Featured Reviews, VOLUME 3

Featured: PUBLIC PARKS by Alexander Garvin [Vol. 3, #41]

“Liberating Parks…
And Bringing them Back to the People”

A review of
Public Parks: The Key to Livable Communities.

By Alexander Garvin.

Reviewed by Chris Smith.

Public Parks: The Key to Livable Communities.
By Alexander Garvin.

Hardback: Norton, 2010.

Buy now: [ Amazon ]

PUBLIC PARKS - Alexander GarvinAs one who has been experimenting for several years now with urban naturalism, I have a deep appreciation for greenspaces in which the abundant life of creation is not quite as enslaved to the best laid plans of humanity.  Thus, I was excited to hear about the release of Alexander Garvin’s book Public Parks: The Key To Livable Communities.  Starting with the definition of a park as “public open spaces that are available to all citizens free of charge,” Garvin proceeds to narrate the relatively brief history of parks (according to this definition), and to lay out a basic philosophy of parks that takes into consideration such factors as site selection, stewardship and finance.

Garvin’s account of parks is centered around the lives and work of two key figures: Fredrick Law Olmsted and Robert Moses.  Olmsted, not only was the co-designer of New York’s Central Park, but the firm he founded would eventually design and create roughly six thousand of the earliest North American parks, an undertaking that spanned the continent from coast to coast.  Although Robert Moses is most recognized as an urban planner who fought to modernize New York City and who inaugurated several key expressways across that city, he perhaps is equally significant for his quarter-century of work as New York City Parks Commissioner (1934-1960).  Olmsted and Moses were undoubtedly chosen not only for their noble stature in the history of North American parks development, but also because they both approached the task of park development as part of a larger strategy of urban planning, an approach to which Garvin is apparently sympathetic and also one that was perhaps the greatest detriment to his account of parks (as we will explore later in this review).  Before I dive too deeply into a critique of this work, allow me to emphasize that Public Parks is an elegant book, well-designed with many large, color photographs that breathe life into Garvin’s streamlined narration of the history, meaning and operation of parks.  Additionally, the book serves as a good introduction to the history of parks and to the basic ideas related to the development and maintenance of parks.

Garvin’s account, while often pausing to compare and contrast the perspectives of Olmsted and Moses, still takes a largely urban planning approach to understanding the societal role of parks, and as such, is deeply indebted to Moses’s work in Urban Planning (as opposed to his work as Parks Commissioner, which is more directly addressed here).  Moses’s vision of urban planning, driven by concepts of modernism and progress, has been widely critiqued over the last five decades, beginning with – what is perhaps the most poignant critique – Jane Jacobs’s classic work The Death and Life of Great American Cities.  Jacobs was contracted to write this work, after spearheading a neighborhood victory over Robert Moses’ plan to extend Fifth Avenue through the middle of Washington Square Park.  This struggle, which is chronicled thoroughly and succinctly in Anthony Flint’s recent book Wrestling with Moses (Read our review here), is helpful in assessing Garvin’s overall philosophy of parks.  The fight over Washington Square Park is instructive in that we see that for Moses, the value of a park is subjugated to the larger ends of urban planning; so, a park is a great thing and an asset for “the people” (more on that momentarily) but if the needs of progress in the city demand running a major thoroughfare through the heart of the park, then it must be done.  Jacobs critiques this idea of the unqualified good of parks as she opens her chapter on parks in The Death and Life…:

Conventionally, neighborhood parks… are considered boons conferred on the deprived populations of cities.  Let us turn this thought around, and consider city parks deprived places that need the boon of life and appreciation conferred on them.  This is more nearly in accord with reality, for people do confer use on parks and make them successes – or else withhold use and doom parks to rejection and failure (89).

Jacobs proceeds to offer examples of parks that have both succeeded and failed, and even goes so far as to argue that in some large parks like Central Park, there are both successful areas and unsuccessful ones.  Garvin, given his urban planning bent, largely follows Moses in arguing for the unqualified good of parks (for evidence of this, one need look no further than the book’s subtitle “The Key to Livable Communities”).  For the urban planners, one of the key powers to which park development is subjugated is that of the Almighty Dollar.  One gets hints of this in Public Parks, as Garvin talks of developers recouping their investments in parks by the presumed increase in property values of adjacent properties.  This sort of thinking about urban spaces although it portends to be “for the people” leaves little room for the real needs and desires of people who live in proximity to parks or proposed parks.  We arrive, finally, at perhaps the greatest flaw of the urban planning approach, its paternalism, particularly in imagining that urban planners have a better knowledge of how a space should be used than do the neighbors most immediately connected to the space.  This sort of paternalism is perhaps seen most vividly in a letter that Robert Moses wrote to the child Naomi Landy (at the time, eleven years old) regarding Washington Square Park:

The trouble is that our plans were blocked by stupid and selfish people in the neighborhood who don’t want to give you a place to play, but insist on keeping Washington Square as it was years ago, with lawns and grass… (Wrestling With Moses 74).

In the sort of modernist urban planning characterized by Moses, the desires of the people are a thin façade masking economic and technological ends (in this case, the technological “advance” of playgrounds over open green spaces).  In such accounts, including Garvin’s the “people” are almost always an abstract or a collection of isolated individuals, leaving little or no room for local, organized groups of people like churches or neighborhood organizations.  To be fair, Garvin does include late in the book a brief chapter on “the role of the public,” in which he admits that the public can play a role in the designing and maintenance of a park, but one gets the sense in reading this chapter that the role of the public is not nearly as important as that of the urban planner.

Upon reflection, it seems that there are two fundamental flaws with the practice of urban planning.  First, urban planning attempts to orchestrate areas of space that are too large, and in so doing, is inadequate in its engaging of the people who live in these spaces.  Secondly, and similarly, urban planning attempts to do community development without community organizing.  Claudio Oliver has offered in his recent pamphlet Relationality (recently reviewed in the ERB) a pointed critique of the practice of development, and while I’m not sure that I am ready to dismiss development altogether, I certainly agree that the sort of development that Oliver describes that ignores the needs and desires of a people in a place can do great harm. The sort of urban planning that is characterized in Moses’s work – and to a lesser extent in Garvin’s view of parks – is exactly this sort of development without organizing.  I have argued (for instance, in my review of Walter Brueggemann’s Journey to the Common Good) that churches, as communities rooted in a particular place and with a mission of seeking the redemptive work of God, are well-positioned to catalyze this sort of development-via-organization.  Community organizations and other groups that are rooted in a place, can also function in a similar way, bringing neighbors together to envision how all the people, organizations and spaces within a particular (relatively small-scale) place can be orchestrated to nurture the common good in a place.  Whatever this sort of engaged style of development might lack in its speed and “efficiency,” it will more than make up for in its concern for particular people, organizations, buildings, spaces and history.

As part of this sort of philosophy of engaged development, we need an account of the role of parks and greenspaces.  Alexander Garvin’s work in Public Parks is decidedly not this sort of account, relying as it does on an overarching philosophy of urban planning, but it could well serve as the beginnings of a beneficial conversation about how parks have been understood historically.  Jane Jacobs’s chapter on parks in The Death and Life…, in contrast, offers some wonderful first steps in the direction of such an understanding of parks.  Of course, one would love to see the bare bones of this vision fleshed out in greater detail, as well as updated with examples, etc. that would assist us in thinking about parks and greenspaces amidst the present challenges of urban places.  Additionally, a vision of parks like that of Jacobs’s would benefit, I believe, by being brought into conversation with the more recent agrarian thought of Wendell Berry, Wes Jackson, Norman Wirzba and others, which has a deep reverence not only for places but for the flourishing of land and communities within particular places.

C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com

L10-Launch Promo Blog Phase 1 CTA 1

Reading for the Common Good
From ERB Editor Christopher Smith

"This book will inspire, motivate and challenge anyone who cares a whit about the written word, the world of ideas, the shape of our communities and the life of the church."
-Karen Swallow Prior

Enter your email below to sign up for our weekly newsletter & download your FREE copy of this ebook!
We respect your email privacy

In the News...
Christian Nationalism Understanding Christian Nationalism: Essential Books [A Reading Guide]
Most AnticipatedMost Anticipated Books of the Fall for Christian Readers!
Theology BooksTen Theology Books to Watch For – September 2022
B. EhrenreichJournalist Barbara Ehrenreich died earlier this month. Here's a few video clips that introduce her work
Funny Bible ReviewsHilarious One-Star Customer Reviews of Bibles


  1. Very Good Chris. In the last two years we have started, from our understanding of Creation and salvation, a anarquic movement called “Free Gardens” that aims to liberate abandoned plots as real public spaces. Sometimes bulldozers come and destroy all we do in few weeks, sometimes the very people destroy it, but always a strong sense of community arises from the activity , mostly between those living around the liberated area.
    Great post bro…. and….Ah…. believe me, development, as a substantive, is a post WWII strange creation, that together with money as an end and a simple number that has created acumulation of numbers as a synonim for wealth are at the bottom of our present problems… (just a little provocation..) love bro, keep doing your great work.

  2. The problem with celebrating Moses’ parks is the omission of consideration of the neighborhoods he tromped on and people whose lives he disrupted to build them. Ostensibly for the public but embracing a public-be-damned attitude is clearly contradictory. While Moses believed in the non-democratic notion that “if the ends don’t justify the means, what does?” many park builders built equally significant parks without being a despot.
    Roberta Brandes Gratz, author, “The Battle For Gotham: New York in the Shadow of Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs” (2010).

  3. Claudio,

    Ah, yes… my comments in the review were intended to be a bit provocative. I was thinking about it awhile this afternoon, and seems like one of the big issues with “development” is the question of who and where the “developer” is… If it is someone external to the area being developed, then we have a significant problem as you have argued.
    On the other hand, if the developer is a person or group of persons in the place who is orchestrating the development/maturation/common good of that place in conversation with the people in that place (and possibly others outside it), it is a different matter…

    Just thinking “out loud” here…


    Chris Smith