Recreation has been synonymous with public parks almost since their inception. This legacy is passed to us today by the usually staid and stultifying beaurocracies known as Parks and Recreation Departments. These agencies can be found in most major cities and are responsible for the codification of recreation and parks, for better and worse. And like a ship listing badly they are slow to turn unless, of course, they are run by a power broker.
But the DPR is not what I’m concerned about today. There is a hard wind blowing, and with it is coming a change in the cultural significance of recreation. Since the rebirth of landscape design in the 90’s and 00’s, recreation has primarily been defined by entertainment, both people watching and performing. This has given rise to voyeurism and spectacle as the predominant experiences in public parks today. The excessive materialism and full relegation of labor to the purview of others (most if it having be farmed out to the machines or developing countries) has resulted in a listless and dissipated approach to public space. Even the most celebrated park to open this year, designed by the badass tag team of Field Operations and Diller, Scofidio, and Renfro, is an example of this- a place people wander through watching other people and pretty things, and being watched.
To understand the idea of recreation, it is helpful to go to the etymology. The word comes from the old French and means literally to “re-create” one’s self. Beginning in the middle ages with countryside villas and protected grounds useful for hunting, strolling or occasionally escaping the bubonic plague, open land became a way to escape the ills of urban living.
The concept of naturalistic spaces-as-healing-places was fully deployed by the social engineers/landscape designers of the industrial revolution who began designing parks within or adjacent to dirty industrial cities with the idea of providing a place of relaxation and refreshment for the working masses and city bourgeoisie. While a brilliant stroke at the time, the success of Central Park and other places like it left a heavy legacy that narrowed the possibilities of uses for future public spaces. This paring and subsequent ossification of possible uses of public space came at a critical time as over the next one hundred and fifty years the world’s population would more than quintuple and become heavily urbanized.
As time went on and our society became post-industrial a century later, our jobs became physically easy and focused on over-specialization, our lives defined by material excess. New information techonologies increased connectivity and the growth of our cities allowed for increased anonymity. A large portion of the society could pay for whatever they needed done, move about easier from place to place, and no longer knew their neighbors personally. Public space became a dead zone that you passed through, a meaningless necessity, the leftover spaces in our cities. They were parking lots and interstate overpasses and empty plazas colonized by pariahs and stigmatized by the rest. In order to revive them it was right to make them experiences that couldn’t be had on the computer. So we ended up with bombastic and didactic places that screamed for attention, that sold themselves to the highest bidder, and that told you what to do. Landscape architecture became fashion, most of it shitty fashion that you would find off-season at a department store.
But today, this is changing. In recent years there has been a coupling of landscape design and infrastructure and an interest in using public spaces a staging grounds for the construction of social capital. New urban community gardens spring up in derelict lots, micro-economies are shifting and flourishing, and spaces are being appropriated for building and learning. With the failure of unfettered capitalism and techonology as a way to provide for all our social needs people are again placing their hope in public spaces.
Adriaan Geuze once stated that his goal in designing a space is to create a place that encourages people to take possession of it. It provides, protects, and challenges at once. Landscape design as cultural florescence is decadent and lacking in substance. If a place’s only purpose is to entertain or delight it better be damn good to compete with social networking sites and consumer havens. The way to meaningful work in landscape design is the implementation of productive landscapes and the expansion of that term to include micro-economies, construction of social capital, and ecological infrastructures. Public space, specifically parks, can find new relevance and serve as the staging ground, not just for major entertainment events, but for myriad new uses. The question becomes, if the lawn is the perfect entertainment typology, how will these new uses influence the design of our future parks? Hopefully we figure it out, before highlines proliferate.