22 November 2011

Planning Elements Essential for Urban Omaha Parkland

Planning efforts for local parks convey an essential need to have a new understanding of some basic tenets of landscape and how it is presented.

Two recently published books convey these essentials. Both should be read thoroughly by the people responsible for designing new landscapes for eastern Omaha parks.

Public Parks, The Key to Livable Communities - issued in 2011 under the authorship of Alexander Garvin - has a broad perspective starting with history of the first parklands in the United States, which date to 1573 at St. Augustine, Florida. The wide-spread establishment of parks throughout the states often included features similar to parks created in Europe during the 1840s.

The subsequent eleven chapters provide an important perspective about parklands, with key topics discussed in the different chapters, which include:

  • Key roles
  • Design influences
  • Parks as evolving artifacts
  • Stewardship
  • Finance and governance
  • The role of the public; and
  • Sustainability: the key to success

Each chapter presents examples of how the particular topic was successfully applied to different parks. Many of the parks discussed are in New York City, the homebase of the author, with particular attention given to Central Park.

For this preeminent urban park, the author explains that "the landscape itself is the destination" with the variety of features providing different uses to the community. This element "is dependent on people's continuing ability to get to and enjoy those destinations without interfering with everybody else in the park. It begins at the dividing line between the park and the surrounding city." Entry points are defined. Streets are covered with a canopy of trees. Waterways and vegetation are obviously essential in the success of the park layout. Noise from roadways is masked. Since the designers considered the many influences on the park space, and they were appropriately considered, the park is a success as shown by the many people that visit the space to partake in their own particular activity.

Aesthetic sustainability was shown to be essential, and takes advantage of the changing vistas of the seasons.

The grand design for Central Park was noted as being successful due to the efforts of not only the park designers, but also the many others involved every since the park was created.

Author Garvin states: "public parks are not finished works of art when they are opened to the public. They are the evolving product of a living natural landscape and its interactions with the generations of people who use them."

Prominent park designers considered in the text are Frederick Law Olmstead - to whom the book is dedicated - and H.W.S. Cleveland, who had an essential role in the development of some of the first parks in Omaha and its interconnecting boulevard system, though this aspect of his career is not discussed.

A Landscape Manifesto

This book is a visual treat which has a primary goal to redefine the role of landscape in the urban environment. Author Diana Balmori indicates two "major new tasks" that can be accomplished:

1) "landscape can now create a new kind of livable city"; and

2) "through design it can broker the coexistence of human beings with the rest of nature."

These two tenets are given in the books prelude, and the remainder of the pages present examples using concepts and illustrations derived from actual or potential projects, worldwide.

"Critical shifts" are needed to achieve these tasks, the author indicates. New visions are essential.

The concepts given in this lavish book present a cosmopolitan perspective for landscape in a built environment. Any reader will get a new awareness of what is actually involved in maintaining 31 million acres of lawn in the U.S.A., and the environmental cost!

There are many clever and unique design tidbits presented. There are so many options other than concrete and tons of riprap.

None of the designs shown in this book included riprap.

Use of this artificial material seems to be integral at Omaha to complete a task when a preferable option more integral to a green space, is not considered or used. Projects at Carter Lake and along Happy Hollow Creek will be prominent in their use of these big rocks. There are no aesthetic benefits to using large masses of rock. Neither do they provide a natural setting inviting to people of the community or migratory birds.

There were many tons of rock placed at the concrete structure where the stormwater project east of Elmwood Park, empties into Wood Creek within the park environs. During a visit on November 18th, the base of this megolith was filled with a whitish colored liquid.

The following items are from A Landscape Manifesto as presented by Diana Balmori, in her wonderful book:

"1. Nostalgia for the past and utopian dreams for the future prevent us from looking at our present.
"2. Nature is the flow of change within which humans exist. Evolution is its history. Ecology is our understanding of its present phase.
"3. All things in nature are constantly changing. Landscape artists need to design to allow for change, while seeking a new course that enhances the coexistence of humans and the rest of nature.
"4. Landscape forms encapsulate unseen assumptions. To expose them is to enter the economic and aesthetic struggles of our times.
"5. Historical precedents do not support the common prejudice that human intervention is always harmful to the rest of nature.
"6. Shifts are taking place before our eyes. Landscape artists and architects need to give them a name and make them visible. Aesthetic expertise is needed to enable the transforming relations between humans and the rest of nature to break through into public spaces.
"7. High visibility, multiple alliances, and public support are critical to new landscape genres that portray our present.
"8. Landscape - through new landscape elements - enters the city and modifies our way of being in it.
"9. New landscape elements can become niches for species forced out of their original environment.
"10. The new view of plants as groups of interrelated species modifying each other, rather than as separate and fixed, exemplifies fluidity - a main motif of landscape form.
"11. Nostalgic images of nature are readily accepted, but they are like stage scenery for the wrong play.
"12. In his History of the Modern Taste in Gardening (1780), Horace Walpole writes that William Kent 'was the first to leap the fence and show that the whole of nature was a garden.' Today landscape has leapt the fence in the opposite direction, to the city, making it a part of nature.
"13. Existing urban spaces can be rescued from their current damaging interaction with nature.
"14. Landscape artists can reveal the forces of nature underlying cities, creating a new urban identity from them.
"15. Landscape can create meeting places where people can delight in unexpected forms and spaces, inventing why and how they are to be appreciated.
"16. Landscape, like a moment, never happens twice. This lack of fixity is landscape's asset.
"17. We can heighten the desire for new interactions between humans and nature where it is least expected: in derelict spaces.
"18. Emerging landscapes are becoming brand-new actors on the political stage.
"19. Landscape renders the city as constantly evolving in response to climate, geography, and history.
"20. Landscape can show artistic intention without imposing a predetermined meaning.
"21. Landscape can bridge the line between ourselves and other parts of nature - between ourselves and a river.
"22. Landscape is becoming the main actor of the urban stage, not just a destination.
"23. The edge between architecture and landscape can be porous.
"24. Landscape can be like poetry, highly suggestive and open to multiple interpretations.
"25. We must put the twenty-first century city in nature rather than put nature in the city. To put a city in nature will mean using engineered systems that function as those in nature and deriving form from them."

This summary conveys a nuance to consider once and then again and again. The particulars associated with each item provide the basis for a contemporary attitude towards nature in the city. Chapters in the book provide a foundation for further understanding each item.

These tenets should be recognized and understood as essential aspects in devising plans for urban parkland in Omaha. To do otherwise, would be a mistake of ignorance.