America is seeing a resurgence of parks. From the High Line and the Fresh Kills Park in New York to the revitalized forests, lawns, and beaches around the Golden Gate in San Francisco, cities everywhere are fixing up their old public spaces, turning space once used for transportation into greenswards, and finding ways to make infrastructure into spaces we can enjoy.
The main impulse behind all of this is the disappearance of transportation from the eye. Rail yards in particular are no longer necessary in major cities, so they have become major opportunities for development. In most cases, that means more housing, offices, or, as in San Francisco’s Mission Bay, universities, but a part of the new real estate is always devoted to public space. We are also burying more and more of our highways and parking garages and covering those spaces up with parks.
A modest example of the latter opened in my native Cincinnati a few weeks ago. Washington Square Park has a long, though not always illustrious, history. Once a graveyard, it has hosted everything from dances and concerts to industrial fairs. When I moved here six years ago, it was a dark and dilapidated void, inhabited during the day by some families but at night mainly by vagrants.
Now the city has built a new parking garage underneath it, torn down an adjacent elementary school (which I do miss, as it was a very fine midcentury Modernist structure), and invested close to $50 million to make Washington Square Park into a place packed full of activity and things.
There is almost too much. Because of its history, the park is dotted with memorials, ranging from cannons to statues. There is a concrete bandstand, which the park’s website optimistically says is “in the Mission Style” and the obligatory water feature that makes children and some inebriated adults squeal with delight when its spouts do their computer-controlled dance. There are flower beds and shade trees, fences and benches—everything an old-fashioned park should have, all packed into a city block and sitting on top of a new parking garage.
Luckily, there is also a big lawn that just sits there being open and inviting. Its sweep lets you admire Music Hall, the Samuel Hannaford–designed symphony venue that generated the call for this renovation (patrons felt unsafe, more parking is always desirable to such halls) from its best side, and on recent summer evenings, the place was almost filled with a crowd that was, for this city with a difficult history of race relations, remarkably and happily diverse.
An important part of what makes the park work is what you don’t see: the parking that will pay of the bonds that paid for the whole thing, but also the countless security cameras and roving police officers that make people feel safe. Public space in America only works if we know Big Brother is watching over us.
There is a larger story here: Washington Square Park is part of a revitalization of the Over the Rhine neighborhood, the largest collection of Victorian-era structures in the United States, in the block immediately to the east of Cincinnati’s new restaurant row. There are other new parks, and Music Hall itself will get a $165 million renovation. There’s life in these old cities after all.
Sitting on that lawn, enjoying just being there, I could only wish the design was better. But facts on the ground matter more than aesthetics. It will take continual maintenance and security, and maybe some redesign some day, but Washington Square Park is a good start to making our downtown a true attractor.