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Thursday, December 28, 2017

The Road to a Park System for the Future

I drove with my family to Wisconsin and back for Christmas, with a minor detour through Chicago each way. Four days on the road gives you plenty of time to mull things over, and as I passed through the transitions between urban areas and open countryside, kicked in and out of cruise control interacting with the mixture of cars and trucks on the highway, and detoured through Chicago, I found myself thinking a lot about how park systems may look in the future. This may take some explanation, but please come along with me for this ride.

Driving in and out of urban areas is generally just drab. More often than not, buildings become more mundane and spread out, commercial signage grows larger and taller, and then eventually just seems to give up. Most people usually just call it "urban sprawl," even if it's a term without a real definition. But there are a few cities that have great gateways. New York did, once upon a time. Passengers arrived in the harbor by ship, passing alongside the welcoming Statue of Liberty as the skyline took shape as individual skyscrapers continuing to push impossibly higher as you drew nearer. Dramatic as it is to pass through the cut in the Palisades and emerge onto the George Washington Bridge, the city is a mere glimmer in the distance before disappearing into a bewildering tangle of ramps. Likewise, the helix of the Lincoln Tunnel provides impressive glances at the Midtown skyline, but then grinds through a toll plaza and squeezes through the tube before emptying onto congested, nondescript Manhattan intersections.

But Chicago has its moments. We drove along Garfield Boulevard on a side trip going both ways on this trip. Among my strongest memories in life is peering out the window as my cab drove from Midway Airport along the tree lined boulevard on my first trip to Chicago, when I moved to Hyde Park sight unseen to begin college. Exiting the Mad Max world of the Dan Ryan onto Garfield Boulevard invokes a somewhat similar sense of calm and wonder, a definite moment of arrival. Yet while the broad green space and regular spacing of mature trees is still great drama, each time I visit the boulevards on the South Side, the more acutely I feel they have been stripped down to mere scenery. In practice, the boulevards seem to do little to connect any activities between the parks. There is no flowing use of a system of parks, and the roadway design seems to cut off much opportunity. Yet even without the reality of real connective use, the mere vision is compelling and the spacing of greenery contributes to a more legible and enjoyable neighborhood structure. There is much still to be learned and built on from this old Olmsted pattern as our streets continue to evolve.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Chewing Gum on a Sign 15 Feet Over the Street

Stuck on a sign hanging over Broadway, out of sight of the throngs of workers and visitors crowding the sidewalks and unnoticed by the drivers passing below, are a lot of pieces of chewing gum. There's a few stickers stuck on there too. While generally invisible to ordinary New Yorkers, it is a shared experience of the thousands of tourists who pass mere feet below the sign while seated on the top of a double-decker bus. Some of these tourists are the people sticking the gum on there.

There are a handful of places where people have collectively created a kind of grotesque landmark by sticking their chewing gum onto something. The old gum tree in South Philadelphia and more extravagently, the gum wall in Seattle, come to mind. Compared to those, this sign is thoroughly unremarkable. Yet it shares the same fledgling crowd dynamic. All these locations emerge because something prompts others to follow the example of that first person who deposited their gum in an inappropriate place. At first, others just take enough notice to take advantage of the opportunity to discard their stale gum, until it reaches a critical mass and presents itself as an invitation to join the fun. In this case, it's possible to identify how this sign developed into the early convenience phase.