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Remember: The purpose of City Parks

Sunday, October 11, 2009

The purpose of City Parks

(This is a reposting of 5 posts that ran last week, collected.)

1. Reflection


Yesterday morning I took a ride down to the parkway and went for a walk. It was my intention to revisit the part of the Parkway that I documented the first time I decided I was going to write a blog about city parks. I went because the summer is all but faded now and the hands of autumn are stretching across us like a greedy child upon a bowl of candies.

I went to reflect on the long summer. I went to start trying to figure out what exactly the point of city parks is. You see, I have been watching the wonderful Ken Burns Documentary on our National Parks. The explanations offered by historians and historical figures for the purposes of our National Parks are as psychologically inspiring as our parks are awe inspiring. These huge swatches of wild land are America’s greatest legacy and our most enduring monuments.

Listening to the words of the prophet of the wilderness, John Muir, I was left a bit shell shocked. I am no Muir as I visit the parks of Allentown, take a few pictures and write a bit about them on this blog. I wish I had half the intellect and talent that John Muir had. Muir walked to the Sierra Nevada Mountains and in doing so bequeathed upon anyone who steps a toe into the wild, a precedent for worship, word and knowledge. Not the worship of a god in a stone building but the worship of wonder by observation and study; words not of poesy or verse but of eyesight and witness; knowledge not of the concrete jungles and urban worlds but of the everlasting presence and eternal weight of nature.

And into the Parkway I went. Autumn had begun to make its presence known selectively on a few maples turned red, leaves swimming in the creek, and the general fade of everything from lush leaves and color to space and barrenness. Now and again, where autumn’s fingers haven’t reached it would seem to still be July, just briefly.

I climbed upon an outcropping of rock, sat and watched.

The trees were shaking violently in the wind gusts and their leaves were escaping from branches as if fleeing from an unseen threat. The water of the creek bristled in the breeze and small waves beat against the banks. There was short peace between the winds and a sense of cool calmness even as the slow smell of decay rose into the new afternoon.

Undoubtedly beautiful, but ultimately why? I did not think to stop and ask a passerby their opinion. Most of them were plugged into their iPods or focused on calories; I do not think they would have noticed if all of a sudden their surroundings up and disappeared. To those runners, this place of controlled wilderness is nothing but scenery. The National Parks are true wildernesses. Our city parks are not.

I continued walking and watching. The afternoon was cool and I could not have been more grateful. The sky was genuinely blue, with thick puffs of cumulus clouds being pushed around by the wind. Again, beautiful to be sure but what is the purpose of the Parkway? It certainly must not be a mere place to go running. Perhaps, on a smaller scale, it is exactly the same purpose that Muir saw in the cavernous valleys of Yosemite. Perhaps, John Muir has left a mark so deep in the general psyche of America that his point is ultimately mine.

As I walked on the return loop to my station wagon, I thought next of the trees. I considered what it would be like to be a tree. A tree feels no loss when a leaf falls or a storm claims one of its branches. A tree knows to grow in the direction of sunlight and does not question it. A tree never has to accept consequences because the things that happen to it are just part of the way it goes. A tree never has to move on or mourn or feel the pain of death. A tree never watches someone they love hurt or loses someone they love to someone else. A tree grows. A tree dies.

We will move on, we will mourn and feel the pain of death. We will watch our loved ones hurt. We will lose the ones we love to circumstance. We will grow. We will die. At the end of our day, we are just another animal returning to the dirt from whence we came. We go to the parks to see our mortality painted across the beauty of nature. In the small wild worlds we have in our city there are countless lessons to learn. It is time I explored what the parks have been teaching. Today, in the growing shadow of autumn I realized the first one. Unplug your iPods and listen. We go to the parks to learn, or at the very least, we should.

I leave you today, with this:

Excerpt from Thanatopsis by William Cullen Bryant:

To him who in the love of Nature holds
Communion with her visible forms, she speaks
A various language; for his gayer hours
She has a voice of gladness, and a smile
And eloquence of beauty, and she glides
Into his darker musings, with a mild
And healing sympathy, that steals away
Their sharpness, ere he is aware. When thoughts
Of the last bitter hour come like a blight
Over thy spirit, and sad images
Of the stern agony, and shroud, and pall,
And breathless darkness, and the narrow house,
Make thee to shudder and grow sick at heart;--
Go forth, under the open sky, and list
To Nature's teachings


2. Refuge


Standing alongside the lagoon at Trexler Park a heron met eyes with me. I slowly drew my camera to my face, focused and the second my finger pressed the button, the heron fled. I had become a threat in the heron’s home, its refuge. I too was in Trexler Park yesterday afternoon in my refuge. Away from the noise, confusion, and hollow junctions of urban life, our refuge is our parks and the second reason for them.

Back in April, as I sauntered up the hill to see General Trexler in Trexler Park, I told my brother that I was going to post about our trip on my blog. I did not know what for. I was just going to do it to do it. As my explorations grew deeper, longer and more frequent, a physical sensation began to overwhelm me. Pressing my footsteps into the ground of our city parks, I began to feel better.

I would step out of my station wagon, and breathe deeply. Even on the most humid of summer afternoons the air in the park would feel lighter. The haze would dissipate into the shadows behind the trees. My hands would stop shaking. My heart would stop racing. In the parks it would seem that my spirit could be free.

Continuing to observe the epic saga of our National Parks on PBS this week I was amazed at a sort of coincidence that was common to most of the major figures in Park history. Many of these men and women were like me. They were sick; and when they got themselves into the park a slight and slow healing found them as if it were waiting. Other Park figures were mourning or suffering and just as those who were mentally sick found relief, these individuals found peace.

They found their refuge. They found Nature as a serene sentinel in which the mere act of breathing could serve as the perfect medicine to heal their soul’s afflictions. I too found my refuge. Be it in the valley of the Parkway or the trails on South Mountain, these places are free. It is that certain freedom that creates unbounded peace. Nature is also in itself eternally reliable. Here the idea of refuge intersects with my previous post on the purpose of parks.

In Trexler Park, much like the Parkway, I found autumn waiting to pounce. I saw that aforementioned heron. I saw blue jays twirl in yellowing trees and a bright red cardinal dart from branch to branch on browning bushes. I saw a squirrel chase a chipmunk for an acorn. I watched the unfolding stratus clouds reveal the face of the sun for short intervals. I took a breath as deep as I could take it and I allowed the intoxicatingly cold air fill my torso. I had found a refuge.

So, go into the parks and breathe. Slow the ever quickening pace of modern life back to the standstill where it belongs. In Allentown, we are blessed to have as many parks as we do. There is no place in the city where it would be a hassle to get yourself into a park. Go and try to find some peace. That is one of the reasons they are there. General Trexler knew that too.


3. Community


As I have been walking in our parks trying to better define the purpose of a city park, the most apparent and obvious definition is always is front of me. I have thus far defined a city park as a place to examine mortality and as a place to find refuge. Today, I offer my third definition of the purpose of a city park and this purpose is community.

There are so many parks and playgrounds in the city of Allentown that each one of them can be connected to specific neighborhoods, and in some cases the bigger parks can be connected to everyone. At Percy B Ruhe Park, there is a youth league that plays and practices athletics there. Bucky Boyle has a frequently filled splash park and playground in an area of Allentown that doesn’t have many green open spaces left.

This past Sunday I sat with my friend Sara in the Rose Gardens and watched a father and son work in tandem to get back a football they lost in the large reflecting pond. I saw families enjoying the warm afternoon together. Groups of Muhlenberg Students were walking and checking out Cedar Beach for what may have been the first time. In every park, every day, experiences like the ones I witnessed at Cedar Beach are repeated countless times.

Our parks are our common grounds. We use them to meet, connect, and understand better both people and nature. The children that live around Franklin or Stevens parks downtown know which playground they call home. Those kids will grow up on those playgrounds and the playgrounds will forever be tied to them even as they reach old age.

Cedar Beach Parkway was where I spent the most time as a kid. If I think about it, I can remember tons of experiences I have had there and I know that the park will always be tied to me. Every one of you that reads this blog, I’m sure, could offer your own stories about what Allentown parks have been significant to your lives.

As much as these parks exist for the betterment and strengthening of communities, they also offer communities opportunity. The neighborhood parks give people the chance to come and meet each other. They can make new friends, new connections and it is these new friendships and connections that help to strengthen the community and ultimately and on account of the park or playground will make that neighborhood a better place to live in.


4. Recreation


Be it the heave and grunt of a disc golfer in the Lehigh Parkway, the whir of a bicycle passing in Trexler Park or the heavy footsteps of a runner on the gravel path at Cedar Beach Parkway; there is a constant active usage in our city parks. Combined with picnics, walks, sun tanning and a whole mess of other activities, it is safe to say that the fourth point of a City Park is recreation.

Yesterday, Michael Drabenstott commented on my blog post describing the third point of a City Park. Mr. Drabenstott said:" An amazing running community exists in Lehigh Parkway. I routinely see the same happy, friendly people week after week. You see them at races and volunteering at kids events. They're committed to fitness and to being outdoors whether it's 20 degrees and snowy or 80 degrees and humid. I don't know everyone's name. I probably never will. But with a smile, brief wave and nod of the head, we acknowledge to one another that we share important values that make us part of the same community."

The intersection of recreation, community, refuge and reflection he described in that post perfectly sums up this series of posts. Throughout our park system and on a daily basis, these tracts of land are actively used. For as much as our parks should be (and aren’t always) sanctuaries of Nature, they too must also be places where the citizens of Allentown can and do go to engage in those aforementioned recreational activities.

When I wrote the first post about the purposes of a City Park, an anonymous commenter seemed rather miffed that I had taken umbrage at the idea that some folks use our parks as mere places to run. This commenter went on to chide me for my seeming generalization of runners. His passion for the manner in which he uses our parks is exactly why recreation is so important to them.

In our parks there are even devices one can use to get a complete workout. I tried them myself a few times and I can assure you, they offer a good workout. The baseball, football, volleyball and basketball games that take place in the parks are absolutely recreational activities. Those activities are however the building blocks of a strong community.

If running, walking, disc golfing or whatever other activity you enjoy is what it takes to get you into the parks, do it. I encourage all my readers to get out into the parks and use them for whatever recreation you can use them for. I myself certainly should be using them more often to burn some calories. The connection to all of my previous points of a City Park can be made through recreation. Once someone takes a step in, all of what I have documented will begin to happen.

I will have one more point to make about the purposes of City Parks before I end this mini-series of posts. Today though, I say, go for a run. Take a walk. Throw a Frisbee disc. Bring the dog for a jog. Get out and into nature and let whatever you enjoy doing be your gateway. Just remember to leave only footprints. Perhaps I’ll see you sometime.

5. Salvation

What is the concluding point to the purpose of a City Park? I have highlighted reflection, refuge, recreation and community so far but I feel as if I have left something out. Walking down the concrete sidewalks next to the macadam surface of streets, looking at the buildings made of brick and steel, and stopping under the occasional tree; the most important point of a City Park becomes glaringly obvious.

View Larger Map
In the map above is the city of Allentown. You can see some parks, as well as the agricultural fields to the northwest and the Lehigh River curling its way on towards Bethlehem. The thing about that map is, that the most striking and obvious feature is the static snow of urban development. The parks seem like little green aberrations in what is otherwise a gray conglomeration of civilization.

Inside this gray conglomeration, we exist. We go to work. We run errands. We drive our cars. We live our lives. Thing is, should we? Was Jefferson right so many years ago when he suggested that open land free of development was the key to preserving freedom? Was Emerson right when he said: “here I feel that nothing can befall me in life, -- no disgrace, no calamity, (leaving me my eyes,) which nature cannot repair.”?

A human being loses itself in the madness of urban development. We are not meant to live in the manner that we currently do. Our food is full of chemicals and preservatives. Our air, the most precious of our resources is polluted, and getting dirtier. In every aspect of modern life, human beings are moving themselves away from their origin as mammals and entwining themselves in the technological contraptions of new civilization. We are losing what we have left of nature.

Here, is the greatest and most important reason for a City Park. Those little green aberrations in that map are the salvation of urban life. Without question, I believe that the gray and the green in the map should be switched. It is the city that is out of place not the park. It is the city that is ultimately the cause of the loss of nature. It is our fault, as the dominant species in the overall ecosystem of Earth that nature is being lost to our “progress”.

Still, we have our parks. Here in Allentown, we are blessed to have the great amount of parks we do. In these places the truest identity of humankind is possible to experience, that is, once a human walks away from the urban structure and resubmits to the overwhelming power and purpose of nature. In our parks we return ourselves to the freedom of life. In our parks, we can make a brief return to nature, or better yet, a brief return to way things should be.

What of the parks themselves?

It should be, and it currently is not, our greatest duty as citizens to preserve, maintain and protect these little tracts of nature. Our creeks and rivers must be cleaned and made as unaffected by city life as we can make them. The plants and trees in our parks must be defended from invasive species, not only Japanese Knotweed, but the modern human being. Our parks should be our priority.

Are they? Are we doing everything that we can do to make sure these sacred spots are healthy, vibrant, and as wild and beautiful as they can be? Sadly, the answer is no. Our city minds and lives have allowed for them to suffer the indignity of mowed lawns, trimmed trees and bushes, and the death of our watersheds. We have allowed the intricate ecosystems in our parks to fall apart and we have done so because we expect the parks to be maintained in such a fashion that they are more like zoos of nature than places were nature can be wild.

Still, we have them. We need them. Tomorrow at Cedar Beach Parkway, I will be present for the planting of a large riparian buffer along Cedar Creek. This kind of a project is a necessity for all of our parks moving forward. The little green tracts in that Google map are an available salvation for the stress and sickness inherent in a life removed from nature. We need to return them closer to where they should be. I reiterate here, that we should all get out into the parks as often as possible. We need to.

“Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where Nature may heal and cheer and give strength to body and soul alike.” –John Muir

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1 Comments:

Blogger Anne said...

Great series! I love these parks... favorites are Lehigh Parkway and Trexler... I used to run in Lehigh Parkway when I lived closer and I loved being familiar with the park and watching the change of seasons.

October 11, 2009 at 7:45 PM  

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