Park or no park?

JUDE GILLIES
Last updated 12:49 09/11/2012
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SISTER CITY GARDEN: Tours of Nelson’s Huangshi Garden feature in this week’s Growables Garden Week.

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It may seem a bit radical, but I've been wondering if, perhaps, we have too many urban parks in this country. Now, before I get accused of wanting to flog off the civic silver, let me explain what prompted such outrageous ideas.

Thinking about Nelson's magnificent Huangshi Garden, which features in next week's Nelson Growables programme, I was reminded of my visit to Nelson's Chinese sister city some 10 years ago.

After visiting Huangshi as part of the delegation investigating the idea of Nelson's Chinese garden, I recall profound differences in not just the political, philosophical and physical landscapes, but, inevitably, the social landscape. I was especially fascinated by the way people in China used their parks.

Stepping blurry eyed off an overnight sleeper train from Hong Kong, we were delivered into the surreal scene of central mainland China.

There, at about six in the morning, hundreds of people of all ages, many of them elderly, were exercising in the parks, doing tai chi and various kinds of dancing, from traditional sword to modern ballroom, music blaring from an adjacent ghetto-blaster.

While I'd seen joggers running around New York's Central Park, Londoners picnicking on deck chairs in the Royal Parks, and Parisians sitting around smoking in theirs, such uninhibited public displays of private activity in the Chinese parks was a revelation.

And the scene was one repeated wherever we went. I recall one magic morning in a park, again about 6am, when exquisitely beautiful music wafted across a lake from a pavilion on an island where a group of elderly men were playing the two-string violin. Again, it appeared surreal, where the pavilion, shrouded in early morning mists, seemed to float above the glassy, calm lake as the haunting sound of the violins filled the air.

The men were simply practising their fiddling, albeit in a most inspiringly beautiful public park.

In other parks, people were fishing and families playing.

And what struck me was that people were using their parks as places of outdoor activity in ways we don't here because we have such ready access to our own private parks, aka the home garden.

There, in Huangshi, as in the big European and American cities, most people lived in apartments, with no garden to call their own, so public parks provided the place and space for what we would regard as private activities.

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And it made me think how deserted our own urban parks often are. Certainly, Saxton Field is well used at weekends and many weeknights, and we have events and activities that bring crowds to various parks at certain times of year, but how often can you wander around Isel Park or Queens Gardens, Fairfield Park or Broadgreen and find you are just one of a handful?

While wandering our parks is often like being alone on a large private estate, I loved the communal feel overseas where everyone was out together enjoying their parks, making use of them in an everyday way.

That's not to say we shouldn't hold dear our notion of publicly owned urban parks, adopted from the 19th century American concept of parks for public recreation.

Enabled through the 1851 State of New York First Parks Act, it was epitomised by the subsequent development of Central Park, one of the great wonders of the world.

That it exists among the jungle of high rise and humanity of Manhattan is truly astounding.

Its evolution through the First Parks Act represented a huge shift in thinking from the British and European-based use and ownership of urban open spaces.

While there was always a tradition of public use made of such places, the public did not have a "right" to use them, which is why the American concept providing publicly owned parks explicitly for the people was such a novel idea.

Now we simply expect our rates will provide public parks and gardens for recreation.

But how many playing fields sit empty during the day or are only played on a couple of times a week?

How many parks are deserted for most of the working week?

How many hectares of parks do you need in town when you have the seaside and a river at your doorstep and a back garden to play and barbecue in?

Sure, it's great to have the parks we do. And, as we become increasingly urbanised, with people living in apartments, like Auckland and Wellington, and when there's wall-to-wall housing from Nelson to Kaiteriteri, urban parks will be even more precious, the way Central Park is now an oasis in the intensive New York urban environment. But, as long as most people have gardens and are not living in apartments, perhaps we don't need as many parks as we might if living in downtown Manhattan or Huangshi.

It's a preposterous idea to many, but raises the ugly issue of paying for urban parks when so many sit empty for much of the time.

I've always found the idea of council-owned playing fields and Government-owned fields in schools sitting idle at different times of the day and week, an expensive (and, perhaps, unaffordable) luxury.

While I support sport in every form and acknowledge the challenge of maintaining quality turf, perhaps there is another way.

At the risk of upsetting those who regard parks as sacrosanct, may I suggest such ideas of flexi-ownership, use and cost sharing, could be something to consider 161 years after the passing of the New York State First Parks Act that ushered in the modern urban park.

Meanwhile, perhaps you could pop down to your local park and practise your tai chi or cha-cha.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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