The power of parks was evident on 9/11, says Lynden Miller, an open space planner in New York City.
"The streets were empty, but the parks in every neighborhood were full of people," Miller writes in her new book, Parks, Plants, and People: Beautifying the Urban Landscape. "They knew instinctively that they would feel safer there and could be with others who shared their shock and grief."
Miller credits Charleston Mayor Joe Riley for planting the seed in her head to write the book. After a lecture at a local horticulture event, he asked for literature he could share with others. Riley also provides a blurb on the book jacket.
"A public space, beautiful by its design and loving maintenance, is a rich and nourishing gift to every citizen who sees or uses it," he says before going on to praise Miller's job in the Big Apple. "Her wonderfully successful work in New York is transferable — the principles are universal."
In the 2008 presidential primaries, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani often touted his role in cleaning up the city's streets, making New York a nice place to visit again. The many examples of Miller's work in her book show that she's equally responsible for making New York a nice place to live again.
From the unkempt medians of Times Square to the dangerous nooks of Bryant Park, Miller turned the city's landscape around one crime- and crust-infested public space at a time.
Much of the book gets into the specifics of attractive, year-round horticulture. But there's also a healthy dose of practical park planning ideas for urban centers, mostly credited to planner William Hollingsworth Whyte. Things like avoiding hiding places that draw criminals, collecting insight from the neighbors who will actually use the park, and making the space functional with wide paths and ample seating.
Enough About New York
A park in Charleston can mean any number of things. In the suburbs, it's almost exclusively a reference to ballparks, playgrounds, or obscure waterfront views (like Sunrise Park, one of Riley's favorites). On the peninsula, there's the city center at Marion Square, the view at Waterfront Park, the scenic history of White Point Gardens, the breadth of Hampton Park, and the evident potential of spaces like Colonial Lake and Cannon Park.
"You never go to a great city and say it has too many parks," Riley tells the City Paper.
As they say in the Snuggie business: But wait, there's more.
Hampton Park is a big draw for the West Side, but there's more public park space in the neighborhood. Driving up Ashley Avenue, you could easily miss Alan Park and its small white fountain. Chapel Street's green fountain is a bit more prominent, but also off the beaten path.
Riley says the smaller park opportunities peppered throughout the peninsula is another city asset.
"When we became a motorized culture, we got to thinking you have to create space people will drive to," Riley says. "What's more important in cities is having places you can walk to."
If Riley's more than three decades at the helm in Charleston will be remembered for anything, it's expanding the public sector in Charleston. A large part of that has been focused on park space — most notably the rehab of Hampton Park and Marion Square, as well as the major investment at Waterfront Park, which could have been left to private developers.
"It was one of the most important opportunities that the city has ever had," he says.
Miller returns to talk about Charleston in a chapter about inventive ways to leverage public interest in park space, pointing to the Charleston Park Conservancy as an example.
Founded in 2007, the nonprofit venture has partnered with the city to enhance public spaces, including landscape improvements at parks like Hampton and Brittlebank, and new opportunities like the Windermere Community Garden. The work is done almost exclusively by volunteers through the conservancy's Park Angels program.
The group is invaluable, Riley says, particularly as public finances get squeezed and priorities like public safety and education have to take precedence.
"I can see years from now when most cities will have organizations like that," he says.
And Charleston's neighborhoods and park officials are still making improvements. The gazebo at White Points Gardens is getting a major rehab and planning for an East Bay/Calhoun District has parks and waterfront vistas playing key roles. The neighborhood, conservancy, and city officials are also working together for a major Colonial Lake makeover. Early designs include fresh landscaping that surrounds the lake, along with new water access. It's the kind of improvements you didn't know you wanted, Riley says.
"You get used to things as they are, and it's hard to visualize how it could be better," he says.
In her book, Lynden Miller provides hope for Charleston and any other city with an itching green thumb.
"If it can be done in New York, it can be done anywhere," she says.
The Charleston peninsula's Hidden jewels
Three public spaces to search out:
Horselot, Chisolm Street You're around the corner from Colonial Lake, so you're really not even looking for open space. Then, a green field between two streets. There's no seating or gardens, just a lot of grass and an open invitation for four-legged friends.
Fountain Park, Chapel Street A classic green fountain surrounded by terrific greenery between Meeting and East Bay streets. There's an unsightly tree, but it's still a welcome, unique opportunity that jumps out at you.
Alan Park, Ashley Avenue A three-tiered fountain not too far south of Hampton Park that's surrounded by four park benches, with a line of grand trees running down one side of the park. Sparse, but a pleasant surprise.