

He also provides ideas about expanding funding for parks and open space by creating business improvement districts, land trusts and nonprofit foundations, earmarking sales and real estate taxes, and establishing separate taxing districts. The author criticizes reliance on private developers to provide 'open' space that can be used only by residents of gated communities. He argues that open space isn't public space if the majority of the public is excluded. Garvin believes more can be done from a policy perspective to ensure that the public benefits from common open space.

He maintains that government has a strong stewardship responsibility toward parks and open space. He proposes an agenda for government to:

  • Update facilities to respond to changing public demand.
  • Manage the public resources efficiently and economically.
  • Renovate and redevelop publicly owned property for public use.
  • Reclaim abandoned property (brownfields) for public use.
  • Combine recreation with other public uses.
  • Make more effective use of open space in public projects.

As states and local governments consider land use issues — such as sprawl and growth management, brownfields redevelopment, urban economic development, and how to improve the environment for their constituents — this report provides ideas about what can work to meet resident needs while improving the value of the surrounding neighborhood.

—State Legislatures Magazine: December 2002