Well-designed parks boost quality of life

For all our needs to protect ourselves from the elements with buildings, we still hold a latent desire to be outside, soak in the sun and do something, or maybe, not do something.

When I was a kid, being outside was an assumed condition of life; it is just what we did as kids. Outside was freedom from parental tyranny and oversight. Outside were friendship, play, adventure and occasional chores. Inside we learned about rules, discipline and responsibility. Outside, we had the sun, grass, trees, snow, rain and dirt: elements we could not control. Outside, the rules changed. Kids became people.

As I write this, I am outside, listening to the birds sing and call to one another. The breeze is light and refreshing and the sun is starting to peak around the corner of the house. There is noise, but it is quiet. I still hear cars, lawn mowers, dogs and joggers, but it is serene, like looking into an absolutely still lake. Being outside is simply a great place to be still and contemplate. I can hear myself. I can be myself.

People have always found ways to be with nature. Locally, we are rich with the outdoors. We have backyards, parks, wide tree-lined streets, a Rail Trail and, with a little drive in any direction, innumerable lakes, rivers, forests and mountains. The beauty of our local towns and villages is the symbiosis of nature and settlement. It is the balance struck between open space and our artificial, constructed human habitats.

The struggle we have now is reinvigorating the role of the public park. There are a bunch around, seemingly vestiges of a bygone era when communities relied on public interaction to spread information, resolve tension through competitive sports, build social consensus and friendships. To name a few in our cities: Knox Field, Sir William Johnson State Historic Site, Myers Park, Melchior Park, Riverlink Park, Bigelow Sanford Field and Shuttleworth Park.

All are good examples of reasonably large tracts of land set aside for public recreation. We saw a recent example of the cultural utility of these spaces with the reprisal of the fireworks show at Knox Field. I have to say, it was just awesome seeing all those people converge on one place for a communal celebration. It was a shared experience I will remember for a long time. It was an event you did not need or want to stay in your car to experience. You had to get out amongst the people.

All of the parks I listed are a bit different, and each offers a unique landscape and experience. Myers Park is perched up on a wooded hill. With open lawns and a gazebo, it is a great place for picnics and a leisurely stroll. Melchior Park is a fine example of a garden park, even if it is mostly trees and lawn. Its mature, tall trees create a scrim-like canopy where the sun stipples the ground in ever-changing patterns of light and shade. It’s like having a huge outdoor living room in your front yard.

Amsterdam’s RiverLink is the newest park, offering more architecture, and it tries very hard to make a connection with the Mohawk River in spite of the arterial bypass that cuts it off from the rest of the city. But as nice as these open parks are, they are missing something. And, in turn, they are losing something.

Let’s examine that by way of an example, Sir William Johnson Park on Main Street in Johnstown. This land used to be occupied until the 1960s by a dense cluster of commercial buildings very similar to what exists across the street. The buildings were lost to fire, which created an opportunity. The city rightfully, I think, decided to create a park out of the ashes to memorialize the founder of our community and its history. But while the intentions were good, the execution fell short.

The first letdown was assuming the parking lots on the west side were a reasonable use. They are a great advantage for the courthouse and county building. But they suck up a large amount of park space for a single use – parking cars. And they force the bandshell into diminished significance in spite of the shell’s physical presence and desire to dominate the scene.

The second letdown is the general lack of design intent. Outside of Christmas decorations, there is no proper landscape lighting. The sidewalks are straight but ignore the natural axial alignments with the courthouse spire and St. John’s Church. The fountain is so small as to be a trite remembrance of public fountains found elsewhere. The seating and historical signage is dull and marginally useful in its placement along the north hedge row separating the park from St. John’s Memorial Garden. The material selections and general composition are all over the map, with concrete and brick featured most prominently. There is little to tie all this together into a coherent place.

The third letdown is the landscaping, most notably the trees, which should be the element that organizes the park and gives it a sense of structure. In this location, smaller, dense foliage trees obscure views and create smaller, darker pockets of shade that are a harsh contrast to the bright sunlight. The trees should be taller, with thinner foliage, to create a canopy. Their location would be much more successful along the Main Street sidewalk to create an edge that balances the rhythm and scale of the buildings across the street.

The significance of this example is that while it was born of good intentions, it falls short in its role as an outdoor room. Its architecture is ad hoc and underdeveloped for the prominence of its Main Street location, which ultimately undermines its value to the whole community. In the 19th century, our machines imposed themselves onto our quiet landscape. We now live in our machines. Our parks need to be designed and maintained to offer restful communion with nature, ourselves and each other with delight and exuberance, lest we forget who we are and what we are doing.

David D’Amore of Johnstown is a member of the American Institute of Architects and owner of AND Architecture and Design (and-architecture.com).