EDITOR’S NOTE: Each week we cross-post Katrina vanden Heuvel’s column at the WashingtonPost.com. You can also read Katrina’s column here.
At this political moment, when we hardly have time to process one outrage before the next washes over us, it seems as if the best escape might be to seek refuge from the tumult in a park.
This holiday weekend, that’s what many Americans will be doing. The lawns of city parks nationwide will fill with friends reuniting, children staying up past their bedtimes, and families getting a much-needed chance to relax. Parks, as they so often do, will provide a place for people to unwind, celebrate, and enjoy their communities.
Many cities—including New York, Milwaukee, Boston, Buffalo, Scranton, Pa., and Springfield, Mass.—have Frederick Law Olmsted to thank for these spaces. Born 200 years ago this past April, Olmsted was the visionary behind famed urban respites that have defined many an American city landscape.
Though most often celebrated as a landscape architect, Olmsted was also an accomplished journalist, reporting from the South in the 1850s for the New York Times, and one of the founders of the Nation, where I serve as publisher. In his prospectus for the magazine, he set out to foster a more considered, interrogated, thoughtful media discourse — the kind of commentary that wouldn’t overlook something as quietly remarkable as a park.
Olmsted understood the value of parks — simply on instinct. As he once wrote: “The enjoyment of scenery employs the mind without fatigue and yet exercises it, tranquilizes it and yet enlivens it; and thus, through the influence of the mind over the body, gives the effect of refreshing rest and reinvigoration to the whole system.” His words may seem merely poetic, but in fact research has since borne out his claims. A recent Urban Institute report found that parks boost four key dimensions of health: physical, mental, social and environmental. As rates of anxiety and depression rise, especially among teenagers and adults working sedentary and isolating jobs, parks represent an indispensable refuge.
Their environmental benefits will also be increasingly essential as the planet warms. According to the National Recreation and Park Association, a park can serve as a “cooling oasis”; these green spaces in D.C., Baltimore and New York register temperatures as much as 16 or 17 degrees cooler than other parts of the city. Meanwhile, according to the City Parks Alliance, the trees in urban parks remove more than 7 million tons of toxins from the air each year — a service valued at $3.8 billion.
Parks are also important to our political and civic life, often serving as spaces where we Americans exercise our constitutional right to assemble. They have been the locus of numerous social movements and demonstrations, most recently including Occupy Wall Street, the Women’s March, Black Lives Matter protests and the March for Our Lives.
The power of these public spaces is such that they can lend beauty, civility and community even to online public spaces. Consider the comments section of a recent New York Times photo essay on Olmsted’s legacy. Hundreds of readers from various cities shared their gratitude for and pride in their parks, calling them “crown jewels” and “treasures,” and describing them as, “during episodes of loneliness and despair,” being “a great source of peace and solace.” Written about two years into the pandemic, these comments reveal the importance of parks to those seeking connection in a world of social distancing orders. Indeed, covid-19 ushered in an astonishing rediscovery of our public gardens, as residents sought them out to host safe meetups while local governments used them to distribute coronavirus tests and vaccines.
But rediscovering and keeping our parks will require reinvestment. One place to start? The Community Parks Revitalization Act, reintroduced by Rep. Albio Sires (D-N.J.) in January 2021. The bill would authorize Housing and Urban Development Secretary Marcia L. Fudge to increase federal loans for local municipalities to maintain, restore and reconstruct their parks.
Importantly, investments should focus on ensuring that parks be accessible and inclusive. While New York’s Central Park is beloved today, we should not forget that it displaced Seneca Village, one of the city’s only Black settlements during the 1800s. And racial exclusion continues today, with parks often less accessible to Black and Latino neighborhoods. In Los Angeles, for instance, the Trust for Public Land estimates that for every 1,000 residents of predominantly White neighborhoods, there are 31.8 acres of park space — while for residents of predominantly Black neighborhoods, there is a dismal 1.7. Moreover, parks located in low-income neighborhoods are less likely to have working water fountains, public restrooms and playground equipment.
The true test of a community park lies in its being a place for everyone. Perhaps Olmsted said it most practically: “For those who cannot travel, free admission to the best scenery of their neighborhood is desirable. It is, indeed, necessary, if life is to be more than the meat.”