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Declining parks need inventive solutions
Last Updated: Sept. 14, 2003
Where is Frederick Law Olmsted when we really need him?
After working on a series of articles about the great landscape architect's endangered legacy in Milwaukee , I was left with a mixture of awe and dismay: awe at Olmsted's farsighted, capacious vision, and dismay that this vision is largely missing from present-day discussions about our beleaguered county park system.
Olmsted, working more than a century ago, understood the role of parks in humanizing cities, in softening social and economic inequities and in stemming what our generation has come to call sprawl. Having worked himself regularly to the point of exhaustion, he also knew better than most how a quiet stroll through a well-designed park, with its canopied woodlands and manicured greenswards, could restore the soul.
His Milwaukee parks - Lake, Washington and Riverside - still offer such rewards, despite the changes they have endured and the drastic budget-cutting that now threatens their future and that of the other parks in our 15,000-acre system.
Yet the debate about that future has been curiously sterile, centered mostly on which services to cut and how to replace declining property-tax support with some other tax or management structure. Never mind that resistance to taxes, period, is so strong right now that proposals for any new ones would face uphill sledding.
What's lacking, more broadly, is an Olmstedian perspective on the value of parks. Absent visionaries such as Christian Wahl, Charles Whitnall and the other early day civic leaders who created our nationally admired park system, we are reduced to talking about these resources in bureaucratic language, as if they were merely a drag on the pocketbook rather than the civilizing landscapes that they are, adding value to neighborhoods and enriching the experience of city life.
What accounts for this? The easy explanation is that the property-tax pinch is all too real and parks are seen as less necessary than, say, law enforcement or social services.
It is also said that the rich - suburbanites, in particular - have less stake in public parks these days because they tend to have large yards (and maybe vacation retreats) of their own; the poor, who need the parks more than ever, lack the political clout to make those needs felt. The chasm evokes John Kenneth Galbraith's famous lament about private wealth and public squalor.
While there's doubtless some truth to such arguments, it's not the whole truth. Parks are an important tool for keeping cities attractive to the middle class. Moreover, the fiercest defenders of Lake Park are its generally well-heeled east side neighbors, many of them members of Lake Park Friends, a volunteer group. The rest of us who use this beautiful refuge benefit from the Friends' tireless efforts to clear out invasive species, sponsor summertime concerts and restore the park's historic fabric.
In a similar vein, the environmental education programs offered by the spunky Urban Ecology Center at Riverside have brought new life and a broader constituency to this neglected slice of Olmsted's legacy.
I think at least part of the solution to chronic underinvestment in our parks lies in creating more ambitious versions of such public/private partnerships. In New York City, for example, the non-profit Central Park Conservancy and Prospect Park Alliance raise millions of dollars from individuals and foundations to manage and restore those Olmsted gems in partnership with municipal government. In a low-income neighborhood of Newark, N.J., the grass-roots Weequahic Park Association has used state and federal grants to rehabilitate a decaying Olmsted park and to teach teenagers the horticultural skills that translate into real-life jobs.
As many as 100 such alliances are rescuing and running Olmsted parks across the nation. Typically, local governments still make the policy decisions; but by privatizing management, concessions and other services, the partnerships achieve efficiencies that allow these historic landscapes to weather the budget crises that are battering parks everywhere. Similar arrangements could shore up our own three Olmsted parks and many of the other 137 units in the countywide system.
Is there the will to create professionally managed conservancies here? Who knows? But to judge from the many calls and e-mails I received in response to the Olmsted series, there is a large, untapped reservoir of concern and affection for Milwaukee's embattled parks.
"I met my future husband at Riverside Park," a woman told me, "and all of my children played there."
"I used to take my girlfriends to Lake Park to 'spoon' and look at the stars," another caller said. And from another: "Some of my fondest memories of growing up have to do with concerts in the band shell at Washington Park."
Such memories, and the potential to create new ones, reflect the parks' vital role in giving Milwaukee a sense of continuity and place. Olmsted knew this intuitively. To fritter away the emerald treasures he and others left behind would impoverish us - and future generations - beyond measure.
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