Urban Parks and Green Space-Political Theory


I took these photos last Monday while waiting to get my eyeglasses fixed. I needed someplace to go for a couple of hours other than Starbucks. I had just finished reading through a BA thesis and needed a change in venue. I walked a couple of blocks over and found a sunny spot at Sheep’s Meadow in Central Park. I read some, took a nap, and read some more.

So much academic political theory seems to me to be focused around the oikos (home) and agora (marketplace). (Probably, though, it’s all about the academy, but we like to think otherwise, so we pose and posture, and scheme political things in our head.) But something’s missing. It’s as if our image of the polis is still organized solely around ancient and medieval models.

What would our political theory look like if it took into account, theoretically, the modern bourgeois mediating place of public parks and other types of green spaces developed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries? What is the place of Olmstead and urban design in our political discourse? How might we theorize public parks and green spaces not just as real sites of domination or potential sites of insurrection, not necessarily, but in their quotidian usages?

A park or green space is a free, non-teleological place. People can go there not to dominate, argue, organize, shop, or pray. This is not to say that parks and green spaces are not good places to do at least some of that some of the time. They are, I guess. But as likely as not, they are good places to go to do “nothing,” or nothing in particular (i.e. to enjoy). I’m thinking of the NYC Park system, Mission Dolores and Golden Gate Parks in San Francisco, and Hyde Park in London. I’m sure there are many others, in Boston and Chicago, but these are the ones with which I’m most familiar.

So much of the political theory that come across concerns the acrid tensions between public-political and private spaces, or the just as acrid attempts to collapse the boundary between them. The preoccupation with justice is so impatient. In contrast, the bourgeois green space in its ordinary usage seems like an amalgam of the two. Actively managed and heavily policed, but also enjoyed by a large spectrum of the public. Again, this is not to ignore class stratification in the usage of parks and green spaces, only to say that there are all kinds of parks in all kinds of neighborhoods, middle class and working class.

Unlike more strictly political forms of public space defined by agon, the park and green space are relaxed, impromptu, and less choking. They lend themselves to all kinds of suspicious readings. The park is intensely ideological. But, in the end, I’m not sure the suspicious reading can stand up to public quotidian pleasure.

Also, I’m thinking about the difference between urban greens and suburban ones. If anyone can say more about how these work in the suburbs, I’d be much obliged.

In an urban setting, the green is a place open to the general public and to adult participation, whereas suburban green spaces are more dedicated to playgrounds, youth athletics, and adult recreational activities (walking, jogging, biking, etc). These are more intentional activities, less pedestrian, perhaps because the egress in and out of the park is not as smooth. You have to get in your car and drive to a suburban park and you go there “to do something.” In contrast, a big city park is more “at hand,” more integrated into the design of the place, more open to loitering, less exclusively devoted to more intentional and active forms of activity. The public beach might have more in common with an urban park than does a suburban park, a place to do nothing in particular, to sit, read, relax, or nap. I’m not sure.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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1 Response to Urban Parks and Green Space-Political Theory

  1. hayyim rothman says:

    well, growing up in the burbs we went to the park only to do something specific because there was a lot of non-park space in which to do nothing. there was no need to go to a park to do nothing. e.g. there were woods within walking distance that were not part of a park; we would simply wander around… or get involved in some mischief or another. it makes me think more about the idea of open space in the middle ages which were owned neither publicly nor privately; there existed spaces which were simply not owned and were open for common use (e.g. for pasture). unfortunately i think that in a society like ours this sort of space cannot really exist because there is an atrophied sense of common responsibility… someone or some group would exploit the resources without regard for others. spaces that are not private need to be regulated or they are destroyed. but this, i think, is a loss… perhaps one that can be remedied?

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