Urban Parks: The New Battleground in the Reviving City

The Loeb Fellowship welcomed architecture critic and passionate urbanist Inga Saffron (LF ‘12) to give the 10th annual Loeb lecture last week, the final GSD lecture of the year. Loeb fellows past and present joined the GSD community in Piper Auditorium for Urban Parks: The New Battleground in the Reviving City.

Interim curator Mark Mulligan (associate professor of architecture) introduced Saffron as a “prolific, admired architectural critic,” praising her expertise and civic passion. A winner of the 2014 Pulitzer Prize in criticism, Saffron is a leading voice in the field and brings her unwavering curiosity and concern for cities to bear on issues in Philadelphia and generally throughout America.

Before beginning her remarks, Saffron addressed the new and outgoing Loeb Fellows: “To the new class: this is going to be a life changing year. It will always be like this weekend: there will always be too much to do. To the departing class: it’s not the end.”  She followed with a poignant question, one that she endeavored to answer over the course of her remarks and the discussion with the audience that followed. “Who are urban parks for?”

As architecture critic for The Philadelphia Enquirer, Saffron writes the Changing Skyline weekly column, and routinely engages directly with the political and social forces shaping the city and the built form. She was a foreign correspondent in the 1990s for the Inquirer in Russia and the former Yugoslavia, covering wars in Bosnia and Chechnya and witnessing the destruction of Sarajevo and Grozny. Her broad experience makes her particularly equipped to address issues of livability and equity as well as the issue of urban parks. She contemplated a number of answers to the question she posed, positing that parks serve a number of purposes, whether green enclaves, trendy lunch spots or sites of protest.

For Saffron, this topic dates back to her essay for the Loeb Fellowship application, in which she questioned the use of private funds to run public parks. She summarized an increasing trend in which “we have entrusted many of our public spaces to private managers.” Throughout the lecture, Saffron examined the prevalence of privately managed parks as cities continue to revitalize, ushering in a “golden age of park-making.” Although this emphasis on park space and park planning is seemingly positive for cities, as cities may be investing minimally while still gaining access to park space, the reality is more complicated. Saffron notes a two-tiered system, in which revitalizing areas may benefit from improved park spaces, while more vulnerable areas are largely excluded, ultimately creating “have and have-not parks” across the city. She pointedly observes that even as they grow in number, parks have continued to escape the city agenda and are vulnerable to dramatic budget cuts. “Just because we’re building more parks, does not mean we are spending more public money.”

As her criticism rang true, Saffron framed a more forward-looking discussion in her remarks, asking, “What can be done to be sure that all neighborhoods have access to good parks?” She noted a number of hopeful possibilities, such as the creation of citywide (rather than park-specific) conservancies to act as clearinghouses to distribute funds to all neighborhood parks equally. Another avenue is to enlist the help of other city agencies that stand to benefit from more and better park space, such as water agencies that benefit from capturing water runoff, or public schools with schoolyards to be leveraged as community resources.

Even as she spoke pointedly about park specifics–whether parklets or food trucks or sidewalks–Saffron elevated the discussion from one about parks to one about the city as a whole, powerfully raising the role of civic responsibility for our public spaces, since “parks are the essence of public-ness.” She said, “I have issues when cities totally relinquish responsibilities. It’s too easy a solution for cities.” Saffron left the Loebs with a simple message that resonated in a room full of individuals who care deeply about cities: “Parks are for everybody. And everybody has to support them.”

The lecture coincided with the annual Loeb Alumni Council meeting, and the presence of several Loebs with positions of stewardship of urban parks ensured a spirited debate about issues of park funding, public-private partnerships, oversight and long term maintenance. Some cordially challenged the view that cities are abdicating their responsibilities for oversight and control.

In addition to welcoming Saffron back to Cambridge in his introductory remarks, Mulligan welcomed a new class of Loeb Fellows into the fold and also welcomed incoming Fellowship curator John Peterson, Loeb Fellow from 2006. Mulligan expressed a deep gratitude for his year as interim curator, speaking directly to the Fellows: “I felt embraced by the Loeb family. You guys have made my life wonderful this past year.”

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