As the Occupy movement hibernates for the winter, I wish to reflect on their contribution to the debate over the role of urban green space in society.
The evolution of the ideology behind American Parks (as described in Galen Cranz’ Politics of Park Design) is of interest. From the 1850s urban green space was seen as an escape from the evils of the city to pieces of the country, a place for mental rejuvination. In the early 1900s parks became smaller, were more integrated into their surroundings and heavily programmed in order to preoccupy the masses who were now enjoying increased leisure time due to the introduction of the 5 day work week and public holidays – the fear being the potential for chaos from an idle public. From 1930-1965 parks were designed to provide a wealth of recreation facilities, as the public were reframed as individuals primarily concerned with the pursuit of happiness – happiness being a desired outcome since a public of content individuals would remain docile and leave leadership unchallenged. When the book was published in 1982, Cranz described the current situation as the Open Space era where parks were designed as flexible spaces for happenings and recreation experiences – the park was completely integrated into the city, replacing streets as primary public spaces which were now seen as dangerous.
So how would we describe the contemporary situation in Atlanta?
The Atlanta Office of Parks describes their mission as:
“To improve, preserve, protect and maintain the City’s parks and public green spaces as a safe and enjoyable enhancement to the quality of life for all residents and visitors to the City of Atlanta. ”
Beyond material wealth, quality of life is determined greatly by health and equality. This health and safety focus comes at the cost of collective gathering as a political public, as demonstrated by the Atlanta Parks Use Rules and Guidelines (gatherings of 75-250 people are illegal without prior approval) and recent events surrounding the Occupy Atlanta movement’s eviction from Woodruff/ Troy Davis Park.
The long term occupation of public space throughout American cities has brought into question the nature of public space. That the gathering of a collection of individuals for a political purpose, to express dissatisfaction at the nature of the US economic and political system, were deemed illegal and were evicted based on health, safety, sanitation and noise pollution is contradictory to the notion of citizenry and the mission of Atlanta Parks. Among other issues, the Occupy movement was protesting the unequal distribution of wealth and the bailout of banks whilst individual homes were foreclosed, thus they were inherently demanding quality of life for all and using parks as a stage for that message. The eviction of the group and the emphasis on the public cost of policing the occupation demonstrates that the state values capital over its citizens. In addition, the use of a park as location for an economic protest is especially significant given that provision of parks is shown to increase surrounding property values.
The Beltline project constitutes the biggest investment in public space in Atlanta’s history, but it is a narrow definition and prescription of public space as park and trail. A place for mostly solitary activities: jogging, bicycling, walking your dog or contemplating nature. Activities that research has shown improve your mental and physical health and well-being. However, this typology also reinforces the contemporary situation between urban dwellers/ strangers of proximity without solidarity. The design of the new Historic Fourth Ward Park seems more interested in its environmental role (detention lake and p.v. panels), a pictureqsue aesthetic of order and the provision of exercise/ dog walking paths than providing spaces for people to gather. The new skate park, though a superior facility to the DIY Foundation skate park, brings the park under the states control. Activities such as eating, drinking, smoking, grafitti, improvisation of skate layouts are prohibited and the city reserves the right to modify hours of operation or close the facility for any reason. It’s new location is next to a park/ playground, thus good behavior is inscribed in its adjacency to children and the supervision/ surveillance of parents.
Inspired by OWS, it is time that Atlantans asked more of their parks and the vision for the Beltline. These sterile projections of public space do not constitute a vision of the city that Lewis Mumford was celebrating as ‘the theater of social action’. Public space has never been guaranteed, it has only been acquired through concerted struggle.
[ anthony payne, Beltline, occupy atlanta, parks, v_05 | i_02 ]