Monday, June 27, 2011

A problem of plenty: Parks without people

Central Hall, a public market building, restored 11 years ago
Sofia, Bulgaria – Can a city have too many parks and green spaces? Most people would say, of course not. But after a Saturday afternoon walk through central Sofia, I began to wonder. I saw numerous parks, many with almost no people in them, a few of them well-maintained but others with knee-high weeds and in trashy ill-repair.

To be sure, it was a chilly day for June, with a few spittings of rain. Yet tour buses were parked at the  gold-domed Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, and I walked past at least a half-dozen weddings at churches around the center of town.  After a bit of wandering I found a great shopping street, Vitosha, jammed with people. So people were in central Sofia. They just weren't in many of the parks.

I'm here for a conference of the International Urban Fellows Association of Johns Hopkins University, a yearly gathering of architects, urban planners and scholars from around the world. This year's topic is public spaces, and how the city of Sofia should design and manage them, a concern for cities around the world. (Disclosure: the university has paid my travel expenses.)

Lack of maintenance and calf-high grass are problems in U.S. cities, too, as they've whacked park maintenance budgets more efficiently than they've been whacking their weeds in recent years.

But more is going on than money problems. Poorly designed public spaces are a problem plaguing many cities, Sofia and Charlotte among them. (And here's a clever online tour of some Seattle-area places that aren't as welcoming as you'd want.)  Though Charlotte and Sofia's histories have almost nothing in common, they seem to have arrived at some common problems: Lack of money to maintain existing public spaces. Open spaces surrounded by monumental-style and unwelcoming urban redevelopment – problems that arose in the U.S. from misguided urban "renewal" and bad private development, and in Sofia from Communist governments apparently reading the same bad-design manuals as U.S. planners and architects, and then similar bad private development. And a shortage of public will when government funds run short.

Central Sofia has multiple parks and squares in the center of town. But reread Jane Jacobs on what parks need to succeed: A diversity of uses around them, so that people walk through them at all hours of the day and evening, going to work, to stores, to school, walking the dog, taking kids to playgrounds, and so on. Sofia's mammoth institutional buildings in the center seem, to my eyes, to make that important diversity of uses harder to achieve at some of the parks. Not to mention that traffic patterns aren't welcoming to pedestrians.

You'll find similar problems throughout suburban-style American, as well as in center cities that were too aggressively "renewed" (one of those terms that describes the opposite of what it really did, like subdivisions named Quail Ridge or Meadowood, which memorialize natural features they destroyed).

Some quick background: Bulgaria is a country of 7.3 million – fewer than North Carolina's 9.5 million, and shrinking into the bargain. It's north of Greece, south of Romania and east of Albania. Sofia, the capital, is in the western part of the country, in a plain surrounded by mountains, with a beautiful Vitosha mountain looming in the south, offering skiing in winter and hiking in summer. Sofia's population is about 1.2 million. It is expanding its subway system and has, at least in the center of town, a large network of streetcars, as well as bus service.

Under communism (1945-1989/1990), people had little need to take any private interest in "public" domains, such as parks. The government did all that, and public spaces were well-maintained, if somewhat forbidding (you didn't walk on the grass, noted one speaker, who described his amazement the first time he saw people picnicking on the grass at New York's Central Park). And the government certainly had no interest in providing public spaces where the public was going to interact with one another and possibly decide to do something like rally for democracy, a la Tahrir Square in Cairo.

Today the municipal government simply can't keep up with the maintenance and restoration needed. Sidewalks are cracked and treacherous. I'm reasonably sure-footed and I can't count how many times I've stumbled. Cars park on sidewalks, apparently with impunity, causing the pavement to crumble and sending pedestrians into the streets to dodge traffic. Yet the concept of nongovernmental agencies and citizen activism is in its infancy. After all, under Communism one didn't want to take that kind of risk. Things are changing, but slowly.

We've heard from a number of Sofians who are working to improve their city, through private nonprofit groups, with art and cultural programs, and through new city plans. Some of what we're hearing can apply to many U.S cities, not just in Bulgaria or Eastern Europe. More to come. 


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