Viewed from the air, Central Park in New York City is as much a cutout in the surrounding mass of buildings as it is a plane of green. The city is the vessel that holds the tremendous jewel that is …
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Viewed from the air, Central Park in New York City is as much a cutout in the surrounding mass of buildings as it is a plane of green. The city is the vessel that holds the tremendous jewel that is the park. How can one exist meaningfully without the other? In an urban setting, a good public space is the one that is inseparable from and one with its surroundings.
The integration of planting and buildings in new urban development in Denver is an ongoing challenge, with landscape often relegated to decoration. That imbalance is a symptom of bad design or a missed opportunity in public policy. Green encroaches here and there into proposed new building projects, including at balconies and roofs. The drawings may convey false promises. Sprinkling green on an image to make it more palatable to the community can be a cynical exercise.
Combining the organic and the architectural from the outset of a project design will greatly enhance the overall quality of the living environment within a building and will typically make the building a better neighbor for the surroundings. On Capitol Hill, those surroundings consist of streets, sidewalks and the vast green continuum of our urban forest. That forest is more than decorative in the shade, moisture and sense of scale and shelter it provides for all of us.
There is no one right way to integrate structures and planting, and the idea that a smaller or hidden building is better than a tall or proud building is not correct. As with all fields of design, there are simple conceptual approaches to architecture which can be compelling, beautiful and timeless.
From a planning standpoint, there are important differences in how streets and paths either connect or separate adjacent buildings from parks and public spaces. The west side of Sloan’s Lake Park has for decades lured adults and children alike to risk death as they dash across Sheridan Boulevard from the array of fast food restaurants lining the busy roadway. There is no provision for crossing, and a blindness on the part of planners to the potentially positive relationship between the park and adjacent development seems evident.
On Capitol Hill, we don’t have such treacherous setups in how parks are situated. In a few cases, our architectural amenities are buildings that sit wholly within a park. With carefully planned access and minimal parking to attract cars, those buildings sponsor important recreational and cultural activities that could not take place without them.
I once attended a wedding reception at the City Park Pavilion where park goers went about their business in plain sight of the formally dressed couple celebrating with friends. It was a beautiful sight. Also beautiful are the summer evenings during Jazz in the Park where many hundreds of people organize themselves, their bikes, their kids and their wine bottles with nothing more than simple courtesy to guide them as they arrive, enjoy and then depart. There are no cars in the park, but nearly every other form of small-scale wheeled conveyance is present.
Year after year, one witnesses the amiable convergence of neighbors from the distinct districts surrounding the park. These neighbors gather there for the high luxury of enjoying a public park and free music. Enjoyment may be possible without buildings, but the architecture of City Park certainly celebrates, facilitates and dignifies the setting for this sort of activity.
A clear example of the differences in planning concepts that affect public space is the contrast in activity of the 7th Avenue Parkway versus the nearby 6th Avenue Parkway. There are no sidewalks on 6th Avenue, although there is a fine running path. This could be an excellent research project for a landscape architecture student or child development professional. The simple absence of sidewalks negates a range of activities and relationships. Perhaps that was intentional. Spending time on both parkways, one will see how a stronger pedestrian system has fostered street life that includes strollers, scooters, red wagons and wheelchairs, along with front porches and street-facing patios. Also present is on-street parking which leads to a lot of residents and their service people populating the street and sidewalks throughout the day.
Parks are different and complex, but their character and basic usefulness to a range of people are determined to a large extent by how buildings, pedestrian systems, streets, parking and landscape design foster activities and make us feel welcome.
Some buildings use parks and parkways as a place to simply pose and show off themselves. The enriching of our neighborhood and the success of the civic agenda of public space occurs when the relationship is a two-way street.
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