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The Secret Lives Of City Parks

City Parks: Public Places, Private Thoughts features 21 literary greats and public figures, from Zadie Smith to Bill Clinton, on their favorite green spaces.

Entering a city park can be almost surreal, like encountering a desert mirage–smells of hot garbage are replaced instantly with cut grass and forsythia, sounds of screeching subway brakes are traded for birdcalls and quiet. Former Vogue editor and New York Public Library chairman Catie Marron had a lifelong love for these green respites from cacophony and claustrophobia. “I always gravitate towards city parks. In the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris when I was 23, something moved me internally, almost brought me to tears,” Marron tells Co.Design. “I really wanted to find books on parks for myself, but I didn’t find any. They didn’t seem to exist.”

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She decided to change that, and rallied an impressive collection of authors and public figures–including Bill Clinton, Zadie Smith, Andre Aciman, Colm Toibin, and Nicole Krauss–to pen poignant odes to twenty-one city parks the world over. The resulting book, City Parks: Public Places, Private Thoughts, captures the enchantment of urban green spaces with intimate essays and Oberto Gili’s full color photographs, which appear almost three-dimensional in their depth and richness.

The book is a paean to the diversity of park design, from Anton Gaudi’s carnivalesque Park Güell in Barcelona, which Marron describes as an “adult playground,” bejeweled with mosaics, to the Meatpacking District’s High Line, a converted set of abandoned railroad tracks once destined for demolition. “The High Line is the most innovative design featured,” says Marron. “There are so many copies–in Philly and Chicago, for example. One reason there’s so little vandalism compared to other parks is it was designed so carefully and thoughtfully, with high-quality materials, that people don’t want to hurt it. They respect it.” Besotted since her youth, Marron maintains that the best-designed park in the world is Luxembourg Gardens. “It has both formality and informality. It has that wide open area with a boat pond and yet to the side it has a small reflecting pool with a sculpture behind it, playgrounds, various purposes. It has a diversity of use and a diversity of people. A park works best when people use it all day long.” Marron makes a pilgrimage to the Gardens every time she visits Paris, even if it requires stopping en route to the airport.

Marron left out the infinitely celebrated Central Park and instead chose its undersung outer-borough sister, Prospect Park. “There’s already been so much said about Central Park. It’s so big and hard to get your hands around. Prospect Park has a soul that you can grasp.” Nicole Krauss pays homage to Prospect Park’s impressive canine population; Andre Aciman muses on the nature of time and the death of a friend while walking the High Line; Jonathan Alter recalls a history of racial tensions in Chicago’s Grant Park and a speech by Barack Obama on the night he was elected president; and Colm Toibin praises the whimsy and wildness of Gaudi’s Parque Guell. “There are no straight lines or sharp corners in nature,” Gaudi used to say, and therefore avoided straight lines in his architectural and park designs.

Describing the Tiergarten in Berlin, Germany, Marron said, “The trees felt sad. It almost felt like they’d seen these horrendous atrocities, like they were weeping. There was this old-world melancholy to the place. When Oberto went to photograph it, he called and said ‘You’ll be happy, Catie–it’s raining here.'” This endowing of parks with human emotions and souls is consistent throughout this collection of essays and photographs, which transport and enchant, offering miniature doses of the healing powers that urban green spaces possess.

City Parks: Public Places, Private Thoughts is available for purchase here.

All photographs by Oberto Gili.

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About the author

Carey Dunne is a Brooklyn-based writer covering art and design. Follow her on Twitter.

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