A Plea to End the Crisis Narrative

By Jamie Maslyn Larson

Is crisis the only catalyst for change these days? Natural disasters, economic recessions, and terrorism have all affected the way our cities look over the last two decades. At the same time, politicians, civic leaders, and designers have appropriated a narrative about the role of the public realm in contending with these crises—casting it as a setting to honor, assemble and demonstrate; to provide protection from climate change; or to create new “world-class” destinations and identities for challenged neighborhoods.

Absent a crisis, it seems the “old fashioned” way of planning for our cities—which is incremental and deliberate, builds consensus across audiences over time, pilots and tests ideas, and makes step-by-step policy shifts—isn’t commanding public attention. In an era when we’re hit with alarming headlines nearly every day, how can we, as a design and advocacy community, make things as seemingly mundane as maintenance and equity relevant?

We need to escape the dramatic cycle of panic and crisis, and resist the lure of sexy trophy projects. And we need to reengage with processes that create a broader vision and narrative for all of our constituents, including the underserved. This will require an apolitical infrastructure, community education, and measurable results that demonstrate progress.

Maybe this idea makes you yawn. Perhaps you think this is idealistic or naïve. You might be thinking, “How could we possibly hold the community’s interest through a long, step-by-step process?” Or, “We could never brand this to sell merch!” As a landscape architect who plants trees for future generations to enjoy, I know that in my profession we sign up for making long-term plans that may never come to fruition in our lifetime. The long game is the game.

But having observed the shift to “branded” public space projects—and having experienced the hypercompetitive race to win this type of work—I see a lot of wasted energy by talented professionals competing to make the newest and coolest project. Every day we have limited time and are pulled in many directions. Bending away from the crisis mode or the latest high-profile competition, and instead exerting more effort toward significant issues like maintenance and equity is important for all of us to do.

Why maintain?

Our failure to address maintenance erodes our community fabric. For parks in particular, one challenge is that it’s hard to notice the slow erosion of quality over a long period of time—it creeps up on us. Parks are living and linked systems that simultaneously grow and decay, responding to seasons, weather, and human interaction. When a park is healthy, it is beautiful and clean, becoming the focal point of a neighborhood. When it isn’t cared for, it can be sad at a minimum and unsafe at worst.

Maintenance is an equity issue because it is funded unevenly. In desirable business districts like Bryant Park or expensive neighborhoods like Battery Park City, there is nifty financing that provides a dedicated source of funding for maintenance. Where friends organizations exist—typically in desirous neighborhoods where parks boost real estate values—individual or corporate philanthropy steps in because they have a vested interest in their park’s quality. But most places in the city lack either.

All of this coalesces in the health of our communities: when we lose a single tree due to lack of maintenance, we lose something that cools our city, reduces air pollution and carbon dioxide, and offers a nice place to sit in the shade. When we have broken play equipment, we lose more than just a place for kids to let loose. We lose a venue for generations to share space together, a feature that allows kids to get their blood and imaginations pumping, and a setting that gives parents a break.

A deeper look at “world-class parks”

Let’s look closely at one type of public space that attracts headlines and funding, and is perhaps the most yearned for type of landscape architecture project: the “world-class park.” The world-class park says it all about who we build our cities for—not for our residents, but as a spectacle for a global audience.

In the early 2000s there was a radical shift in the way we positioned parks in our cities. They became recognized as part of the toolkit that could transform our cities from old, ragged industrial wastelands to fun, hip, and leisurebased. Suddenly landscape architects were “at the table,” determining the shape of these new neighborhoods alongside politicians, economists, city leaders, architects, and planners—a position of authority that harks back to Olmsted’s power and leadership. It seemed that every RFP issued was for the design of a “world-class park” and nothing could have been better for landscape architects. The budgets were astronomical (finally!). Our leading designers were practically rock stars! Landscape architects finally had their Bilbao effect in the High Line.

What brought about this shift toward building world-class parks in our cities, as opposed to investing in incremental, more distributed park improvements? It wasn’t an altruistic desire to bring accessible green space to long-forgotten neighborhoods. It wasn’t to head off climate change challenges with greener solutions; this was long before Superstorm Sandy brought that issue to New York City. And it wasn’t because building parks and public spaces was a new-fangled idea; there are many relevant 19th and 20th-century parks that already demonstrated the correlation between parks and healthier, safer, and more economically robust communities.

Rather, the world-class park was instrumental in shaping a new urban lifestyle “brand” that promised cities a lifeline in the face of (what we were told was) certain economic peril. In the late 1990s cities saw declining federal support, so there was a desperate need to make up funds to maintain budgets. On top of that, with the evisceration of urban industry and declining middle-class jobs, cities had empty waterfronts and needed to attract the new economy— particularly technology and tourism—and its high-paid talent to bolster their tax bases.

A now-familiar narrative followed: cities needed to act quickly to beat out London, San Francisco, Toronto, or Singapore for their survival. Every major city was pitted against the others and strove to demonstrate their “competitive advantages,” their “quality of life,” and their “authentic, sustainable” urban lifestyle. World-class parks and public spaces were as integral as cocktail bars, hipsters, and Zipcars in modeling these aspirations.

The Politics of Parks

In New York City, the world-class park was a key part of a broader plan by the Bloomberg administration to attract the creative economy and bolster quality of life, which also included major rezonings and heavy support for the tourism industry. The Bloomberg administration added more than 850 acres to the city’s park system through projects like Brooklyn Bridge Park, the High Line, and Governors Island. (Full disclosure: I was Principal-in-Charge for Governors Island Park when I was at West 8). So, after a decade of major investment in world-class public space improvements, how has this worked out for the city? Or shall I say, who has it worked out for?

It would be ridiculous to say that these bold public improvements have not, helped the city become safer, greener—and frankly, prettier. But let’s face it: the city is barely affordable for me, let alone for residents that work in the service industry, younger people, and the remaining working class. Plus, we had essentially abandoned investing in parks in less affluent areas. So questions about who we are building parks for are as critical as interrogating where we are building them.

The de Blasio administration’s approach to parks investment is almost diametric to Bloomberg’s world-class park approach. Much of the current budget is invested in improvements for existing parks across all boroughs, but the administration falls behind in adding new park acreage. Given that the city’s population continues to grow, and with existing parks at record usage, many argue that both strategies are needed. Yet as long as budgets remain stagnant, choices need to be made, and the zero-sum game strikes again.

Coming up with a reasonable funding plan for parks maintenance is not rocket science: we have to pay for it with our taxes and share this revenue throughout the city. Park advocates have rallied to get the City’s budget for parks on
par with other cities like Minneapolis and Seattle (which would take it from today’s spend of about .6 percent to 1 percent), which would add $385 million to the existing annual budget of approximately $500 million. The funds, if approved, could do a lot to expand and enhance parks across the city, add additional maintenance staff, and care for existing parks. And given the administration’s tangential goals in programs like Vision Zero, affordable housing, and planning for resiliency, park projects could be bundled with other investments to contribute to the delivery of multiple benefits for a broad range of constituents.

Does letting go of “world-class” mean we let go of design excellence too?

As a person that values the beauty and experiential qualities of great design, I think there is a fundamental fear that the alternative way of planning our cities—i.e. stepping away from “world-class” parks mode—means a lack of design. I have heard someone say that we should design for “good enough” parks in less privileged neighborhoods. What does that even mean? No details? No craftsmanship? We should not go down that rabbit hole toward a metric that is impossible to define or measure and, moreover, starts from a position of pessimism.

In order to retain capital budgets and political momentum, park advocates and landscape architects have recently been repositioning parks as “critical infrastructure” rather than a decorative accessory. This has both helped and hurt us in the conversation about parks design and maintenance. It’s helped because it puts parks on par with necessary expenditures like repairing roads and storm water systems. But it’s hurt because it devalues design.

We must acknowledge that parks bring an element to people’s lives that goes beyond the “serviceable.” I’m talking about the same reason we seek out food that tastes good or listen to music—it is pleasurable. Everyone deserves access to some pleasure in their lives, not just those who can afford it. Making pleasurable places means not only fixing sidewalks and adding basketball courts to our parks, but integrating culture, beauty, comfort, and surprise. It should be ok to acknowledge this—to say it out loud—without fear of getting chastised for being out of touch.

So, what can designers do?

As designers we are poised to answer these challenges. We are natural disrupters of repetitive thinking and are adept at trying something new. So, I am making a personal plea for your action and involvement in this important work that may not win you a design award or earn you a TED talk.

First, let’s start with an easy proposition: take the position that everyone deserves access to quality public space–not just “good enough” public space. Next, if you are on a jury for any design award, feel free to drool over the pharmaceutical campuses and public spaces with multi-million dollar budgets, but please also consider projects that are making a big impact in underserved neighborhoods. These are the herculean projects of our profession, ones that bring a joy to the lives of our neighbors. Finally, if you are going to invest your team’s time and resources in a design competition in another city, why not make an investment with pro bono work in our city as well?

On a deeper level, we need to give more thought to the political narratives that frame our work. Every time a new challenge emerges and the story we hear is, “We have to do this or our city will fail!” we are not only falling into the trap of planning by crisis, but we are also neglecting the steady, less glamorous ways we can shape our cities—through areas like equitable design, and by addressing questions like how to pay for and maintain public space, and how to create jobs around this.

All of this probably means doing things differently than you have in the past. And change is hard to do. Try taking little steps. It is far easier and more fun to gossip about the hottest new design than talk about maintenance at parties. Go ahead and do that, but when you’re at work and want to challenge yourself and your colleagues to grow and deepen your ideas and practice, talk about maintenance and equity. Read more articles about social justice issues. Support and value the efforts and people that contribute to the slow, steady, incremental work that will make all of our neighborhoods healthier, safer, greener—and yes, world-class.

Jamie Maslyn Larson is Director of Landscape at BIG NYC, bringing with her over 20 years of experience as a leader of projects that embody the integration of transformation and design excellence. Her award-winning portfolio has given her a deep understanding of the critical role of the public realm in the shaping of cities, and demonstrates her capacity to execute long-term projects of design quality at every scale. Prior to BIG NYC, Jamie was a Partner at West 8’s New York office and Principal-in- Charge of the firm’s US portfolio, including Governors Island Park.