This weekend I was in New York City, where I was struck all over again by what I noticed upon moving to the city years ago: New Yorkers love their parks. Union Square park, in the middle of busy Park Avenue and Broadway, is hardly a restful spot. It boasts a wonderful farmers' market and the occasional craft fair, but it has also been under construction as long as I can remember.
This weekend one section was swathed in construction netting and another was a broken sea of raw concrete. Jackhammers added to the general din. In the open section there were a few hundred New Yorkers, each clinging to their scrap of green space or park bench underneath trees that seem to have seen it all. How can people find that relaxing? Walk around the city for awhile and then stop a moment to sit in even the most humble park, and you'll probably agree that you instantly feel more relaxed, as if stepping into a different gravitational field. I think the city is in a delicate equilibrium with its small percentage of green space versus the teeming humans and human-made structure. Get rid of the parks and the social fabric would quickly fray.
When you're in the urban mindset, it's much easier to rub elbows with people and ignore them, but I think people are also drawn to the many city parks because of some deep need for the natural. Also, people watching is one of the best freebies the city has to offer.
The "Green Space" movement is popular in Europe. Countries like the United Kingdom recognize the importance of these casual places to encounter the human and the natural. Read some case studies to see how green space figures in cities like Barcelona, Aberdeen, and Eindhoven.
Here in the US, where the term "open space" is more often used, there are many local initiatives for preserving and reclaiming space in urban areas. Check out Embrace Open Space for some resources and advocacy opportunities.
Going to the park is an age-old source of cheap entertainment. Like the tradition of the promenade that still exists in some countries, the park is a shopping mall without the shops, a chance to see and be seen. You can sit on the edge of the fountain and feel the spray on a hot day, dig in the sandbox with kids or read a book on lunch hour.
Look for the following activities at your local park:
... and more
Bring a lunch and a water bottle to prevent any unnecessary expenditures on popsicles and drinks, pick up after yourself, and don't forget the sunscreen.