Garvin_1_250Public Parks: The Key to Livable Communities

Alexander Garvin
W.W. Norton & Company Inc., 500
Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10110;
2010. 224 pages. $65 hardcover.

Though they are as critical to livability as roadways, transit, and housing choices, parks too often are considered of secondary importance. At a time when municipal budgets are facing severe shortfalls, parks are increasingly being viewed as fiscal drains that further endanger a mayor’s bottom line. Enter Alexander Garvin, planner, practitioner, and thinker in the realm of cities and public spaces. In Public Parks: The Key to Livable Communities, he presents the rationale for considering public parks as fundamental components of the built environment.

Garvin, president and CEO of AGA Public Realm Strategies in New York City and an adjunct professor of urban planning and management at Yale University, has held a series of positions in the private and public planning realm that are especially relevant to his consideration of public parks. He was managing director of New York City’s 2012 Olympics bid; vice president for planning, design, and development of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation; and New York City’s deputy commissioner of housing and city planning commissioner. Also, his book The American City: What Works, What Doesn’t won the 1996 American Institute of Architects book award in urbanism.

Garvin begins Public Parks with a brief history of parks, focusing first on France and Great Britain before turning to New York City. He discusses the key role parks play in promoting health, “incubating a civil society,” and providing for livability through a cleaner and more equitable physical environment. But, true to his multifaceted background, Garvin also demonstrates the role parks can play in setting the framework for development and creating value that benefits both public and private interests.

Continuing with his dexterity in straddling public and private viewpoints, Garvin sets out to explain the process by which parks come to exist, addressing supply and demand, site selection, and design, including a brief history of park design. Although references to New York City tend to dominate Garvin’s discourse, Public Parks achieves far-reaching relevance by discussing models located throughout the country and the world and taking various forms, such as waterfronts, adaptive use of industrial areas and rail lines, formal gardens, and native landscapes, among others.

Historical processes and precedents remain a theme throughout the book, providing valuable insight into the hows, whens, and whys regarding creation of some of the world’s great public spaces. Along with New York City, particular attention is paid to Chicago, Boston, and Minneapolis, with excellent color photographs of these locales and others included.

Adhering to the practicality evident throughout the book, Garvin concludes with chapters on finance and governance, as well as the role of the general public. In an era of fiscal constraint, Garvin outlines various methods employed to maintain and operate public spaces. Various taxing mechanisms, events, sponsorships, and commercial leases, among other revenue sources, are discussed as ways to supplement, if not altogether replace, public dollars.

In the end, though, public parks are just that—public. So it is, then, that Public Parks concludes with a discussion of both sustainability and the public’s role in stewardship and governance, including how to promote public involvement in parks. Among the final words in Public Parks is a definition of the roles that every great park must play: “enhancing well-being and improving public health, incubating a civil society, sustaining a livable environment, and providing a framework for urbanization.”

Garvin’s Public Parks provides a comprehensive overview of why parks are important and how to sustain their existence. His insights and narratives will be useful for politicians, designers, planners, and, of course, the general public.