In the past, it’s been relatively easy to forget that our most cherished parks and publicly held lands are not, in fact, invincible.
This year, however, has served as a wake-up call.
Following an executive order signed on April 26, the federal protected statuses of 27 individual national monuments, either designated or expanded since 1996, are being reassessed by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. There’s the possibility (stronger in some cases than in others) that the boundaries of these vulnerable monuments could be altered or eliminated altogether to ease restrictions on or make way for mining, oil and natural gas extraction and logging. From Utah’s Bears Ears National Monument to the expansive Katahdin Woods and Waters of Maine, these untamed national treasures are all quite suddenly under the gun.
It only makes sense then that these 27 monuments — all created using the 1906 Antiquities Act established by President Theodore Roosevelt — collectively claim the top spot in a sobering report that identifies 13 in-the-crosshairs open spaces across America. Titled “Landslide 2017: Open Season on Open Space,” the report comes from The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF), a Washington, D.C., nonprofit in the stewardship-minded business of “connecting people to places.”
The report touches on five major themes: the monetization of open space, the detrimental effects of shadow, park equity, the devaluation of cultural lifeways and, perhaps most topically, resource extraction. One or more of these themes directly impact each of the 13 endangered parks and open spaces profiled in “Landslide.”
Aside from the aforementioned at-risk national monuments — as well as the Forest Service-operated Boundary Canoe Area Wilderness in Minnesota, and Virginia’s James River and Coyote Valley near San Jose, California — all of 2017’s most threatened open spaces are located in major cities. And most are parks: urban parks both big and small, historic and recently established, publicly and privately managed, wild and immaculately manicured.
“The renaissance of our nation’s cities is resulting in a new appreciation for urban parks, but it’s also leading to pressures for incompatible and at times, unsympathetic changes,” TCLF founder and president Charles A. Birnbaum tells MNN. “Urban parks, often designed by master landscape architects, were intended to be free and open and designed with simplicity and flexibility in mind — a lofty goal that is not always compatible with today’s quest for revenue generation.”
Below, you can learn more about nine culturally and historically significant urban open spaces, including how exactly they’re under threat and why it’s vital these threats are quelled.
On that note, since the “Landslide” program kicked off in 2003, 300 different sites — parks, gardens, natural areas and “other places that collectively embody our shared landscape heritage” — across the country have been thrust into the national spotlight because of their at-risk status. Much like inclusion on the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s annual Most Endangered Historic Places list, this recognition shouldn’t be viewed as a death knell but a call to arms as numerous success stories have resulted from “Landslide” exposure.
Here’s wishing these nine singular urban landscapes a similarly happy fate …
Jackson Park, Chicago
Designed for the1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago’s Jackson Park is still home to a couple of World’s Fair leftovers, including the Palace of Fine Arts, now the Museum of Science and Industry. (Photo: Rain0975/flickr)
Chicagoans are no doubt familiar with the roiling controversy behind the Barack Obama Presidential Center, an institution most Windy City residents are very much honored to have — just not necessarily in the parkland-confiscating locale that’s been chosen.
In building out the sprawling campus — which will reportedly operate as a private institution, not a typical presidential library run by the National Archives and Records Administration — an estimated 21 acres of the South Side’s storied Jackson Park will be seized. Designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux of Central Park fame, this magnificent 500-plus-acre expanse of woodlands, playing fields, trails and ornamental gardens certainly isn’t strapped for space. But the dramatic fashion in which the Obama Center will likely alter the park, even if just a small fraction of it, is problematic.
Also worth noting: Jackson Park — listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973 — has been held in the public trust for more than 150 years. This will be the first time publicly held parkland will be sequestered to build a presidential library, let alone a privately operated one. What’s more, there are plans to confiscate five acres of Midway Plaisance, an adjacent park also designed by Olmsted, to build a 450-car above-ground parking garage for the Obama Center.
Boston Common is the historic city’s central green space and the de facto backyard for institutions of higher learning like Emerson College, which lines the park’s squat southern edge. (Photo: Marco Verch/flickr)
One of the best things about the Boston Common — the cow-pasture-turned-crown-jewel of Beantown’s expansive Emerald Necklace of parks and parkways — is that while the 50-acre park is ringed by tall buildings à la New York’s Central Park, none of them are imposingly tall. Not boxed in by cloud-brushing behemoths and shadow-casting high-rises, the Common — the oldest urban park in the United States — still feels open, even a touch pastoral, much like it did in 1634 when it was founded.
One reason downtown Boston has not given way to ridiculously tall modern skyscrapers is a state law that aims to limit the amount of shadow cast on the Common and Public Garden. In the summer of 2017, Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Barker signed an exemption to the law, permitting the construction of a 700-foot-tall condo and office tower in the neighboring Financial District. This would stand as Boston’s third-tallest building, behind the Hancock Tower (790 feet) and the Prudential Tower (749 feet), both of which were built well before the 1990 shadow law took effect. The new tower was originally planned to be even taller, but was trimmed after concerns were raised that its height would interfere with air traffic at Boston Logan Airport. Under normal circumstances, buildings exceeding 400 feet would be in violation of the shadow law.
Although many Bostonians are rallying against the shadow-casting tower, including conservationists and some lawmakers, the project also has a fair number of supporters such as Boston Mayor Marty Walsh. Go figure, there’s a financial windfall for the city involved.
Greenacre Park, New York City
Blink and you’ll miss it: Greenacre Park, one of Manhattan’s daintiest and most desired green spaces, might be darkened by taller buildings now permitted in the neighborhood. (Photo: Teri Tynes/flickr)
Although it may be pint-sized — 6,360 square feet, compared with Central Park’s 843 acres — Greenacre Park still boasts a rather sizable fan club. After all, it has a whole lot of personality.
Tucked away on East 51st Street between Second and Third avenues, the privately owned but publicly accessible pocket park — complete with a 25-foot waterfall and enough lush potted greenery to help you forget, even if just for just a second, that you’re in Midtown Manhattan — is beloved by office workers, neighborhood residents and tourists alike. It’s an oasis, a refuge, the epitome of a hidden gem.
But like the Boston Common, Greenacre Park has a shadow problem on its hands. Meant to allow for construction of the bigger — and taller — buildings, a rezoning plan for Midtown East recently received a stamp of approval from New York City Council. And that, of course, spells trouble for this diminutive ’70s-era sliver of green space that measures a mere 60 feet wide. If super-talls do indeed begin popping up across Midtown East, the park could be covered with shadows for roughly twice the amount of time it already is. This is all to say, the park certainly didn’t let the rezoning squeak by without a vigorous and well-publicized fight.
Discovery Park, Seattle
Jutting into Shilshoe Bay north of downtown Seattle, Discovery Park is known for its still-active 19th-century lighthouse and vast tracts of untouched wilderness that are damp nine months of the year. (Photo: Jeff Gunn/flickr)
Created in the 1970s on the site of an old U.S. Army installation, Discover Park — all 534 acres of it — is Seattle’s largest park. Its biggest draw? Not having any big draws.
Discovery Park’s most cherished attribute is its wild and largely amenity-free character — a character that’s more akin to a nature refuge than a large urban park. (Seattle Parks and Recreation refers to it as a “natural area park.”) Perched on a bluff overlooking the Puget Sound, Seattleites flock to Discovery Park for rugged beaches, dense forests, hushed and seemingly endless walking trails, jaw-dropping mountain views and ample wildlife sightings, particularly of birds and marine life. It’s bursting-out-of-its-seams Seattle’s very own the Land That Time Forgot.
Times are changing at Discovery Park as development looms, however, including a proposal that would see a large performing-arts campus go up right in the middle of the park. Writes TCLF: “While such a proposal may at first seem appealing, it is directly contrary to the park’s purpose and identity as an intact natural refuge, and it should be rejected for many reasons. First and foremost, an active arts campus at the center of the park would destroy the tranquility that defines the park as a unique and valuable resource near a densely populated urban center. The need for a place of respite, of peace and quiet — one that serves the entire city rather than a small constituency — simply outweighs the benefits of a more narrowly conceived program, no matter how laudable its intentions.
And, as the thousands of visitors who regularly use the park to commune with nature can attest, there is already music there: the biophony of a rich array of wildlife — including more than 270 species of birds — that would otherwise be disrupted and drowned out by concerts and other performances.”
Fort Negley, Nashville
Located just south of downtown Nashville, Fort Negley Park is home to a shuttered minor league baseball stadium and the ruins of a historically significant fortification built for the Union Army. (Photo: Casey Fleser/flickr)
Off the beaten path for many casual Nashville tourists (but still right in the fiddle-strumming heart of Music City) is Fort Negley, a Civil War fortification built by slaves and recently freed slaves. In the 1930s, the masonry fort — abandoned and largely forgotten after the war — was due for a major restorative overhaul courtesy of the Works Progress Administration. And then, just before completion, World War II commenced and the newly spiffed-up fort was all but abandoned again. For decades, the forsaken site served as the backdrop for crime and vandalism until it was eventually cordoned off completely.
Today, the ruins of Fort Negley are part of a 55-acre city-owned park that, according to TCLF, “contains important historic, cultural, and natural landscape features that connect to virtually every era of Nashville’s past.” Roughly 40 percent of the park is home to Greer Stadium, a shuttered minor league baseball facility built in 1978 atop old ballfields. The city aims to transform this sizable section of the park into a mixed-use development stuffed with shops, restaurants, music and cultural venues and housing, some of it affordable. Critics — and there are many, some in high places — staunchly believe the land should only be reverted back to open parkland. Many have pointed out that converting the historic parcel back to open space would fit the Nashville Park Board’s original intent “to make of the land a public park.”
In October 2017, Historic Nashville released its eighth annual “Nashville Nine” list of at-risk historic sites. The list only included one. “Historic Nashville believes that commercial development is the wrong decision for this property. We hope the designation of Fort Negley Park as ‘Nashville One’ will encourage the city to reconsider the current plans,” says Jenn Harrman, president of Historic Nashville Inc., in a statement. “We stand ready to work with the city and many partners to find a solution for this unique historic site that both supports the needs of the community and honors the African-American history that makes this a site of international significance.”
Audubon Park and City Park, New Orleans
Two of New Orleans’ most popular, independently run parks have a growing number of features requiring memberships, admission fees or restaurant reservations. (Photo: Antrell Williams/flickr)
There’s no way to sugarcoat this: The park situation in the Big Easy is a big ol’ mess.
Although crowd-pleasers like Jackson Square and Armstrong Park fall under its purview, New Orleans’ Parks & Parkways Department does not manage the city’s two largest and most beloved green spaces: the positively massive City Park (almost twice the size of Central Park!) and Audubon Park, a smaller but no less scenic spread perched on the banks of the Mississippi in historic Uptown. The City Park Improvement Association (an arm of the state government) oversees the former, while the latter is operated by the nonprofit Audubon Nature Institute. Both, according to TCLF, are chronically underfunded.
To compensate, both organizations have turned to revenue-generating ventures in order to keep things up. Understandable. But in monetizing the parks, large swaths of free “passive” open space have been gobbled up wholesale by large buildings, fee-based diversions and members-only recreation clubs. Proposed and already-realized additions to the parks include private soccer centers (Audubon Park), new golf courses (City Park), expanded golf courses (Audubon Park), restaurants (Audubon Park) and a highly contentious new locale for the New Orleans Children Museum at City Park. Writes TCLF: “The result is a fragmented, ill-defined vision of how best to manage open spaces in the public’s interest. And because many types of facilities and activities — from golf courses to restaurants and playing fields — are currently classified in zoning documents as ‘permitted uses’ of parks, there is effectively no meaningful public participation or city oversight in the decision-making process.”
Rhode Island State House Grounds, Providence
The grounds outside of the Rhode Island’s state capitol are legit nice. A commercial development complete centered around a large bus station and transit hub might change that. (Photo: © Kaity Ryan, courtesy of TCLF)
You might not know it, but America’s smallest state also has one of America’s most tremendous statehouses.
Towering atop Smith Hill in Providence, the Rhode Island State House is an imposing neoclassical beauty designed by McKim, Mead & White (Boston Public Library, the Brooklyn Museum, Columbia University) and completed in 1904. It’s one of the prolific firm’s grander works — and it very much screams state capitol. (Boasting one of the world’s largest self-supported domes, the structure is actually Rhode Island’s seventh statehouse.) The Rhode Island State House is a beauty outside, too, with long sloping lawns and historic, well-maintained grounds, which, to the chagrin of many, might be partially gobbled up by a transportation hub and commercial development proposed as part of a public-private real estate development adjacent to the city’s Amtrak depot. A large chunk of State House Park — it’s located opposite both the State House grounds and an already domineering shopping center — would also be claimed by new development.
Although regulations state the State House Lawn “should be preserved and maintained” and State House Park “shall be a public open space and shall not be used as a development site or to accommodate any off-street parking,” developers behind the project are already inching forward in what’s sure to be a long, drawn-out and contentious preservation battle.
Sanctuary Woods at Country Grounds Park, Wauwatosa, Wisconsin
It sounds like something out of a teen horror film. Located within a larger tract of parkland known as the Milwaukee County Grounds is a hilly and dense swath of oaks called Sanctuary Woods or Asylum Woods — home to the old Milwaukee County Hospital for the Insane until the 1970s. In some parts of the woods, there are remnants of the old hospital and its therapeutic woodland “healing gardens,” including stone staircases ascending from a deep ravine.
While “woods” plus “hospital for the insane” usually make for a spooky atmosphere and misbehaving teenagers, the 66-acre Sanctuary Woods is more your run-of-the-mill secluded hiking, dog-walking and bird-watching spot. Locals love it. It’s quiet, untouched and a bit mysterious.
In 2017, the city of Wauwatosa released a master plan calling for a major multifamily residential development at the Milwaukee County Grounds, including a “scenic parkway” cutting through Sanctuary Woods. Opposition to the proposal has been fierce. However, Wautwatosa Mayor Kathy Ehley has publicly pledged that the woods — deemed a wildlife-rich “isolated environmental corridor” by the Southeast Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission — will go untouched under her watch. “I cannot bear seeing this special place chipped away at or incrementally encroached upon,” she told a packed house at a city hall meeting earlier this year.
Battery Park City, New York
Will Battery Park City’s prized Postmodernist parks be redesigned and replaced to accommodate commercial businesses like restaurants? (Photo: Henning Klokkeråsen/flickr)
Battery Park City is an ’80s- and ’90-era collection of residential high-rises and public statuary-studded parks that wraps around the western side of Manhattan’s southern tip. Built completely on landfill, the lauded 92-acre planned community was also one of the areas — in New York City proper, anyway — hardest hit by Superstorm Sandy in 2012. Understandably, this densely populated, storm surge-prone neighborhood has been the focus of significant flood resiliency efforts in the years since.
Located on the southern end of Battery Park City, Robert F. Wagner Jr. Park — just one of more than two dozen graciously sized parks and public green spaces found throughout this pleasant and expertly laid-out waterfront nabe — has an extensive, storm-resilient redesign plan that would completely alter the park. Great! There are also worries that with this redesign, which also seeks to provide “opportunity for better food and beverage service,” might come monetization of the park and perhaps other Battery Park City parks further down the line. (Intriguingly, other areas of Battery Park City suffered much worse damage during Sandy, while Robert F. Wagner Jr. Park emerged relatively unscathed.)
The Cultural Landscape Foundation notes this move “illustrates a shift in values and priorities for Battery Park City as a whole.”
America’s 9 most at-risk open urban spaces
It’s ‘open season on open space,’ according to The Cultural Landscape Foundation’s 2017 ‘Landslide’ report.