April 13 2018

The Picnic: Public Parks and the Shape of Communication

Reggie McCafferty

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For most of my life I’ve been oblivious to the presence of public parks. That’s not to say ignorant of their existence. I spent much of my youth playing in the parks of central New York, hiking through forested land along glens and gorges, walking along the shores of the Finger Lakes and swimming in the springs and basins where cool water pools under the hot summer sun.

For me, these places just were. I never took pause to consider their creation (or destruction), never contemplated their purpose or the fact that someone had to advocate for their conception and continued existence. These were public places we’d visit on weekends. They existed on the outskirts of villages and towns. Their lawns were scattered with families picnicking or playing ball, barbequing in the afternoon heat as sounds of music and laughter filled the air. There was space here; physical yes, but mental too. Space to breathe, to think, to allow us to be present.

Many of these areas were state or county parks, sites protected from private development and encroachment by corporate interests. Many had been established and preserved in the wake of World War I. They often came in the form of gifts or endowments made to the public by wealthy families in the region. Their infrastructure was later emboldened by Franklin Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps, which created many of the trails and walkways that continue to exist into the present day.

Even later when I moved to New York City, I often found myself trekking to parks whenever I had a free moment. Prospect Park, Orchard Beach, Untermyer, Fort Tryon. There was a different air there, people were friendlier, more relaxed. The parks offered an escape from the intensity of the city, a slight respite from its urban landscape. Park-goers came with picnic blankets, chairs, radios and coolers, temporarily claiming a small portion of these very public areas to do as they pleased. They arrived to see and be seen, each individual or group creating their own space, building a wall-less world where they might pass an hour, or day in leisure.

Over time I began to wonder about these spaces and the people who used them. Who were they and why were they drawn here? How did they delineate public and private? What was the purpose of these pubic spaces and who was allotted access? How did the physical layout of the space work to curate certain emotions and interactions?

It wasn’t until the 19th century that urban elites first began to advocate for public parks in American cities. Not unlike their European counterparts, they wished to beautify the cityscape and provide for the cultural enlightenment of the working classes. Early supporters included the likes of Walt Whitman, Henry David Thoreau, Andrew Jackson Downing and Frederick Law Olmsted. Olmsted is particularly well known for introducing the first large-scale urban parks to America. His works include Central Park, Prospect Park and Tompkins Square amongst nearly 70 others.

Olmsted campaigned for parks based on their restorative and calming qualities and their benefits to social cohesion. He believed parks could, "Inspire communal feelings among all urban classes, muting resentments over disparities of wealth and fashion." And that their scenery would, "More directly assist the poor and degraded to elevate themselves," and "divert men from unwholesome, vicious, destructive methods and habits of seeking recreation." He sought to create spaces that would exist in contrast to the pace of daily urban life. They would exist to uplift and relax, but also would simultaneously serve to shift urban tendencies to align with the values and tastes of the elite classes.

Neighborhoods in urban America were exceptionally stratified at that time, and these public spaces often provided the sole source of non-work place interaction between classes. Many early advocates and developers of public parks saw this intersection as an opportunity to exercise social control.

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In her essay, Central Park as a Model for Social Control: Urban Parks, Social Class and Leisure Behavior in Nineteenth-Century America, environmental sociologist Doceta E. Taylor explains, “By controlling how, when, and where many parks were provided; the distribution of parks; their size, layout, and management; the middle class could supervise the working class in their non-work hours and attempt to control their behavior…. To this end, Central Park was designed to maximize desired behavior and limit or eliminate undesirable ones. The park was heavily monitored and supervised and "bad" behavior was punished by arrests and fines. Although the park was promoted as one serving all the classes, Central Park and others like it were built to accommodate the interest and desires of the middle class. The working class and the poor were forced to abide by middle class mores in order to use these parks.”[1] Access to these parks was a “privilege,” as granted by the governing body considering that the public meet specific conditions and acquiesce to certain modes of behavior. Who was meant to be included?

In practice, the term “public” does not lend itself to inclusion. It is only recently in American history that concepts of citizenship have broadened and there are still many groups who continue to be disenfranchised. By delineating which members of society make up the so-called public, and are allotted access to public spaces, a certain degree of behavioral control may be exercised over society as a whole. Public spaces provide a unique opportunity for the public to see itself, in the sense of measuring acceptable conduct against that of other social actors. This setting encourages conformity. The park operates as a self-regulatory mechanism in the most basic Foucauldian sense by imposing specific types of behaviors and interactions to reinforce certain norms and uphold social stability. Privacy is almost entirely nullified. The activities of each individual or group are on display to the greater public. The space is panoptic in this regard. This stage creates an awareness of self out of its communal-surveillance. Individuals choose how they will portray themselves with this platform.

Public spaces work to corral behavior and interaction in a number of additional ways. Authorities fine or arrest those who commit unacceptable acts. Many parks undergo periods of “cleansing,” the removal of homeless people and others deemed degenerate. There are closing times, designated entryways and exits. Lists of rules and posted signs indicate activities that are and are not permitted, and certain facilities are reserved for teams, or members of clubs that require yearly dues (ie. baseball fields, tennis courts etc.).

The physical design of urban parks plays into this effect. These spaces are not passive; their layout is very intentional. Each element is considered, whether to produce a certain emotion, attract a specific demographic of people or curate a specific type of interaction.

Olmsted spoke of the park as a work of art in this sense. Each detail was intended to provoke a response on the human mind. He placed emphasis on maintaining the absence of distractions and demands on the consciousness. He called this the “unconscious influence of scenery.” Historian Charles E. Beveridge explains, “[Olmsted] always insisted on the subordination of details to an overall composition whose strongest and fullest effect was to act unconsciously on those who viewed it. He vigilantly guarded against distracting elements that would intrude on the consciousness of the observer.”[2] The components of the park, according to Olmsted’s theory, are intended to exert influence on the actors within without their recognition. This begs the question, “To what extent does spatial arrangement influence human thought and interaction?”

In the urban setting, a park’s design may be intended to create the illusion of nature, to conceal the cityscape or transport the visitor from life outside. The flora is carefully selected; the walkways, ponds and groves are placed at measured distances and the land itself is tilled in a deliberate manner. The physical layout of space is inherently tied to what occurs within. The flow of foot traffic, the places where people choose to sit, the amount of privacy that is accorded or the types of group recreation that may occur. The facilities present determine which activities will be possible and which demographics of people are being appealed to. 

However, it is significant to note that the design may only encourage, it does not command. It falls to the public to interact as they see fit. The public interacts with design elements, appropriating and repurposing them at will. Parks have unintentionally become assembly grounds for political movements, havens for the homeless or nighttime meeting places for social and sexual deviants. Often, they will inevitably became gathering places for the poor and working class to the cramped living quarters in overly dense cities.

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At certain historical moments, these spaces have become suddenly contested, conflicts arising over appropriate park use and behavior. The People’s Park in Berkeley and Tompkins Square Park in Manhattan offer prime examples. The physical spaces themselves are in constant flux, at mercy to the norms, whims and standards of the time, as are the ways the ways in which people choose to act, to interact, to feel and communicate within them.

The Picnic stemmed from my interest in public spaces and a desire to consider the broader socio-political and spatial contexts of these spaces. I seek to understand the way space shapes dialogue, interaction and emotion, how physical design elements are used in this context and the outcomes that they ultimately produce.

The images that follow were created in the Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden in Tokyo, Japan. Shinjuku Gyoen was initially constructed in 1906 as an imperial garden belonging to the Naito family. Much of the garden was destroyed during World War II, and its jurisdiction was transferred to the Ministry of Health and Welfare in 1947. Two years later it opened to the public as Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden and now exists under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of the Environment.

Shinjuku Gyoen is the first site in an ongoing series. I chose this location because of its aesthetic appeal. The beauty and thought are unparalleled in America’s public parks and gardens today. It takes the idea of a curated landscape to its extreme and epitomizes the notion of the natural within an urban landscape. Shinjuku Gyoen has an entrance charge of 200 yen ($2 USD). This fee surely impacts the demographic of visitors to the park.

In choosing this location, I realize the inherent dynamic that exists. As an outsider, I act as a voyeur observing a culture that is foreign to me. Certain intricacies will certainly be lost upon me. The power dynamic that exists between photographer and subject must not be disregarded in this sense, and is amplified by my social and ethnic background as a white, American male.

The Picnic explores the intersection of public and private against the backdrop of the park. It examines the ways people interact with these public spaces, the way people create a private sphere within these public spaces, the way they portray themselves to the world. It considers the purpose of the space, their exclusivity, and the ways architecture works to reflect and affect social norms, and shape communication.