The square & the park: an international festival
Squares and parks are the most well known public spaces in the world. Resilient and changeable, parks and squares are the central theme of the International Festival of Landscape Architecture, hosted by AILA, in Melbourne this October.
While directed at the professions responsible for design, development and management of our most critical and loved public spaces, this international festival will tackle issues of concern to everyone interested in the future of cities. Foreground spoke with festival directors Kirsten Bauer and Cassandra Chilton
Foreground: The festival theme this year is a deceptively simple one for landscape architecture: ‘The Park and The Square’. What is important about these spaces and how would you distinguish a park from a square?
Kirsten Bauer: Despite hundreds of years of innovation, disruptive design and cultural change, as a public we – especially in western nations – still have a shared understanding of what these types are. That is what I find fascinating. From a public perspective, a square is typically thought to be more urban in form, associated with the built form around it, especially community, government or religious buildings.
Even though in Australia we have a younger practice of making and using squares, the idea of the traditional European square is still strong with the community and the profession. For example, with Federation Square the designers sought to stretch the typology and provide a more future-focused version. However, the fundamental success of a square is its location in the centre of cities and its close association with everyday activity around it, be it commercial, social or cultural. As such, Federation Square is still missing some basic square DNA that is affecting its success. Its needs more people having lunch there and moving through the space as part of the everyday life of the city. More development further east of it may enable this to occur. Federation Square is currently undergoing a review and seeking input from the community.
In many ways the recent discussions around Federation Square and its publicness – or not! – is what drove us to examine in more detail these seemingly simple typologies. A square is a palpable place of democracy and the community. These ideas are active in the space and its form is shaped by it use: that is, protests and celebrations. If these activities happened in a large park, they would perhaps be less visible and effective, although social media may be changing this paradigm.
A park, on the other hand, is where the space is dominated by more familiar natural systems. The park is connected to the geology, ecology, topography and landscape of the place. A park can be small or big. The connection to its adjacent built form is not important to its success or use as the focus is on immersion in a ‘green’ environment. But there are many overlaps between park and square design.
The festival is definitely looking to expose and discuss the potentially sinister motivations for acts that happen in urban squares and parks, as well as the design that enables or restricts them. Of course, this is on top of the things we know already about the value of green space to health and the role of convivial public space in building trust and encouraging good citizenship. The Victorian government recently announced $154 million investment for a ring of new parklands in Melbourne’s growing suburbs. There is social merit and political credit in creating local parks!
Foreground: The festival will look at parks and squares as the two key universal open space types for cities in a broad sense, but also in the way they respond to the particularities of their locales. Are there tensions between global and local perspectives and values that play out in the design of parks and squares?
Cassandra Chilton: The idea of what constitutes ‘the public’ has changed and continues to change. Technology and digital communication has had a huge influence on our use and valuing of real public space. Some of the most important discussions about what we want as communities in a changing world happen in public space and are about public space: from gun control in the US and terrorism globally, to government control and citizen rights in Hong Kong, climate change protests and calls for more urban greening. These days local concerns can readily have global expression and vice versa.
Kirsten Bauer: For me there is always a connection between the local and the global, we live in both. The tensions are now firmly around the financial underpinning of these spaces, in their planning, design and ongoing care. Governments in Australia are looking for more commercial and community leadership in the creation and care of public spaces.
What I love about the public space system of Australia is that through our laws and standards, we have a system that provides parks and squares for all communities. This primarily came from the British system of land use planning and minimum standards. My recent experience in the US is quite different, where the planning, design and care of public spaces produces low quality spaces in general. The funding is just not there.
I would be horrified if Australia ended up with a system where the financial status of the community ultimately decides the quality and number of parks for that community. The children of this future would be reliant on philanthropic charity to provide them with quality places to play and places to support local ecologies. That said, we need to work with community, government and commercial interests to ensure our parks and squares represent ambitions and values of a broad public. This is why a review of the semi-privatised space of Federation Square is timely and important.
Foreground: The competition that you organised in connection with the festival cleverly permits entrants to select their own site. This is an interesting way to imagine and find new public parks and squares in Melbourne. What was your thinking about framing the competition like this?
Cassandra Chilton: We wanted to have a competition that was sure to explore ideas beyond a particular site. Usually a competition garners lots of ideas for a single site. We wanted to get lots of sites for ideas! With such ideas, the competition would have an ongoing life and influence. Landscape architects and others could use the ideas and plans to speak to agencies, to generate interest and investment. The whole body of work submitted – not just the winners – becomes a valuable resource for councils, community groups and others to drive change for more and better open space.
Kirsten Bauer: Yes, we wanted a strategic or theoretical discussion about parks as well as on-the-ground explorations or tests of the theory on Melbourne. We really do need to invent new ways of thinking about ‘green’ or public space in our cities. We wanted to show the government and the community how we could increase and diversity open space in denser cities. But we are also continuing the tradition of ‘future park’ competitions around the world. I’m thinking back to such influential competitions as Downsview Park in Toronto, Parc de la Villette, and Melbourne’s Royal Park competition. We are looking to the competition and the conference having a long life beyond October.
Foreground: We think of parks and squares as intrinsically valuable urban spaces – or, at least, in the language of liveable cities, key indicators of successful, sustainable cities. Are there any reasons not to like them? Are there any down sides?
Cassandra Chilton: Of course, there are parks and squares that are not so good, not so useful or loved. In the eighties, Rex Swanson wrote critically about Melbourne’s parks. Many of them are large with few facilities to make them easy to enjoy in diverse ways. Melbourne is rich in public open space but in many places there are no seats or paths, let alone larger attractors. Partly this comes from the restrictions of heritage overlays that it would be helpful to rethink and rebalance with changing needs.
For example, adjacent to the central city grid, Treasury Gardens is perhaps the biggest open space to the east of Melbourne where hundreds of people go for lunch. Yet there’s only 6 benches in the whole park. We are nearing completion of a project in Treasury Gardens. It’s a memorial for Emergency Services and the first change to the gardens since the JFK memorial in 1965. It is not an object. It is more, another type of inhabitable garden. The design evolved through consultation with a lot of stakeholders and the site required very careful consideration, but this rare change will add to the park.
Foreground: What were particularly influential parks or squares in your training or early career?
Kirsten Bauer: I have loved parks since I was a kid. I designed my local park in my first year of university as part of a community group informing local council what we wanted for our local park. They pretty much built it. A simple double row avenue of Golden Rain trees, that now, over 20 years later, is providing a beautiful shade path for the locals.
Since I started studying I have been visiting parks and squares across Australia, New Zealand, Europe, America, Asia, the Middle East and South Africa, seeing, collecting and loving that diversity of experiences. I am a park nerd! They inform me as a professional. The parks along the Yarra River, from Wonga Park to Yarra Flats were my first landscape job, both designing and maintaining them. This was all about indigenous vegetation and regeneration of farms to parks, as well as how to use maintenance techniques to manage parks.
I recently visited the US and what stays in my mind about their squares is the trend to placemaking and the amount of private funding being raised to rejuvenate and activate these spaces. In regards to parks, the most fascinating was a large scale new park in Tulsa, Oklahoma. However the place that really stays in my mind is the French park that I visited many years ago with Julian Raxworthy: Sausset State Park by Michel Corajoud. We were like kids in a candy store. The post-modern design with amazing topographic forms and incredible forest-like mass planting is not something we do at all in Australia.
Cassandra Chilton: Dye Works Park in Melbourne was a revelation to me when I was studying. I think it was the first cover of Landscape Architecture Australia [magazine] that didn’t feature a gum tree or some romanticised vision of the Australian outback. That said, it is also important to remember that the design did use native plants – that was not common in public space – so you had a fascinating combination of new ideas in this small park. It was so foreign, so expressive, so graphic. You could see the hand of the designer. In a practical way too it re-introduced the more European idea of flexible public space – you could inhabit the park and enjoy it in different ways.
Foreground: Can you give any hints as to what ‘greater ambition’ for designed parks and squares in Australia we might find at the festival? What should we be most ambitious about?
Kirsten Bauer: Squares and parks are the most well known public spaces in the world. What’s most amazing is their resilience. They change with us. They can and should generously meet the needs of future generations. You could say squares and parks do three fundamental things: they enable a democratic and rich cultural public life, they ground the ecological health of a city, and they underpin human health and wellbeing. Landscape architects need to be more vocal about these critical entities. They are not just open spaces or places for recreation or forecourts to buildings. They are complex, multi-dimensional designed urban entities.
Julia Czerniak, who will be presenting at the festival, is a co-editor of Large Parks. In it she quotes Galen Cranz: “Those with an interest in the character of urban life should seize on parks as one of the vehicles for the realisation of their particular visions, and debate around parks should revolve around those visions.” This is also true of squares.
Squares and parks are the most palpable, visible and accessible public places to reimagine the city. We want to develop a conversation specific to Australia by sharing ideas from around the world, from Asia, North America and Europe. There is a lot to learn from each other.
The International Festival of Landscape Architecture is taking place in Melbourne from 11-12 October. For more information and bookings see the website.
Cassandra Chilton is a Principal at Rush Wright Associates
Kirsten Bauer is a Director of ASPECT Studios
Jillian Walliss is a Senior Lecturer, University of Melbourne