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TED Talk: How public spaces make cities work

See former New York City Chief Planner Amanda Burden—who oversaw the opening of the High Line and the Brooklyn Waterfront—give a TED Talk about the role of parks in cities. AsBurden, who worked for Mayor Bloomberg, puts it: “Even more important than buildings are the spaces between them. And some of the most transformative things happening in cities are happening in these public spaces.”

Where’s the Love in LOVE Park?

What was once an example of organic, messy urban life now feels like a graceless plane. Is that the sort of city we want?

What was once an example of organic, messy urban life now feels like a graceless plane. Is that the sort of city we want?

When Dilworth Plaza was transformed into Dilworth Park, I didn’t write about it. I imagined that many of the reviews that criticized its barren landscape and its design shortcomings would be proven wrong eventually. And indeed, every time I walked through it during a hot summer day and saw throngs of kids enjoying its water features, or hordes of shoppers during the holiday season, I was buoyed by the park’s popularity and could put aside my gripes with its aesthetics.

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Similarly, I wanted to wait until LOVE Park’s renovation was completed before passing judgment. But unlike Dilworth Park, which took a forsaken landscape and turned it into a thriving byway, LOVE Park pre-renovation was already a bustling, albeit grimy and dilapidated, place. In an article exhorting the park’s designers to preserve the best of LOVE Park in its next incarnation, Plan Philly’s Ashley Hahn wrote: “LOVE Park may be tired, its granite slabs loose and clanky, but it works remarkably well as a truly public space. On any given day people play chess, snap photos, eat lunch, jaw with friends, soapbox, dance, read the paper, and just linger. Its diversity of casual use is a beautiful, rare thing.” Shortly before the park was closed for renovation and to repair the parking lot underneath it, Dan McQuade wrote about the park’s former position as a skateboarding mecca; among other examples of its value, DC Shoes was willing to donate $1 million for its upkeep so long as skateboarding was permitted.

LOVE Park could have served as a symbolic connection between the aspirational, intellectual, cultural institutions on the Parkway and day-to-day realities of Broad Street. Instead, the best new connection is between park and parking lot.

Despite its poor physical condition, LOVE was loved by a diverse cross-section of Philadelphians. Now, in the bleakness of late February, it exudes a desolation too pointed to ignore. I know things will change a bit when the trees are in bloom and the grass comes in and the fountain is turned on. But those improvements won’t entirely solve LOVE Park’s problems.

Unlike the multi-tiered park of yore, the current LOVE Park is one graceless plane. As an open field, its best vistas are of ceaseless traffic on its borders. Initially excited that LOVE would offer a clear diagonal path from one end to the other, I now sorely miss the elliptical landscaping that was the sculptural heart of the park. LOVE Park now functions like an enormous sidewalk, when its former design, with a round fountain and round welcome center, signaled a retreat from the rectilinearity of downtown.

The new design ruins the much-needed  distinction between park and city. The main thoroughfare now looks and feels like a sloping ramp in an airport. Previously, the fountain seemed to entice you by forcing you to walk around it, and the LOVE statue somehow felt earned when you reached it crossing the park from west to east; now the fountain and statue are easy gimmes, selfie bait. Whereas before, I felt like I’d arrived in downtown once I’d ambled through LOVE Park; I now get a case of the Mondays crossing through it.

Speaking of selfies, take a look at those LOVE Park pictures, before and after the renovation. Before, a picture of the LOVE statue positioned tourist, sculpture, buildings on the Parkway, bucolic shrubs and a gushing fountain in one tight take. The LOVE sculpture sat on a trapezoidal pedestal and looked like the gem on a ring setting. The friction and exuberance of all these elements conveyed the sense of love—civic love, really—as much as the statue spelled it out.

Now, LOVE sits atop a bland square; no landscaping fills in the picture, just a dead-on view of the Parkway. Now people stand like passengers in an elevator car beneath the statue, mediocre architecture flanking them, a desert of pavers at their feet. The statue’s new pedestal, and the lack of landscaping behind it, all add up to a pretty bad picture.

Design isn’t destiny. Just like skateboarders reimagined the old LOVE Park, we must make it our task to reimagine this landscape as something worthy of today’s Philadelphia.

While I have been reassured that not all the landscaping and street furniture have arrived, one can’t avoid the nagging sense that the park’s emptiness is purposeful, designed to discourage lingering and certain kinds of patrons. The stone benches look just comfortable enough to eat a quick food truck lunch, but not so nice you’d sit on one for an hour or more (early renderings showed benches with backs that have yet to materialize). Like the lawns at the renovated Shakespeare Park in front of the central Free Library branch and Dilworth Park, LOVE will have lots of open grassy areas;  but, because of their lack of cover, they seem intended to deter homeless people from resting there. And, of course, there is no reference to or accommodation of skateboarders.

This  begs the question of what kind of park we want and who we are building parks for. Yes, the old LOVE Park was dated, but its sculptural elements—boxy concrete tree containers and walls you could sit on, bollards you could lean on and benches you could skateboard on—invited a human response. Instead of creating a park full of nooks where users can find the right place to steal a kiss or smoke a cigarette, the new LOVE Park is a sterile, corporate landscape.

Yes, corporate, because its intentional lack of landscaping will only seem active if it is commercialized. The sponsored, temporary programming that takes advantage of flat, flexible platforms like Dilworth Park is valuable, but it is also inorganic. Organic alternative uses—like skateboarding and busking—will instead be policed out of existence, because they do not fit into a prescribed set of uses for the park. Ironically, LOVE Park was once a place. Nowas a non-place it will require tired placemaking interventions, like movable furniture and festivals, to give it a sense of purpose.

Amid the new LOVE Park, is another relic of its past: The Saucer. The mid-century Visitors Center  now stands out like a beacon of authenticity and aesthetic daring. This building, which Jane Jacobs admired when she visited Philadelphia in 1962, reminds visitors that public spaces don’t have to be mundane to be useful, vanilla to be popular.

It can also serve as a lesson that design isn’t destiny. Just like skateboarders reimagined the old LOVE Park, we must make it our task to reimagine this landscape as something worthy of today’s Philadelphia.

How sad that our parks no longer aspire to some greater purpose, like plain-old beauty, delighting passerbys’ senses, cultivating a sense of ownership and civic pride in a place. Those were the values that imbued landmark parks like Central Park in New York and the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris, as well as recent efforts like  Klyde Warren Park in Dallas or the 11th Street Bridge in D.C.

While those contemporary parks are also heavy on programming, they stand out because of their commitment to quality design. Klyde Warren Park helped connect neighborhoods in Dallas torn apart by a highway (which the park now sits atop of); the 11st Street Bridge will connect affluent and disinvested communities separated by the Anacostia River.

LOVE Park could have served as a symbolic connection between the aspirational, intellectual, cultural institutions on the Parkway and day-to-day realities of Broad Street. Instead, the best new connection is between park and parking lot.

Diana Lind, a Citizen board member, is Managing Director of the Penn Fels Policy Research Initiative.

Photo: Patrick Bilow

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