by Peter Harnik, Urban Land Institute, 2000. 

Reviewed by Richard W. Amero, October 11, 2000 


Peter Harnik had his own reasons having to do with population densities for determining which 25 cities to choose for description in his book, "Inside City Parks," published by Urban Land Institute in 2000. Many theoretical books about landscape architecture or public recreation discuss city parks in an overall manner, such as "The Politics of Park Design" by Galen Cranz, but they do not tell how and why park departments operate nor draw their conclusions from statistical interconnections. Alexander Garvin, author of "Urban Parks and Open Space," similarly published by Urban Land Institute in 1997, prepared the way for Harnik who refers to him more frequently than he does any other writer. 

Harnik chose landscape architect Joe Brown, EDAW, Inc., to write the introduction for his book. This was not a wise choice for though Brown is complimentary. he is anxious to justify his own work, notably in Atlanta's Centennial Olympic Park, created for the 1996 Summer Olympics, which he describes as belonging to a "smart park" concept. Such an animated ideal is to him the opposite of what Frederick Law Olmsted and his associates were doing in creating "pastoral" parks. It may be inevitable for landscape architects to believe that anybody but themselves is out of touch with the times, but such is not Harnik's view who claims that contemporary park administrators and politicians have made mistakes when they failed to heed the advice of the pioneer planners of this country's most famous city parks. Tellingly, it is the "natural" 19th century parks designed by Olmsted and followers, such as Central Park (New York City), Prospect Park (Brooklyn), Franklin Park and the Emerald Necklace (Boston), Piedmont Park (Atlanta), Jackson Park (Chicago), Belle Isle (Detroit), Schenley Park (Pittsburgh), Forest Park (St. Louis), the Chain of Lakes (Minneapolis), Swope Park (Kansas City), Hermann Park (Houston), Golden Gate Park (San Francisco), Forest Park (Portland, Oregon), and Green Lake Park (Seattle) that today evoke the most praise and support from park enthusiasts. 

"Inside City Parks" is an invaluable resource for anybody interested in contemporary parks. It highlights common problems, such as underfunding, crime, vandalism, dogs, mountain bicycles, erosion, cars, parking lots, cross park expressways, buildings, overused facilities, deferred maintenance, faulty irrigation systems, neighborhood-versus-outsider turf issues, destruction wrought by the homeless, plant diseases, and multiplication of pests and of invasive plants which upset park visitors and stagger park administrators. Obvious encroachments, such as hotels, office buildings, football stadiums, are noticed, but more subtle special-use encroachments, such as Boy Scout, Girl Scout and YMCA encampments, are ignored. The book would be even more important as a reference source if it had an index to subjects, which in these days of computer methodology should be easy to compile. Professionals and students would also welcome a bibliography. 

Harnik tries to maintain a neutral stance in his survey. With the exception of Indianapolis whose conservative leaders have been reluctant to spend money on parks and have contracted out many park services ("outsourcing") and of Miami whose park staff, short of staff and money, have watched helplessly as its few parks were used for a highway depot, a dump site, a sewage treatment plant, a medical center, office buildings, a basketball arena, and a Parrot Jungle, Harnik seldom criticizes park and recreation departments, sees advantages and disadvantages in the separation of park and recreation departments in Boston, Philadelphia, Cincinnati and Tampa, approves of the existence of semi-independent park districts or commissions in Chicago, Kansas City and Minneapolis, and deplores the transfer of park maintenance workers to the Board of Public Works in Baltimore and to the Public Works Department in Pittsburgh. He scoffs at the misdirected priorities of politicians such as Mayor Rudolph Guiliani (New York City), Mayor Ed Rendell (Philadelphia), Mayor Kurt Schmoke (Baltimore), Mayor Stephen Goldsmith (Indianapolis) and Mayor Willie Brown (San Francisco). Conversely, he gives Boston's Mayor Ray Flynn, Chicago's Mayor Richard M. Daley, Pittsburgh's Mayor Tom Murphy, Denver's Mayor Wellington Webb, Houston's Mayor Lee Brown, and Los Angeles' Mayor Richard Riordan high marks for supporting park activities. Foregoing an opportunity for caustic remarks, Harnik gives the unsightly McCormick Place Exposition Center on Lake Front Parks in Chicago passing mention, claiming that the creation of 16 acres of new park land will mitigate the Center's massive expansion.. 

Harnik concentrates primarily on what park departments are doing. Since what they are doing is anticipating the future, it is not clear just what will happen. next Will the city parks get their appropriations, hire the right managers, appease conflicting park users, generate support? Will the Hudson River Park, the Bronx Greenway, the Harbor Islands Park and Greenway over Boston's underground highway, the Schuykill River Greenway in Philadelphia, the conversion of Meigs Field Airport into Chicago's Northerly Island Park, a proposed 10-acre Canal Basin Park near the mouth of Cuyahoga River at Lake Erie in Cleveland, San Francisco Embarcadero Promenade or the 1,480-acre Presidio Park in San Francisco --- a national park and thus not part of Harnik's study (though hard to ignore) --- become assets promoting recreation as well as business? Will the Marlins Baseball Stadium be built on Bicentennial Park facing Biscayne Bay in Miami, a city of 365,000 people with only 3.5 acres per 1,000 residents? Will the Reds Baseball Stadium and the Bengals Football Stadium on the Cincinnati side of the Ohio River, scheduled for completion in 2001 and 2004, actually create a new $65 million Central Riverfront Park? Which competing agency --- City, County, State --- will build and operate the park and how can the park be designed to resist Spring floods? Will the concrete channels that go by the name of Los Angeles River be broken up to create riverside trails and a string of small and medium-sized parks for the more than a million low-income people who live south of Hollywood? Will similar concrete channels on Mill Creek in Cincinnati be replaced by gardens, forests and wetlands? Will Phoenix live up to its name by transforming its dry Rio Salado into a five-mile greenway with 550 acres of wetlands and trails for hiking and bicycling? 

Responding to protests and reversing their usual practice, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers gave up a plan to build concrete culverts to control floods along Brush Creek in midtown Kansas City. .Instead, the Corps agreed to rebuild the Creek as a flowing stream in which water would be recirculated during the dry season. The walkway created, reminiscent of San Antonio's Paseo del Rio, the prototype for all such developments, has stimulated $750 million in new commercial and residential development along the corridor and has united richer with poorer sections of the city; thus proving what Kansas City's pioneer park planner George Kessler well knew . . . that parkways and open space can revitalize cities as well as people. 

While not suggesting that anyone solution is applicable to all park systems, Harnik favors exploiting all possible avenues for park support . . . grants, bond issues, taxes, donations, fees for services, private and commercial sponsorship, and transfer of services to outside profit-making agencies ("privatization" or "outsourcing"). Noting how New York City and Chicago have obtained money from the use of parks for corporate events and advertising and from commercially-operated food stands, restaurants, golf courses and parking garages, he declares that "reasonable" outsourcing is good for parks because it compels agencies to discover what they can do well and what private parties can do better. He describes how the Urban Land Institute, the Trust for Public Land, park conservancies, business improvement districts and similar organizations have stepped in to help struggling cities to acquire park land or to protect land which is in danger of slipping away. 

Confessing his fascination with the views of Jane Jacobs who stood up to park expansionist Robert Moses' efforts to run a highway through Washington Square Park and later wrote her often quoted "The Death and Life of Great American Cities," Harnik agrees with his former mentor in his comments favoring multiple use parks, such as a contemplated 123-acre park on the site of a former USX South Works Steel Mill in Chicago, the 1.7-acre park at Post Office Square in Boston that replaced a four-story garage with seven levels of automobile parking and a park on top with outdoor café, fountains, sculptures, movable chairs and landscaping, the similar one-acre Lykes Gaslight Square in Tampa with its oak trees, arc lights and stylized benches, the 21-acre State-owned Centennial Olympic Park in Atlanta with its lawn, court of flags, fountain and amphitheater, the new 29-acre Commons (a former railroad yard) in Denver, a mixed-use project with 66 acres of parkland on an unused 174-acre Union Pacific rail yard in Los Angeles, and the whimsical 1.5 acres Pioneer Courthouse Square in Portland, Oregon, which has become the centerpiece of the city. 

Since it does not conform with the Bureau of Census 1998 population estimates, Harnik's choice of cities may show his liking for some cities rather than others. In this connection, the listing of parks within the three density classifications --- high, medium and low --- may indicate personal preferences rather than the use of a formal rating system. New York City, first in the high; Detroit in the medium, and San Diego in the low. If the book is the start of a continuing study, perhaps missing cities will be covered later. Attention should be paid to city parks in Canada --- Victoria in Truro, Nova Scotia; Rockwood in Saint John, New Brunswick; Rouge in Toronto, Ontario; Gatineau in Ottawa, Ontario; Mount Royal in Montreal, Quebec; Parc des Champs de Bataille in Quebec City, Quebec; Queen Elizabeth in Edmonton, Alberta; Stanley in Vancouver, British Columbia; and Beacon Hill in Victoria, British Columbia --- where though waterfalls, fauna and flora are bountiful, they are nonetheless cherished by people who do not find them monotonous or fear being alone within them. Does this have something to do with the fact that because nature in Canada does not present its best face at all seasons of the year, it is continually exhilarating? 

In reading "Inside City Parks" the reader finds scattered comments claiming this or that park has an outstanding feature. New York City, for example, is the "greenest" big city; Chicago has the most publicly accessible lakefront; Seattle has the most generous per capita budget for parks and recreation, $164 per resident as compared to $114 in Chicago; Cincinnati has more public golf courses and swimming pools per capita than any other city; and so on. Despite these assertions, Harnik does not rate the 25 parks he has studied. 

There are 30 charts or tables indicating number of pools, tennis courts, recreation centers, percentage of parkland in each city, per capita spending for parks and recreations, and other matters. These indicators can be interpreted as showing that some cites have better park policies and facilities than others;. However, knowing how subjective rating systems are, Harnik does not claim one city's parks are superior to another's. Such ranking is futile when applied to landscape, as so many landscapes are different yet all are inspiring. Still the urge to rate qualitatively by quantitative standards was not stifled as many releases announcing the publication of "Inside City Parks" lead off with a 4-star rating system derived by combining criteria and giving points to each city. In so doing, Harnik comes up with a numerical ranking of 4 stars for Boston, Cincinnati and Minneapolis and one star for Cleveland, Detroit and Miami . He gives other cities 3 or 2 stars. As he lists the cities within each class alphabetically, one can assume that those sharing the same number of stars are equal in status. Thus, San Diego (3 stars) is the equal of Chicago, Denver, New York, Phoenix, Portland, Oregon, San Francisco and Seattle and is better than the 2-star cities of Atlanta, Baltimore, Dallas, Houston, Indianapolis, Kansas City, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, St. Louis and Tampa. The rating, however, is in the releases and not in the book. 

Harnik's 3-star rating of San Diego might surprise San Diegans. They have grown so accustomed to listening to the praises of writers of travel magazines who have hailed Balboa Park or Mission Bay Park as the best in the country, that it must be disconcerting for them to discover everyone does not agree. Harnik believes that San Diego has 36,000 acres which are "urban park land." Even if the figure, since revised by the San Diego Park & Recreation Department, should be different, San Diego is well endowed with open space, much of it in the public domain and some of it in use for recreation centers and city parks. Like other observers, Harnik gives 1,173-acre Balboa Park first place among the city's parks, though it is not the largest nor the most scenic. He praises its landscaping --- largely on the west side --- and appears to be unaware that a large expanse on the east side is barren and unused. Unlike boosters, he is not overwhelmed by the buildings and structures in the center of the park and elsewhere, notes that most of these are protected from demolition by historic designation, and remarks that even more parking structures are called for in the park's current master plan. 

Balboa Park disposed of, Harnik turns to the city's other parks with more enthusiasm probably because they are more in accord with those he is familiar with in the other cities he has studied. These are the 4,600-acre Mission Bay Park, the 5,760-acre Mission Trails Regional Park, the 6,500-acre La Jolla Underwater Park, "conservation land" in Otay Valley, Tecolote Canyon and Marian R. Bear Parks, 53 recreation centers distributed throughout the city, 5.8 acre Chicano Park, and the soon-to-be transfer of approximately 417acres of the San Diego Naval Training Center, which means the acquisition of approximately 93 acres of upland and submerged lands for parks and open space. Out of the City's grand total of 33,984 acres, 14,301 acres are set aside for neighborhood, community and resource-oriented parks (Balboa Park and Mission Bay) and 19,683 acres for canyons and open space. As of October 11, 2000 only the City of Phoenix's 34,901 acres of city-owned parkland exceeded San Diego's. 

By October 1999 San Diego had set aside 14,965 acres, owned by various city government agencies, as its portion of a 172,000-acre wildlife and habitat preserve and was attempting to add another 6,500 acres. The city's share of the preserve system was expected to rise eventually to 57,000 acres. This amount was required to meet the City's obligations, as set forth in a 30-year Multiple Species Conservation Program, adopted by the City Council in 1997. City ownership of this land would give the city more open space than any other city in the country. This does not mean it would give the city more parks as the relation between a habitat preserve and a park is ambiguous. Nor is it clear that the City's Park & Recreation Department's rangers would oversee the entire preserve. 

In passing, Harnik observes that the City's premier parks are utilized as tourist attractions. Hotels and Sea World Amusement Park in Mission Bay return money to the city for leases and as hotel occupancy taxes . A percentage of the City's general hotel motel tax money is returned to Mission Bay and Balboa Park every year to defray the cost of capital improvements. Other moneys for maintenance and improvements come from the City's General Fund. The amount of money available is contingent on the state of the City's economy, the priority of other projects and the discretion of the City Council. The most incisive part of Harnik's study of San Diego's park system is his discussion of how the City is to pay for the acquisition of new parkland. He is less sure of how the City is gong to pay for its maintenance once acquired. Since the City cannot raise property taxes to pay for government services, a consequence of the passage of Proposition 13 in 1978, it must rely on neighborhood assessments, a citywide assessment tacked on gas and electric bills, and money received from land developers in exchange for development rights. In practice, money from these various assessments is spent to acquire parkland in high-income regions of the city and not in poorer central and southern areas. Even the Maintenance Assessment Districts, authorized by California's 1996 "Right to Vote on Taxes" Act, is no guarantee that additional money will be available as each neighborhood must approve charges for projects above the Park Department's uniform level of service and the neighborhoods can contract with private landscaping companies rather than the Park Department to do the work. Once again, poor neighborhoods in the City suffer as householders in them cannot afford to pay the cost of additional assessments. 

It may be that some of Harnik's statistics are suspect. There are a lot of them from lists of cities profiting from developer impact fees (7 in this study) to tables showing the total parks and open spaces by acres in cities to the number of public swimming pools per 100,000 residents by city. Park departments may sometimes be careless in reporting figures. They may also exaggerate to show that their cities are the best in one way or another. To say that a city has so many acres of park land may not be true. For one thing, is it "dedicated" park land that cannot be taken away from the people except by vote? Is it "open space" that can be seen from afar but not visited? (In San Diego 14,099 acres are classified as dedicated city parkland and 5,699 acres as dedicated open space.) 

Is it a view point, a play field, a school lot, a community center, or an abandoned lot that is used temporarily for community gardens or play courts? Is it, in the case of Houston, a 10,534-acre flood-control facility leased by Houston from the U.S. Corps of Army Engineers and equipped with sports fields, trails, rest rooms and picnic tables that is periodically inundated by 10,000 acres of water? This is not to say that Harnik's figures are not important as indications of how a city is developing or how it compares with others. It is merely a caution that any statistical interpretation is subject to change over time or when different methods of evaluation are employed. 

Despite these cavils, park lovers in all the cities covered, including Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, Miami, Minneapolis, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, San Diego, Seattle, St. Louis, Cincinnati, Portland, Oregon, Denver, Houston, Dallas, Atlanta, Phoenix, Tampa and Kansas City, and in those no less important cities that are not, including San Antonio, San Jose, Jacksonville, Columbus, El Paso, Memphis, Milwaukee, Austin, Washington, Nashville, and Charlotte, should read "Inside City Parks" because it shows the weaknesses and strengths of park systems as they exist and indicates, in a "Conclusion" directed toward the heads of park departments, the means to make them better. 

NOTE: An abbreviated version of the above review appears in amazon.com. 

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