A well-designed park is more than green space in the midst of a concrete jungle—it makes a city lovable and livable.
The most beautiful combine meadows, woodlands, ponds, lakes, and streams with museums and other man-made attractions. At San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, as Catherine Nagel, executive director of the City Parks Alliance, describes it: “You can go from the entrance, with a lot of cultural institutions and a great botanical garden, and move through the park, and at the end, you find yourself at the ocean. The park connects a natural space to a built environment.”
Parks also frequently bring world-class art out into the open. Park Güell, designed by Antoni Gaudí, overlooks Barcelona and is famous for a whimsical design and vibrant mosaics. Or consider the contemporary Civic Space Park in Phoenix, which opened in 2009 with a multimillion-dollar art installation by Janet Echelman. Her sinuous, weblike sculpture in the sky moves in the wind, and at night, lights up in a changing array of colors; it has helped invigorate the downtown area.
For city dwellers and tourists alike, an urban park becomes a shared backyard. “It’s a place to meet friends; it’s a place to have celebrations with families if you’re in small apartments, say in New York,” says Setha Low, director of the Public Space Research Group and author of Rethinking Urban Parks: Public Space and Cultural Diversity.
While New York has plenty of award-winning parks, Central Park remains the biggest crowd-pleaser, with a staggering 40 million annual visitors. “There are thousands upon thousands of people who have special memories of the park,” says Low. “It accommodates this incredible range of humanity.”
In Paris, a visit to the hillside Parc des Buttes-Chaumont, a locals’ favorite in the 19th Arrondissement, is a chance to escape the tourist crowds among a haven of winding, tree-lined pathways, waterfalls, and ponds.
Indeed, for Alain de Botton, author of The Architecture of Happiness, an urban park’s ultimate importance is in allowing us to step away from the rush. “In the midst of a busy city, a park becomes quite literally an oasis and a tree can bring about an epiphany no less intense than a beautiful painting.”