I finally watched William H. Whyte’s 1979 documentary The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces, and while it did make some great points that hold true today – successful urban spaces offer places to sit, water features, food vendors – it left me with more questions than answers. I had to ask myself if 1970s life and 2010s life are similar enough to make the film relevant anymore. I saw images of mostly white women with Farah Faucet-y hair chatting and laughing with street vendors and strangers – but does this happen anymore? In my experience, New York has seemed rather cold; a conversation with the halal man seems strange and impossible when no one even looks each other in the eye. Is it because the city has more immigration, diversity, language barriers?
Perhaps, more insidiously, I’ve been thinking about the degree to which public space is relevant in light of the technological age we live in, which was supposed to make our lives easier so that we could spend more time with each other but instead has perhaps constructed more barriers to interaction than it broke down. Are parks and plazas even relevant when more and more people sink deep into their phones at the instant of creeping boredom instead of looking up and around at the people and place they share space with?
What was and is the purpose of public space? Even if we don’t interact with others, perhaps its point is to allow us to encounter difference where we otherwise would not. The recent design trend toward pocket parks and button parks is a great one – it seeks to allow people everyday interaction with nature in a small, digestible way that doesn’t distract from their daily routines, especially important for people in low-income neighborhoods who don’t live near or have the time to travel to the Central Park of the city. However, pocket parks bring up another concern in relation to larger central parks. While pocket parks serve small neighborhoods that may house people who can’t access a big park farther away, big parks have the ability to draw people from more than one neighborhood and have them encounter different types of people. Is the proliferation of pocket parks decreasing the need for people to travel to more central locations and thereby isolating them in their own neighborhood? Perhaps it depends on the purpose of the very park you’re building – should it encourage daily interaction with nature or encourage public interaction with others in third spaces? And how does this influence the way you design the park?
While these questions remain, I think we can agree that parks aren’t usually a bad thing. Here are some cool parks that inspired me this week.