Zimmerman_1_200Peter Harnik
Island Press, 1718 Connecticut Avenue N.W., Suite 300, Washington, D.C. 20009;


www.islandpress.org

.
2010. 204 pages. $30, paper.

Urban Green, a slim paperback of 26 abbreviated but trenchant essays, blends the chronological ying with the author’s yang. Peter Harnik followed his passion, hooking up with Environmental Action at age 21 (from which evolved Earth Day) and later cofounded the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy. He currently directs the Trust for Public Land’s Center for City Park Excellence, where he presides as sort of an in-house guru tracking city-by-city trends in park development.

In this, his third book—the second, Inside City Parks, was published in 2000 by ULI—Harnik conveys in pragmatic, no-nonsense terms what it takes to make the outdoor rooms of a city serve the true needs of their users. Fundamental questions are asked about which kinds of parks to build, how much to build, for whom to build, and where the parks should go. The answers imply new or renewed solutions and new ways of defining the very term parks.

The point of departure for Urban Green is that, contrary to conventional wisdom, parks in cities are extraordinarily expensive and complex public works projects. They are on par with interstate highways, taking decades to conceive, plan, design, and build, with numerous obstacles along the way. The current resurgence in central city living, escalated land costs, increased densities, and greater competition for limited urban space have added still more layers of complexity to the challenge. In short, making parks happen requires reinvention and innovation as never before.

Harnik cautions the reader not to depend on the parks and recreation establishment for leadership. Theirs is a pervasive timidity that seeks refuge in the guise of misapplied or idealized industrywide standards, such as an ideal acreage per resident, he writes. It is not that all standards should be disregarded outright, but they should be viewed more as guides than as rules.

Furthermore, the establishment’s meek attempts at master planning have a way of dying a quiet death, collecting dust in department reference libraries. Industrywide standards and master planning all too often sidestep real user needs. They also tend to ignore expectations inherent in the political arena, which can only be confronted at the local level. For any master plan to have much chance at success, it must include a timeline for project completion, a budget, and a compelling vision that “guides the reality.” The parks and recreation establishment has a way of backing off this level of commitment, but without it, a master plan represents little more than hope. “Ideally,” argues Harnik, “the American Planning Association should not be giving an award for a mere plan; awards should be reserved for the rarer accomplishment: the great plan perfectly realized.”

The second half of Urban Green has a chapter-by-chapter account of an astonishing variety and scale of park types, many quite novel, accompanied by easy-to-scan, city-by-city comparison tables. Most are adaptive use projects, and in several instances they use borrowed spaces. Many reflect the partnering of grass-roots activists, nonprofit entities, foundations, and government. Some even date back to his days with Rails to-Trails. They range from the renowned Millennium Park in Chicago—24 acres (9.7 ha) with a daunting price tag of $475 million—to the schoolyard Sparks parks program in Houston, where each school is required to provide $5,000 of seed money, usually gathered via bake sales, penny drives, and rummage sales, as a sort of downpayment on a $75,000 product paid by other partners.

In addition to public sector–sponsored urban redevelopment projects, the full list includes community gardens, old landfills, wetlands and stormwater storage ponds, rail trails, rooftops, shared schoolyards, covered reservoirs, river and stream corridors (greenways), boulevards and parkways, decked highways, closed streets (cyclovias), removed parking, added hours to existing parks, and perhaps most novel—harking back to social customs of the 19th century —reclaimed landscapes within older cemeteries.

Urban Green concludes with another critical jab at insularity, this time aimed at local advocates, whether at the grass-roots level or otherwise, who fall victim to the presumption that everyone loves (or should love) parks as much they do. Many fail to do their homework before meeting face to face with their adversaries at the bargaining table. Others are content to vent their passions at city council meetings and public hearings, or worse, to each other. Such tactics are a sure formula for failure. “Getting anything done requires leaders and activists with unusual stamina, creativity, and communication skills,” Harnik writes. “Only by working cooperatively with the many other constituencies in the city will advocates ever get to the point where a mayor’s traditional directive to a park superintendent—‘do more with less’—is replaced with the liberating permission to ‘do more with more.’”

concludes with another critical jab at insularity, this time aimed at local advocates, whether at the grass-roots level or otherwise, who fall victim to the presumption that everyone loves (or should love) parks as much they do. Many fail to do their homework before meeting face to face with their adversaries at the bargaining table. Others are content to vent their passions at city council meetings and public hearings, or worse, to each other. Such tactics are a sure formula for failure. “Getting anything done requires leaders and activists with unusual stamina, creativity, and communication skills,” Harnik writes. “Only by working cooperatively with the many other constituencies in the city will advocates ever get to the point where a mayor’s traditional directive to a park superintendent—‘do more with less’—is replaced with the liberating permission to ‘do more with more.’”