Tom Austin
Apr 2021

Urban parks are more important now than ever before. Three American cities—Philadelphia, Houston and Los Angeles—feature rich green spaces, new and old, that provide history, community and sanity in the 21st century.

Robert Indiana's Love sculpture / Credit: K Huff for PHLCVB


In 21st-century America, the ultimate civic virtue is to be worthy of Instagram, and Robert Indiana’s 1976 Love sculpture in Philadelphia’s Love Park has turned out to be the semiotic gift that keeps on giving. “Everyone from newlyweds to office workers posts photos with that sculpture: Love Park is really used, all over the Internet,” says Kathryn Ott Lovell, commissioner of Philadelphia Parks & Recreation. The home of the social-media talisman of downtown Philadelphia originated as the workaday John F. Kennedy Plaza, built in the 1960s by Ed Bacon, Philadelphia’s version of Robert Moses and also actor Kevin Bacon’s father. To Lovell, the popularity of Love Park proves that all kinds of people crave what French writer Émile Durkheim describes as “collective effervescence.”

Philadelphia was built on the idea of making public green space available to every citizen.  In 1682, city founder William Penn, an early believer in the importance of urban parks, laid out a plan for a “greene countrie town” with five lush squares. Now, the William Penn Foundation is supporting such innovative green spaces as Parkside Edge at Centennial  Commons, which opened in 2018 as a kind of communal living room. Designed by local landscape architect Bryan Hanes, Parkside Edge incorporates bench swings, mirroring the rockers on the front porches of adjacent row houses and creating a social dialogue.

Though Philadelphia is leading a national conversation about the importance of urban green spaces, other American cities are also embracing forward-thinking parks and the work of cutting-edge landscape artists. Houston now boasts parks by Thomas Woltz and Michael Van Valkenburgh. In Los Angeles, The Broad museum grounds entail the talents of the landscape architect Walter Hood (in 2019, Hood won a MacArthur Fellowship, known as the “genius grant”).

Grounds of the Philadelphia Museum of Art / Credit: B. Krist for Visit Philadelphia

At certain moments, Philadelphia—like Washington, D.C.—radiates the old-world elegance of Europe, with beautiful public buildings accompanied by luxurious swaths of green spaces. From downtown, the grand sweep of the 103-year-old Benjamin Franklin Parkway—lined with such museums as the Barnes and undulating flags from every nation—stretches to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, a 1928 monolith newly reimagined by Frank Gehry and surrounded by gardens. At the bottom of the museum’s imposing east-entrance steps is the Rocky statue, marking the moment when Rocky Balboa turned the august institution into a giant StairMaster of glory. To Lovell, the Benjamin Franklin Parkway is Philadelphia. “This is our Champs-Élysées,” she says, “and we want to make the parkway more park and less way, more suited to pedestrians.”

The architect Aldo Rossi once defined every city as “the collective memory of its people,” and Philadelphia is adept at juggling a very deep past and the shimmering promises of the future. For a start, Philadelphia has become a green laboratory for the national Reimagining the Civic Commons (RCC) initiative. Funded by such entities as The Rockefeller Foundation and the Knight Foundation, RCC is also helping to create other thoughtful public spaces in Akron, Detroit, Memphis and Chicago. Lovell is an inaugural Knight Public Spaces Fellow, and believes that the RCC has helped Philadelphia “connect to other cities, with new partners and ideas.” To Lovell, “Public spaces are part of our country’s critical infrastructure, contributing directly to the community and economic development of our neighborhoods.”

On a tour of the city’s parks with Ellen Hwang, director of the Philadelphia Knight Foundation office, Lovell talks about looking after 10,200 acres of green spaces and the uncanny parallels between her working life and the television show Parks and Recreation. After a drive through the vast Fairmount Park, adorned with Memorial Hall—a beaux-arts confection built for the Centennial Exhibition of 1876—our first stop is the Discovery Center, overlooking the Strawberry Mansion reservoir and run by the Philadelphia Outward Bound School and Audubon Pennsylvania. Situated in the historic African-American community of Strawberry Mansion, the Discovery Center serves more than 6,000 students every year, offering trail walks, rock climbing and other outdoor learning experiences through the Philadelphia Outward Bound School.

Bartram House at Bartram's Garden / Courtesy of Bartram's Garden

Audubon Pennsylvania uses the Discovery Center as a research facility and offers bird-watching expeditions: Philadelphia is a migratory stop on the Atlantic Flyway for more than 100 species of birds. The Audubon crew fills me in on peregrine falcons and their penchant for roosting like judgmental gargoyles on ornate balconies at The Ritz-Carlton Philadelphia, occupying a 1908 neoclassical bank building.

A few miles south on the banks of the Schuylkill River, Bartram’s Garden is the country's oldest botanical garden, a 45-acre affair built in 1728 by John Bartram, the Quaker botanist to King George III and co-founder, with Benjamin Franklin, of the American Philosophical Society. The original Bartram House and greenhouse are still on the property, and some of the plants and trees date back hundreds of years. Executive director Maitreyi Roy points out a circa-1785 ginkgo tree, believed to be the oldest in North America, and a rare Franklinia alatamaha, a tea plant named after Franklin and a continuation of the property's original 1777 plant. The Bartram’s Garden complex is set in another African-American community, the Kingsessing neighborhood of Southwest Philadelphia, and features the four-acre Sankofa Community Farm. Launched in 2011 and utilizing the talents of paid local high school interns and some 1,500 volunteer gardeners, the Sankofa Community Farm incorporates vegetables from the African diaspora, spanning okra, black-eyed peas and kale. Bartram’s Garden is akin to an exceptionally progressive rendition of the 1700s, history as it ought to be.

In Logan Square, near Center City, Bryan Hanes turns up for a tour of his Sister Cities Park, featuring a fountain with ten geysers in geographical sync with Philadelphia’s ten sister cities. A smart sliver of land contains outdoor carts filled with children’s library books, a sleek café topped by a green roof, and the Children’s Discovery Garden evoking the nearby Wissahickon Valley. To Hanes, Sister Cities Park is an everyday refuge for all, “from families to businesspeople having meetings to tourists.”

Rail Park / Credit: James Abbott

Hanes leads us a few blocks east to the Callowhill Industrial Historic District—past a phalanx of old factories and warehouses turned into a fresh crop of lofts and artists’ studios—and on to Rail Park, another of his design projects. Situated on a quarter-mile stretch of old Reading Railroad elevated tracks, Rail Park has views of a massive Shepard Fairey mural on Callowhill Street, The Stamp of Incarceration: James Anderson, as well as the iconic statue of William Penn on top of Philadelphia City Hall.

Rail Park is part of the national High Line Network, a collaborative alliance of reclamation projects, and is singularly quiet and meditative. Among the birch trees and wooden lounging platforms is the installation Dawn Chorus, entailing poems in 13 languages—written by everyone from Seamus Heaney to Hoa Nguyen—inscribed on pavers.

For Hanes, Rail Park is an homage to Philadelphia in the early 20th century, “a great industrial age when we were known as the workshop of the world.” In that era, freight trains negotiated Callowhill and pulled into the Reading Terminal Market, a food hall and National Historic Landmark in operation since 1893. America has a knack for turning the wonders of the past into theme parks, but the market still feels real and right. During its Breaking Bread, Breaking Barriers series, a Knight Foundation-supported initiative, old-school Philadelphia mummers ate with residents of Chinatown and everyone got along famously. The series of cross-cultural potluck dinners launched in 2016, with Philadelphians cooking everything from Chinese mango pudding to German-style kugel to Honduran summer slaw. Since then, FDR Park, Vernon Park, Norris Square and Bartram’s Garden have hosted Breaking Bread, Breaking Barriers feasts.

Philadelphia has always asked the best of its citizens and has rarely been disappointed. The old-world elegance of Rittenhouse Square, one of Penn’s original town squares and akin to stepping into an Edith Wharton novel, is another harbor of urban civility. That good grace infuses every moment at The Rittenhouse hotel, overlooking the park and the ideal setting for reading Eric Klinenberg’s brilliant Palaces for the People: How Social Infrastructure Can Help Fight Inequality, Polarization, and the Decline of Civic Life. Day and night, Rittenhouse Square proves the wisdom of Klinenberg’s quote from the 19th-century philosopher John Dewey: “Democracy must begin at home, and its home is the neighborly community.”

Barnett Newman's Broken Obelisk at Houston's Rothko Chapel / Credit: Paul Hester


If Philadelphia is a portal to the past, Houston is a preview of the American future, a vast zoning-free sprawl—the city and its suburbs are larger than Rhode Island—with a kaleidoscope of percolating cultures. Downtown is a bristling arsenal of gleaming office towers connected by a futuristic network of tunnels, and at night, the incessant traffic on the tangle of expressways lends a Blade Runner frisson: I wouldn’t have been surprised to see an alien warship hovering outside the 20th-floor window of my hotel.

Houston is also livable, smart, cool with-out trying and open-hearted: More than 145 languages are spoken and the city is one of the most ethnically diverse in the country. In The Great Good Place, Ray Oldenburg writes about the importance of daily social interaction in the refuge of “third places,” neighborhood grocery stores and other commercial establishments. The markets of Houston, serving Indian, Nigerian and Vietnamese communities, are everyday gathering places that embody the possibilities of this country.

The business center of downtown is a short METRORail jaunt away from the main campus of The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, which has a new plaza by Deborah Nevins & Associates and such green spaces as the BBVA Roof Garden. MFAH also operates two spectacular house museums and gardens, Bayou Bend and Rienzi. Both are in River Oaks, a residential area akin to Beverly Hills with real money.

Houston began along a water system called the Buffalo Bayou, and currently has more than eight parks—including Memorial Park, almost twice the size of New York’s Central Park—now being linked through the trails of Bayou Greenways 2020. At Buffalo Bayou Park, created by the landscape architecture firm SWA, a family takes quinceañera photos near a temporary provocative art installation by the Guerrilla Girls while Houstonians of every variety enjoy picnics and compete on playing fields. Through a periscope, it’s possible to look down into an old underground cistern: The partially drained cistern, built in 1926, is encircled by a quarter-mile-long underground walkway, added in 2016. Inside the cistern, the otherworldly allure is suitable for atmospheric strolls and the current film and sound art installation Time No Longer by Anri Sala. In the past, a hometown conceptual artist—Solange Knowles—also used the cistern for a music video.

The Menil Collection's Menil Drawing Institute, featuring Ellsworth Kelly's Menil Curve / Credit: Richard Barnes

Montrose—one of Houston’s most bohemian and eclectic neighborhoods—is anchored by the 1987 Menil Collection, Renzo Piano’s first commission in the United States and a universe of intelligence encompassing a landscape design by Michael Van Valkenburgh. The adjacent MenilPark, surrounded by modest bungalows, is the perfect neighborhood green space. In #Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media, Cass R. Sunstein examines how the Internet has isolated us all in echo chambers, and yet locals here, seeking community, still turn up for the social rite of twilight walks around the park.

The Menil cultural complex includes the Rothko Chapel, a collaboration between Mark Rothko and Philip Johnson, lined with Rothko paintings and celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. The art space and non-denominational house of worship—listed on the National Register of Historic Places—reopened last September after a $30 million renovation by Architecture Research Office and Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects.

For Thomas Woltz, the green space around the Rothko Chapel is meant to be “an essay on light and the human need for connectivity, surrounded by everything from Texas redbud flowers to live oaks.” Woltz, who is also recalibrating Memorial Park, sees a new green consciousness in Houston: “The Cultural Landscape Foundation had a conference—‘Leading With Landscape II: The Houston Transformation’—with all the nationally recognized landscape designers working here. All the Houston clichés, the highways and concrete, have yielded to a new identity, the city of parks.”

Central Garden at Los Angeles' Getty Center / Credit: J.Paul Getty Trust Photo by Jim Duggan

Los Angeles

From the beginning, Los Angeles has had its struggles with green-space equity. In the late 1920s, the chamber of commerce brought in Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., son of the visionary who invented the idea of the great American public space with New York’s Central Park. The younger Olmsted recommended that new public parks built in Los Angeles should serve low-income families rather than prosperous neighborhoods. In a scenario out of Chinatown, his report was summarily buried by power brokers and Los Angeles became even more divided along class lines.

The great fires and floods of Los Angeles have remained a challenge for every stratum of society, though Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti has instituted a Green New Deal, which includes the planting of 90,000 trees. Los Angeles also has its share of sophisticated green spaces, such as Grand Park and Blue Ribbon Garden at The Music Center.

Thanks to the movies, the parks of Los Angeles are forever hardwired into America’s psychic dreamscape. In La La Land, Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling dance through the air at the Griffith Observatory like smitten samurais. The observatory and the 4,200-acre Griffith Park resemble stage sets in the film, and yet the truth of the park’s beauty—the sage scrub and lilac, the coyotes and mountain lions that live there—is so much richer. The swan boats of Echo Park Lake are another movie-are-life visual, as is Barnsdall Art Park, entailing Frank Lloyd Wright’s Hollyhock House.

The Griffith Observatory in Griffith Park / Credit: Anthony Cook

In 1997, I attended the opening of the Getty Center and marveled at the perfection of the Central Garden, created by artist Robert Irwin and featuring a maze of azaleas set in a pond. Years later, I wasn’t surprised to see Ted Danson cavorting around the garden on the television show The Good Place. The Getty, naturally, was standing in for heaven.

The Broad Museum, another good place, entails a grove of 100-year-old Barouni olive trees and the talents of landscape architect Walter Hood, known for his work at the International African American Museum in Charleston. Hood co-edited the book Black Landscapes Matter and is also part of the current MoMA exhibit “Reconstructions: Architecture and Blackness in America.”

In collaboration with the Gensler architecture firm, The Broad was designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro of the 2009 High Line in New York, the fountainhead of brave-new-world promenades and a continuing inspiration for Elizabeth Diller. “The High Line extended the openness of the public realm,” she says, “and similarly, The Broad is now part of a network of surrounding green spaces. At a time when our cities are rapidly being privatized, it’s important to defend parks. We need these public arenas for our physical and social health.”

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