In Bloombergian New York, ‘high-performance’ parks for a ‘high-performing’ public

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From a Harper's article three years after the establishment of Central Park. ()
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"'High Performance Landscape Guidelines' codifies an important shift in how we as a city think of our parks," reads the preface to a new handbook about making, maintaining and redesigning parks in New York City, published by the Design Trust for Public Space and the City of New York Parks & Recreation.

"In the past our municipal landscapes were conceived to look a certain way and stay that way—that is, to provide a safe and beautiful setting for recreation," it continues (perhaps assigning a bit too much credit to the parks system for having a defining concept that applies across the board). "We need 21st Century parks in New York City to expand their function beyond recreation—to store and clean water, filter air, help improve public health, and provide habitat and biotic connectivity to increase biodiversity, in essence to become organic infrastructure."

At 273 pages, “High Performance Landscape Guidelines: 21st Century Parks for NYC” is not a document meant for the general public, and even if it were, few would read it. Which is not to say it won’t be read; its presentation was one of the most well-attended in the history of the Center for Architecture.

But the very fact that it is a handbook meant for internal consumption by the Bloomberg administration and its various advisory groups, public-private partners, and consultants makes it a window into the brain-center of Bloomberg's New York.

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It is a benevolent but strict approach to the public spaces where New Yorkers doze, rest, play ball, take their kids and dogs, ice skate, ride horses, bikes and rollerblades. And so it fits perfectly: There are no trans fats in Bloombergian New York, and no smoking indoors. There are calorie counts posted in chain restaurants, bike lanes and pedestrian plazas in Times Square, where cars have been banned, and tables, chairs and plants have the right of way. There is soon to be no buying of junk food with food stamps, no smoking in parks, less salt in the food.

Aggressive rezoning has replaced swaths of waterfront neighborhoods, once dedicated to manufacturing, with luxury loft conversions, parks and "loft-office" space for creative types.

Bloomberg's New York is a high-performance town: fit, lean, open-minded, eco-aware, and fond of dawdling at café tables, attending free theater and music performances (paid for by friendly corporations) and eating fancy food at ballparks.

So its public spaces, especially its parks—where in the dark days prostitutes and drunk revelers fondled each other, drugs were smoked, binges slept off, and purses snatched—are due for a high-performance overhaul.

Physically, the manual prescribes what would seem to the casual observer a quite esoteric set of design principles for city parks.

“Designers choreograph dozens of elements: the experiential effects of light, texture, color, and sound; the sequence of visitor movement and rest, view and enclosure," the introduction reads. “In public projects, especially large scale projects, there is no single author.”

"INTO THE GREAT POLEMIC BETWEEN THE BELIEVERS in formal gardening and those who think Nature should be left as much as possible to herself he entered with no great zest," asserted an obituary in The New York Times for Frederick Law Olmsted, the man credited with the design of New York's Central and Prospect Parks. "So far as Central Park is concerned, he introduced very little of the formal element, believing that the transition from our very dry and ugly architecture and the terribly cut-and-dried layout of Manhattan streets would be grateful, as indeed it still is, although the situation at present is not so bad in such respects as it was 40 years ago."

Nowadays there is no great polemic, only small ones that arise every time a park in New York City is redesigned. It's fine to use the soil in parks to help clean runoff water, but what if we want a baseball field right here?

No great zest is displayed in this handbook for handling these disputes—and in fact it would seem that the handbook leaves little room for argument.

There are standards for the physical aspect of park, and for the health aspect, and for the environmental aspect. And, surprisingly, a pedagogical aspect.

According to "PART II: SITE ASSESSMENT," it’s important that playgrounds have opportunities for “freeplay.”

“Child’s play is spontaneous and comes naturally. While it requires the proper environment, it does not necessarily require special toys or unique pieces of equipment. All that is required is a place that is safe and a range of materials that invite children to explore their environment and construct their own play scenarios. By playing without instructions or structure, children form intellectual connections—they create, discover, imagine, and innovate. During free play, children learn to understand and develop skills of invention, cooperation, and sharing. And, because free play settings do not require the exclusion or segregation of special needs children, all children benefit socially and psychologically from this type of integration.”

A park may have many authors, then, but it will also stand for certain ideas, and not others; and it will serve a rather large social theory. But what is it?

AT LEAST ONE THING ABOUT IT IS CLEAR: the human uses of the park are meant to improve human performance as citizens. Parents might have another idea about how his or her child's mind develops, but at the gates of the park their child is an input like many others: rainwater that exits the park improved, more highly functional, than it was when it entered. The city does not simply rely on people to be good; it makes them better, optimizes them.

This is the message repeated over and over again: parks are going to be more than parks. As outlined in Bloomberg's 30-year multi-initiative master plan for the city, PlaNYC, they are part of the mayor’s overall effort to make climate change a priority, which in the case of parks will mean addressing mainly two things, what “High Performance Landscape Guidelines” calls the urban heat island effect and the overburdened stormwater infrastructure.

It’s a fairly brave thing to tell people they will just have to get used to a new kind of park that they may not like. But then Bloomberg’s smoking ban, which was reviled at first, is several years later quite universally popular. That the administration sometimes seems to be two steps ahead of what the people want is remarkable, and provokes both resentment and admiration, or loyalty. When Bloomberg brazenly pushed a law through the City Council that gave him a third term, there wasn’t a lot of resistance. It may be that some of the city doesn’t really follow local politics, but from those that do there was a certain apathy. He was doing a pretty good job, people liked a lot of what he did, and who really cared if he was going to keep doing what he was doing for another four years?

Against the mundane daily functioning of the city it seems like a rare and maybe slightly indulgent thing to wonder whether Bloomberg's New York anticipates our desires or forms them.