Book Reviews, Parks, Public Realm

Book Review: City Parks: Public Places, Private Thoughts by Catie Marron

January 15, 2014

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City Parks: Public Places, Private Thoughts
by Catie Marron with photographs by Oberto Gili
(New York: HarperCollins, 2013)

As a young woman in Paris Catie Marron fell in love with the Luxembourg Gardens.  Here on a “brisk, sunny morning”,  moved by the contrast between the “formal, beautiful setting and its natural everyday humanity,” was born a passion that serves as the inspiration for City Parks: Public Places, Private Thoughts a series of eighteen essays by an eclectic group of contributors that includes well-known authors, designers, artists and one former President.

In her introduction, Marron shares that unable to find books about city parks frequented on her extensive travels, she set out to create her own, in partnership with photographer Oberto Gili.  To highlight favorite parks and cities Marron sought contributors deeply connected to selected spaces infusing individual essays with personal recollections and insights.  Thus, just as every park has its “own soul” formed by the interaction of nature and environment, each essay has its own perspective framed by the perceptions and memories of its author.  As such it is a mixed lot.

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Luxembourg Gardens

Architect Sir Norman Foster (Grosse Tiergarten, Berlin) begins his essay with an overview of the role city parks play within the context of civic design, followed by a history of the park and how, in his six years working within the city on the Reichstag, the park, a constant presence, both informed and was informed by the project.

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The High Line

André Aciman (High Line, New York), an author and academic, ponders the mystery of then and now, in which an industrial artifact can become a modern park while retaining elements of affected imperfection within a framework of passing time.  Travel writer Jan Morris (Giardino Pubblico,Trieste) describes a garden of “municipal worthies” where the park has absorbed the city’s character and serves as a microcosm of civic meaning.

And then, there are the stories where parks become the repositories of memory, places where personal, and often family, histories are nurtured.  These include essays by  Zadie Smith, who explored the Boboli Gardens in Florence with her father; John Banville, who shared precious memories of Iveagh Gardens in Dublin with his teen age daughter and Nicole Krauss walking her dogs at dawn on the long meadow in Prospect Park, Brooklyn, New York.   Amanda Foreman recalls being with her grandmother in Hyde Park, London, a living “chronometer” where the seasonal rituals of daily life provide reassurance that memories are not only “visions but also tethers to a previous self that was not lost, simply changed.”

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Hyde Park

Given the rich material in City Parks: Public Places, Private Thoughts, it is unfortunate that Marron includes three parks that charge fees and are thus not public in its truest sense: Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, D.C.; Al-Azhar in Cairo; and Parque Ecológico de Xochimilico in Mexico City.  This is not to say that they are not important places, worthy of inclusion (although the essay by Bill Clinton on Dumbarton Oaks is not particularly inspiring), but that the phrase “public places” in the title, while reflecting Marron’s assertion that parks are places where one can be alone “in public,” implies a place available to all without charge.

This a large book generously illustrated with color photographs by Oberto Gill who specializes in shooting interiors and fashion.  Most of the photographs are a full page in size and follow the essay which they illustrate.  Integrating the photos with the text and providing plans would have aided in understanding how individual parks relate to their urban context.

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Hyde Park

As I read the essays, I found myself going on line to learn more about how each park relates to the city in which it is located as well as how it is managed and maintained.  Given Marron’s current position as co-chair of the board of directors of Friends of the High Line, placing city parks within the context of current issues would have added an additional layer of meaning to the book.

City Parks: Public Places, Private Thoughts is worthy of consideration and will appeal to both those who love gardens and those who are passionate about the increasingly complex role city parks play within the ever changing urban landscape.  While the essays reflect individual voices and insights as a group they speak to the interconnectivity of place and time and the important role that city parks serve as the setting for richly textured memories.

This review appeared in Leaflet A Massachusetts Horticultural Society Publication, January 2014.

Copyright © 2014 Patrice Todisco  — All Rights Reserved

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