The Landscape Guide

Alan Tate, Great City Parks  (Spon: London, 2001) [Review by Tom Turner, originally published in Building Design]

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Great parks fascinate the landscape profession as great buildings do architects. What makes them great? Do they require a stupendous budget? Must the designer be a genius?  Is harmony between designer and patron a key to success? Or is it a matter of responding to the ancient principles of property development - location, location and location? Alan Tate's book has been published at a time when the UK has a large Task Force working on Urban Green Space. It was set up following the House of Commons Environment Sub-Committee's Report that the UK has a major problem over the decline of its parks. The Sub-Committee proposed a parks-equivalent of the Sports Council to provide leadership. The government rejected this idea on the grounds that parks are a matter for local, not national, government but it agreed there was a serious problem to be solved and set up the Task Force. Tate's book is a valuable contribution to the debate, though I would have liked a longer and stronger final chapter. 
Tate has been thinking about what makes a park great since the 1980s. He went to see Geoffrey Jellicoe at the outset and learned that the Landscape of man had taken seventeen years. A consistent set of section headings is applied to the discussion of each park: Introduction; History; Planning and Design; Management and Usage; Plans for the Park; Conclusions. They provide a very welcome emphasis on 'the question of whether there are discernible criteria for the "successful" planning design and management of urban parks'.  Tate was working on Sha Tin Park in Hong Kong when he began the book and it took a job teaching landscape architecture at the University of Manitoba to find time for its completion. The book's subject is, in truth, Great Western City Parks, leaving the way open for a companion volume on Great Eastern City Parks. Twenty parks are reviewed and Tate adopts the interesting approach of reviewing them in size-order from smallest to largest. 
The smallest and first park in the book is Paley Park, New York. An outdoor room of  15.2m by 30.4m, it has a waterfall-wall, trees, chairs and paving. 'Few human-made places provoke such unequivocal praise. It "has become one of Manhattan's treasures, a masterpiece of urbanity and grace. memorable because it makes no effort to be so'. Yet on many definitions it is not a 'public park': it is too small; it is unimparked; it does not belong to the public; it was not funded from the public purse. The William S. Paley Foundation provided $1m  to build the park in  1966 and another  $700,000 for a reconstruction in 1999. The operating budget was $225,000 in 1998 and Tate estimates the number of visitors at 500,000. This puts the cost/visit at 45 cents - a bargain. A later chapter on Regent's Park gives the Royal Parks expenditure on its London parks as £26.4m (for 1999) and the total visitor numbers (for 1995) as 21.1m. This puts the cost/visit at £1.25 pence (still a bargain), though the Royal Parks figure presumably includes capital expenditure. Central Park, NY,  has an endowment fund of  $65m which generates income for maintenance.  Prospect Park, NY, in a poor area, gets 40% of its income from a non-profit alliance and had 24,000 hours of volunteer labour in 1997. 
Figures are also provided for Bryant Park, NY. Built in 1842, it became a symbol of the city's decline in the 1970s and of its revitalisation in the 1990s. It adjoins New York Public Library and had become known as 'Needle Park' on account of its typical 'user'. The Rockefeller Brothers Fund agreed to support the regeneration project and the practice which also worked on Canary Wharf (Hanna/Olin) was appointed as landscape architects. Wisely, they applied the lessons of the best book ever published on the social aspect of landscape design (W.H Whyte's Social life of small urban spaces). The re-design cost $17.69m. Fences were restored, moveable chairs provided, the lawn was edged in granite, herbaceous borders were planted, a programme of events was organised, a Grill and Café established.  Responsibility for the park was transferred to the Bryant Park Restoration Corporation under a 15-year agreement with the City of New York. The budget was $3.7m in 2000. User counts, by gender, are done at 1.15 every business day and tabulated alongside weather conditions. 'User counts are the only form of profit and loss account that exists in park management'.Homeless people are not turned away if they obey the rules. Tate concludes: 'It is an object lesson in the patient, persistent and professional application of sound business principles in the public realm'. 
In Paris, Parc de Bercy (FF390 million in 1994), Parc André-Citröen (FF388 million) and Parc de la Villette were all subject to public and much-debated design competitions. No such event was held when the André-Citröen designers were appointed for the Thames Barrier Park in London. Nor is it a well-used space. Usage of Grant Park on the Chicago waterfront has grown enormously since the annual music festivals started. Use of Stanley Park in Vancouver has risen from 2 million/year in the 1980s to 7.5 million/year in the 1990s. The Amsterdam Bos Park sometimes attracts 100,000 visitors on a good day - and 50,000 bicycles. Let no one proclaim the death of the park (or ban cyclists). 
Britain can surely learn from the international examples. It is good to focus on individual parks instead of local authority groupings. One can imagine UK donors funding parks as they do museums and galleries. It is less easy to envisage a multi-million pound gift to the Leisure Services Department's Parks Sub-committee. Local management is the key. There is a Polish proverb: 'Under the capitalist system, man exploits man. Under socialism, the reverse is true'. Parks do not need 'systems'. They need a rich diversity of ownership, of control, of funding and of response to the uniqueness of every locality. It will come naturally when parks are run by the people, for the people, with the people, guided by those with professional skills in design, management and horticulture. 
The specially-drawn scale plans are an attractive feature of Tate's book. But I would like to conclude by gifting an adage from the landscape department at University of Greenwich to its equivalent at the University of Manitoba: 'No contours - no marks'.