Back to Park History

It seems that California Urban developers were seeing the importance of urban park space around the turn of the twentieth century. In the San Francisco Call on May 7, 1891 an article talks about park evolution in England. It refers to parks first being reserved for the elite, then being opened for public use. It goes to talk about the beauty of parks. The title of the article is “Urban Oasis” so it makes sense that beauty would be a theme. The article seemed to be aimed at arousing public interest in creating parks in San Francisco.

March 7, 1909 – the San Francisco Call published a letter from the distinguished landscape artist, Charles Mulford, to Mayor Mott of Oakland. The Mayor had been politically criticized for his establishment of parks and attempts to beautify the city. According to Mulford, “in a political campaign candidates are attacked for all sorts of things, but this work as a cause for attack it is certainly something unique. To me it is almost funny.” He goes on to talk about Mayor Motts progressiveness, then talks about the importance of parks themselves saying, “The value of the parks to the community itself, a value that will continue to grow each year: the pleasure they will bring to all the citizens especially those who cannot afford large gardens and play spaces of their own.”

Creating these urban utopias wasn’t cheap. A lot of times they were part of large urban development projects. August 17, 1912 the San Francisco Call printed an article depicting how the Urban Realty Improvement company was shelling out $1.5 million for a development project that would include homes and parks.

Once the fervor of actually having urban parks started to wear off, the question of “what should we do with them?” began to creep out. One thing a lot of people noticed was how “open” early parks were. April 29, 1922 the Pacific Rural Press put out an article discussing the need for shade and ornamental trees.

Part of the beauty of the parks became the man-made architecture. Not just the placement of shade trees and benches to affect the look and feel of the place, but the strategic placement of monuments, fountains, ornamental walkways and other structures. Parks became large pallets for creative minds. National Park Service sought that “harmony of a building with the landscape” much like any other park district and employed the services of horticulturalist and landscape architect Andrew Jackson Downing to achieve their goals.

Today, the beauty of a park comes not from extraordinary architecture. Nor does it come from its roots in nature. The beauty of a park comes from the integration of urban life with the natural environment. The concept of harmonious coexistence gives the parks their timeless charm.

Issues with parks have evolved — they have become more complicated. Urban centers have become more and more crowded. Everyone believes that they are entitled to their own piece of public space, yet there is only so much public space to go around. With huge corporations coming in and buying what little public space is left and destroying the recreational land we have, that space is decreasing while the demand for it is increasing. While talking to the twenty-one year old skater, Ricky a couple of weeks ago, he told me about a grueling battle to save park space that nobody wanted — until it started being used. The concept that somebody else was actually using the land spurred Caltrans to take it away. People who use parks understand that at the peak of the season the parks are usually full. Use of the facilities can be difficult because everyone else is using them, too.

Bordertown - The skatepark that Ricky is fighting to save.

This brings us to the concept of using a park for dangerous sports. In such crowded conditions an already dangerous sport can become even more dangerous. This is where I find stereotypes about skaters being mean and violent inconsistent with the realities of the sport. If these guys didn’t treat each other with respect, there would most likely be a lot more injuries than there are. This also brings up another issue: Street skating.

According to Iain Borden, “Skateboarders…first understood space as a pre-existent natural phenomenon…skaters responded to urban space in a more deliberate and substantive manner.” In other words, the space was there, and they could use it. Borden talks about the skaters creative interpretations of urban architecture, a perspective that is lacking from traditional historic views. He believes that architectural histories tend to revolve around construction rather than the structure’s actual history. “Architecture does…have a meaning. But its meaning is neither fixed nor internalized.” He believes that the architecture of a building or structure is remade over and over throughout its history based on the experiences of those within and around it.

Stereotypes mentioned earlier as well as limited space and confusing laws lead to unpleasant situations. November 26, 2009 the Peninsula Beacon printed a letter to the editor from an unhappy mother. She depicted a situation where her son, a professional skateboarder, was giving lessons at a San Diego skatepark. A police officer came in and kicked everyone out. The reason the officer gave was that they were not wearing protective gear. The issue with that is the law says that the city is not liable for injuries, the city does not have jurisdiction and that the actual facility has to set the rules concerning safety equipment. Since it is a city park, according to the angry mother, the city should simply post a sign that says skate at your own risk and send the police to catch actual criminals rather than harass kids.

This incident brings up a big question: If kids are being harassed by police for skating in the parks designed for them to skate in, where are they supposed to skate? They get in trouble for skating on sidewalks, on streets, in parking lots — now they are being harassed for skating the parks that are designed for them to skate in. For some reason I have visions of Footloose in my head. The idea of taking fun from kids because of irrational fears is ludicrous to me. In Footloose, dancing was banned because it would lead to drinking, sex and wild behavior. In this case people are afraid that skating will lead to violence and I don’t know what else. Like Footloose, the fears about skating are unfounded. Some communities seem to be realizing that. I hope that others follow suit.