The philosophy of parks
What do our abandoned playgrounds say about who we were- and who we are?
Prince George used to have more tennis courts per capita than any other city in Canada.
There are a number of theories for why this is. One is that Desmond Park, the city planner in the 60s and 70s, was a tennis fan himself and so when he was adding new subdivisions he made sure a court was included. Another is that the federal government had a lot of grant money to give towards tennis at the time, and the city was happy to take it.
Looking at parks is an ideal way to gain insights into a city’s history. In the 70s people in Prince George loved tennis, and so a lot of tennis courts were built. Today, they don’t, and grass grows through the broken pavement of places where the game is no longer played. In 2013, city council voted to reduce the number of courts it maintains from 63 to 34. Priorities changed.
Along with tennis courts, neighbourhood parks had a major boom in the 60s and 70s. The design philosophy of the time was that everyone should be able to walk to a nearby playground, and so neighbourhood parks popped up everywhere. The smallest, known as tot lots, were basically squeezed onto whatever leftover green space could be found.
Malaspina Park in College Heights is the perfect example of a neighbourhood park. There’s a playground with a merry-go-round, slide, monkey bars, teeter-totter, and swings. Beside that, a ball diamond, another popular sport of the decade.
Prince George is no longer the boomtown it was when the park was built. At the time it was on its way to being the second-largest city in the province, and every expectation was it would hit 100,000 by the 21st century. Instead, the population stagnated at around 80,000, and in recent years has been slowly declining. Its residents are aging and as schools shut down, new seniors’ residents open.
The merry-go-round in Malaspina was once the sign of a neighbourhood full of children and families. Today, it sits at a twenty degree angle, layers of paint built up over forty years rubbed away. Rather than hosting a game among friends, the ball diamond is being used as an impromptu enclosure for a woman playing fetch with her dog. The space is being adapted and reclaimed by its lack of use.
Which isn’t to say there’s no demand for kid-friendly playgrounds anymore. A fifteen-minuted drive and I’m in Duchess Park, the newly-built destination park in the Crescents neighbourhood, just outside of downtown. You can see the new design philosophy here- artificial turf is on the ground. Instead of the metal of Malaspina, this playground is plastic. Nothing spins too fast or goes too high. There are tennis courts nearby, used by the adjacent high school, but there’s also a small BMX track. Right now, a group of toddlers are running over the jumps and hills.
The first person I talk to is a father of two who lives closer to Malaspina Park than he does to here. He comes here twice a week. He’d like to go to a playground near his house but… well, I’ve seen the state of Malaspina. The next person runs a daycare near Rainbow Park, another playground with metal and a merry-go-round. The third person came here from the Hart with her son. She also wishes something like this were closer to home. Instead, she makes the drive.
Times are changing, and so are parks. The city has launched a series of public meetings, online survey, and app in order to figure out what people want out of their green spaces today. Should the merry-go-round of Malaspina be fixed, replaced with a plastic playground, or abandoned all together? How much are we willing to pay so people don’t need to drive in order to access a Duchess-style park? Tennis courts, dog runs, or skate parks? Every one of these questions speaks in some small way to our interests and values, what we think a city should look like and be navigated. The result will be another layer of history, a clue about who we were for residents walking around forty years from now.
Note: I also did an audio version of this story with interviews. Listen to it here.
Originally published at andrewkurjata.ca on April 27, 2016.