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urban sublime


words: morgan rote

Lying on your back in the Great Lawn, your feet flexed into the warm grass, the breeze whispers memories and you forget where you are. Time detours, and you could get lost in the openness and calm, save for the occasional clinking of a metal bat and the cheers of yuppies on their night off. Sitting up, you can see the skyline just beyond the pitches and trees, with two dozen buildings and as many cranes looming, working, imposing on your rest.

We live in cities because they’re stimulating, they’re efficient, and they put us in contact with the rest of the world. They stack 8 million people on top of one another in condos, offices and entertainment districts; hurl us through underground tunnels as we scramble to our destinations; and send crews to extract our carefully sorted waste like clockwork. And in their effort to keep the cogs turning, they have – intentionally or inadvertently – become the most progressive environmentalists of our time. 

Living in a city is one of the greenest things you can do. Metropolises like New York and San Francisco boast among the lowest rates of per capita energy consumption in the United States, far lower than the national average (and even the state most synonymous with “greenness”: Vermont). This is due to the compact, dense design of cities – think the CityCenter mixed-use development in Washington DC, where you can wake up, shop for groceries, go to the gym, pick up your dry cleaning and access the metro all in a 3 block radius. In these environments, bicycles, subway, and walking are often the transportation method of choice. In Manhattan, this is true for more than ¾ of all residents, most of which don’t even own a car.

Yet paradoxically, as a majority of the world’s population now dwells in the urban green oasis of cities, we increasingly lose more and more contact with the natural environment. We forget to wander alongside the river and watch the leaves fall.

This contact is crucial to our self-preservation, the enrichment of our souls. If we are to reflect, detach from the materiality of the world, we must seek out nature. Ralph Waldo Emerson exhorted, “But if a man would be alone, let him look at the stars. The rays that come down [allow him to perceive] the perpetual presence of the sublime.” Nature offers pleasure, reinvigoration, stimulation of the human intellect. It is the source of all beauty and the inspiration for all art. Without it, the world becomes a hollow routine.


This is precisely why the Great Lawn, and the other 800 acres of Central Park turf, is so crucial to the well being of New Yorkers. Public parks draw an element of nature into an otherwise overwhelming city life.

America’s first public parks were born in the 1850s with the work of Frederick Law Olmstead and other public visionaries. Europe’s open-air spaces like Hyde Park and Paris’s Bois de Bologne served as inspiration, along with landscaped cemeteries in the American Northeast.

The expansive, pastoral landscapes of New York’s Central Park and San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park were designed to promote both active and contemplative recreation.

According to U.C. Berkeley architecture professor Galen Cranz, this represents the first of four phases of urban park development in the U.S.

The second phase emerged as a populist spin-off, designed to bring green spaces to the working class areas. These “reform parks” were easily accessible and designed to meet the social needs of the day, such as integrating immigrant communities and providing safe play areas for children. Only a few city blocks in size, they were systematically and symmetrically designed – such as Tompkins Square Park in New York’s East Village, or Sherman Park in Chicago’s South Side. Though they lacked the contemplative escapism of Central Park, they nevertheless offered respite to the broader working classes.

‘The expansive, pastoral landscapes of New York’s Central Park and San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park were designed to promote both active and contemplative recreation.’

The shift from contemplation to recreation accelerated with the third phase of urban parks, which was marked by “recreational facilities.” The new parks were highly functional spaces, such as stadiums or ballparks. Robert Moses, appointed commissioner of New York City’s Park Service in the 1930s, said of this new era, “We’ll make no more absurd claims about what can be accomplished with parks, but rather, fulfill the mandate to provide recreational service.” This became a rather sad period for parks, according to Cranz, as their artistic value was largely subsumed by their function.

But in the midst of the 1960s avante-garde, this sentiment once again shifted, and artistic diversions began popping up in little-expected places – abandoned railroad tracks, a waterfront, a rooftop. The national imagination expanded, and aesthetic or recreational value could suddenly be found in virtually any public space. This “open space network” invited other cultural elements to the parks as well, like concerts and art exhibits. Chicago’s Millennium Park and New York’s more recent High Line are both still products of this era, and the movement has helped infuse a creativity and playfulness into public spaces. But moving forward, it may be time to revisit the roots.

While the recent restoration projects invite intrigue and whimsy, they are, at their core, postmodern (or perhaps post-postmodern) representations of city life. By reminding you of the value of reclaimed city spaces, they keep you present in the city.

Urban developers in Asia have taken these lessons to heart. As they race to build hundreds of new green “smart cities” to meet the region’s booming urban population, they are pausing to incorporate vast pastoral landscapes as well. In the new metropolis of Songdo, South Korea, the city center features a 100-acre Central Park inspired by its NYC namesake. Outside of Beijing, the historic city of Langfang is being retrofitted as an Eco-Smart City, complete with a recreation of the forests and canals that once interlaced the city.

These parks – the creative, playful restoration projects, but especially the traditional, transcendental expanses – are the saving grace of city life. They let us dwell in the increasingly green urban jungles without slipping out of consciousness. They offer us the sublime. 

Samine Joudatv001