What’s the Problem with City Hall Park? Maybe the Solution.
“[Washington Square Park] [was]a masterpiece. A modern, grown-up playground, its unconventional features nurtured how people most loved to use the place: a curvy sculptural landscape, encircled by shade trees, of low platforms and niches that served as spontaneous seats or stages for troubadours, arrayed like petals around a fountain, stepping down toward it to make an urban conversation pit, providing spectacle and sanctuary.
Forty years later, the well-used park was in need of care, but instead got a top-down Parks Department remake. A perimeter fence went up. The sunken plaza was filled and flattened. The leaky fountain — now officially the Tisch Fountain, in honor of a $2.5 million gift from a private foundation — was repaired. But it was also shoved 20 feet sideways from the park’s center and made to line up with Washington Arch to its north, reducing lively counterpoint to relentless alignment”. – Thomas de Monchaux, “How parks lose their playfulness”. SEPT. 22, 2017, The New York Times, emphasis mine.
“Scruffy appearances notwithstanding, City Hall Park in Burlington has some conspicuous virtues [..]. An engineer by training, Toth was in town to deliver a keynote speech on urban planning and energy at the University of Vermont. In advance of his academic gig, Toth awarded City Hall Park an overall A- on Monday morning […]‘Instinctively, you can see that it’s a pretty good place,” he continued. “It’s an important, central place in Burlington; it’s a destination.’ […]Current plans call for improved erosion control, a water park and concession stand, and fewer, but healthier trees. […] Toth proposes a quicker fix, meanwhile: dozens of folding chairs that could be scooted around to suit more idiosyncratic social impulses; chairs that would be locked away in a shed at night. Those, coupled with chess boards and more electrical outlets, would work wonders, he said: ‘All of the sudden I think you’d see this place teeming with people.’” Joel Banner Baird, “Burlington’s City Hall Park earns A-grade from urban planning expert,” October 4, 2017, Burlington Free Press
Problem solving interests me. It’s a big piece of my job. It starts by clarifying the problem and then being vigilant along the way to see if proposed solutions address the real problem. Many of my clients are small businesses watching their budgets. By addressing real problems with tailored solutions, time and money is spent wisely. With City projects we see “solutions” waiting in the wings. Desired top-down changes that have nothing to do with the actual problems. And we see problems invented to fit desired solutions. Before the public realizes it, the invented problems start to seem real (like the economic crash Burlington would face without the 14-story mall).
How did a few specific problems in City Hall Park turned into a 3 million dollar solution? Years into a “public process” and some of the most beloved aspects of the park are on the chopping block—50% of the trees, and the fountain, that many people love. The new plan includes no play equipment for kids, and elders are concerned there are not enough benches. There are no game boards to provide activity for park goers. And the most egregious part of the new plan is a concession stand. Did anyone ask for this? After all, the park is a stone’s throw from dozens of places to eat and drink. Yes, this kiosk is just a “pilot,” but once the city begins collecting rent on a portion of our commons, it won’t let go easily.
The central problem with City Hall park is about soil — compaction, erosion, absorption and storm water run-off. And the park needs TLC. The fountain needs work and trees need tending. It hasn’t been cared for. In Japan all the parks and gardens have groundskeepers—meticulously caring for the plants, pruning trees with an eye toward beauty, picking up stray branches. How long could a groundskeeper be paid with 3 million dollars?
When the City, like an unsavory politician, really wants to get the people’s goat, they engender fear to sell their solutions. “The park is dangerous”. The concession kiosk will make it safer. Why not, instead, having cops get out of their cars, walking and biking “the beat” after the groundskeeper has gone home for the evening? How about good lighting and small events planned in the park that keep it busy?
What about the trees? Are so many of them in terrible shape as the city would have us believe? Do half the trees really need to go? The “danger” in the park was even blamed on the trees—trees with all their low branches cleared, even though the park has an easy view from one side to the other. There is no place to hide in these trees.
The real danger is public process that doesn’t listen to the public well enough. Sadly, the August presentation on City Hall park was an example. Many engaged people showed up that night and spoke out. And contrary to what the newspapers said, only a handful were from a park activist group. There were people of all ages and points of view. What did they want? The fountain, the trees, benches and a bathroom. Places for kids to play. Our city officials were honest at least, when they said that the plan was already moving forward: the public opinion expressed that night would have no impact on the project.
This lack of real public process is most poignant in a public park in the center of the city, but similar things happen elsewhere. There are connections to a lesser known park – the Art Park on Pine St. The land here is private, but the public has been using and enjoying this little park for years.
I’ve rented office space near the park for 20 years. This neighborhood is my home away from home. There wasn’t anything wrong with the park. It just needed TLC — bushes were overgrown, trees needed pruning and time had taken a toll on the cement and mosaic sculptures. The stone arch still stood, as did the bridge that conjured a crossing over an imaginary brook. Every year the flowers were tended and weeded by a local group. The park offered a green oasis amongst brick, concrete, asphalt and street noise. Shady and quiet, it was a get-a-way for lunch on a hot day, for a private conversation, or a place to be alone in a busy city neighborhood. One child deemed it “a secret garden”. Other kids built fairy houses there during summer camp.
The short story is that now we have a modern and spare-looking park. Every tree but one was cut down. An article in 7 Days quotes two of the men responsible for the redesign, calling the old park “dangerous” and “not welcoming”. Oddly, in all the years I have spent in the area and all the people I know in the “hood”, I had never heard any complaints about the park.
And no offense to the designers, but the new park does nothing for me. It’s exposed and bare — too modern to be comfortable. One neighbor likened the three gravel sections to parking spaces. Walking the inner path next the building, a bench pokes into the space, as if we weren’t meant to walk across the park. Yes, the new little trees will grow and open spaces for art are good, but the same thing could have been accomplished with the old park. Why the need to clean the slate, destroying nearly everything to start all over?
Green spaces are precious in cities, no matter how small, how public, how accessible, how well-known. We gravitate to them to walk, to sit, to surround ourselves with nature. We take rest from our concrete jungles and smell the trees and the earth. In the process, we become connected. We find favorite places, walk familiar paths and sit under beloved trees. Before revamping any green space, we should ask: Who has used this place and how? How do they feel about it, what do they love? What plants, animals (and fairies!) live there? Cutting down trees, tearing up the earth, bringing in large machines has an impact on all who loved the place. There needs to be more sensitivity in change — to the growing things, to the experience of all who have inhabited a place, to the life lived there and the connections made. It’s time for a new paradigm of “change” when it comes to our landscape all over the city. Change should be specific to the problems that need solving, it can be sensitive and incremental. it can evolve organically like we do.
It’s no small coincidence that the landscape architects of the Art Park are the same as for City Hall Park. There are differences between these parks, but also common themes. Design, without knowledge of, and real connection to the community it serves, falls flat somehow. Without honest adherence to public needs, design is not driven by social concern, but something else. Is it top-down control, the need to make one’s mark on a place? Is it profit-driven, over-done, over-designed, over-thought and over-budgeted? What problems really drive the project and do the solutions really answer them?