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Planner Garvin on the importance of parks; his checklist explains why publicly-accessible open space (as in AY) doesn't measure up

On Monday I attended a lecture by planner Alexander Garvin, academic, consultant (self-described "public realm strategist"), former Dan Doctoroff aide, and author of the recently-published Public Parks: The Key to Livable Communities.

While Garvin wasn't addressing publicly-accessible, privately-managed open space like that planned for Atlantic Yards, it's clear that it doesn't measure up to the standards of public parks.

AY open space comes later

It also should be pointed out that the Atlantic Yards open space would not come until Phase 2 of the project, and then in increments as each building is finished, which means the full eight acres would not arrive for ten years, under the non-credible official timetable, and more likely 25 years, the official deadline.

By contrast, at Battery Park City, much of the park space was built first. Indeed, as Garvin described using examples from Paris (boulevards, parks, small parks) and San Antonio (the Riverwalk), such public investment stimulated investment, rather than was portrayed as a reward after allowing new development.

Garvin, as I've reported, stresses investments in the "public realm," streets, squares, parks, transportation systems, and public buildings, which, he said Monday, provides the most leverage in capturing and guiding public investment in the public interest.

Garvin delineated four key roles for public parks.

Enhancing personal well-being

The first is to enhance personal well-being and public health. That implies both active recreation and passive recreation.

The Atlantic Yards open space would emphasize the former, though both presumably would support personal well-being and public health. However, given the influx of new residents, it's likely the open space would serve those living in the new development far more than be a resource for Brooklyn at large, as it was advertised in 2004.

Civil society

The second is to incubate a civil society, to mix people by class, race, and income. "You learn how to be a citizen in a place like this," Garvin said, after showing slides of Prospect Park.

He noted how investment in Central Park, led by the Central Park Conservancy, made the park safer and more attractive. Astonishingly, the number of felonies dropped from 1006 in 1980 to 93 in 2003.

Atlantic Yards, by virtue of subsidized, affordable housing--900 of 6430 units would be low-income--would indeed mix classes on site. However, given the constraints mentioned above, it's unlikely it would serve to mix civil society significantly in the open space.

Would the arena, a for-profit endeavor, be portrayed as incubating civil society? I'll bet backers try to do so.

Sustaining a livable environment

Green space plays a key role in enhancing air quality and lowering the heat, Garvin explained, showing how traffic islands in New York, under Parks Commissioner Henry Stern, were transformed into GreenStreets.

Given the size of the Atlantic Yards development, the landscaped space would be a necessary counterpoint.

A framework for urbanization

The final role, Garvin said, is to provide a public realm framework for development. Parks, hew suggested, have more influence than any other public works on development. He then offered the example of San Antonio's RiverWalk.

That, as I've suggested, is an area where Atlantic Yards clearly falls down. The open space is an afterthought.

Going forward

"Only by continuing to invest in the development and maintenance and maintenance of fine public parks can we be assured of a livable city," said Garvin.

He's clearly open to private funding of parks--he cited the role of the Bryant Park Business Improvement District--and the book (which I haven't yet read) describes various funding options.

Garvin was asked about political activity in parks. He said he had no problem with that, as long as the costs of park wear-and-tear were paid.

By contrast, political activity is verboten at privately-managed public space like MetroTech Commons, where even photography is banned.

Open space does not mean park

But he doesn't think open space makes a park. I asked what he thought of privately-managed space like MetroTech Commons.

He said he had no problem with such private spaces, as long as they're publicly accessible and paid for by the people who own them.

"But I don't believe they're a substitute for public parks, they're something else," he said.

"I also have increasing problems with what happens to them when there's an attempt to keep terrorists from destroying them," he added, pointing not to MetroTech but to the tower at 140 Broadway, where he said security concerns have blocked off too much of the public plaza.

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