I’ve been doing some research on urban parks. In this case, ‘research’ means I get to walk around my local park – or any park – on a nice day, looking thoughtful, and count it as work.
No, really. I’ve been looking at the learned sources – meaning Wikipedia – and really working hard. And I’d like to tell you what I found.
“But what will this have to do with smart cities?” you ask. Wait. I’ll get to that.
The first public urban park was apparently created in the city of Derby, in England. In 1840 a guy whose family had made a fortune from textiles, commissioned a horticulturalist to design a park from a large plot of land that he had donated to the city.
I don’t quite get how England claims this as a world first when my further research turned up an earlier date for Australia’s first urban park. See below.
But the Brits do like their firsts – Mother of all Parliaments and so forth – so let them have it. (Wait – that wasn’t Saddam Hussein was it?)
Anyway, the Derby Arboretum was a haven amid the smog of the industrial town – an urban green space that provided a template for the “many public parks that followed in its wake,” according to Wikipedia.
In Australia things followed a different course. There was already lots of open space – and green space – when the first settlers (and their convict labourers) arrived, so the parks weren’t ‘created’ – they were ‘designated’. The first one was in Sydney. A piece of land that had been called the ‘Exercising Ground’, ‘Cricket Ground’ or ‘Racecourse’ was designated Hyde Park. It was named after another park of the same name in central London.
Incidentally, the date of Sydney’s Hyde Park designation, according to me, was 1822 – which, if I can still do my sums, is a few years before Derby’s Arboretum. But, the Brits do like their firsts, so we’ll let it go. (Again).
I couldn’t find a definitive history of urban parks for Asia or SE Asia – so if anyone has one let me know – but Bangkok’s Lumphini Park was created as a museum in the 1920s by King Rama VI on royal property. After World War I, it was rebuilt into the first park in Bangkok, although at that time it was on the outskirts of the city. Today it lies in the heart of the main business district, so really the city – or that part of the city (Bangkok is vast and sprawling) – grew up around the park, rather than the park being created for the ‘smog-ridden urban citizens’.
Which, I guess, brings me to smart cities.
Lumphini Park isn’t readily accessible to most citizens of Bangkok – nor, really, are any decent parks. To be fair, there are quite a few parks in that wonderful city. There’s Benchasiri Park in Khlong Toei, Benjakitti, King Rama IX Park, Chatuchak — which, as it opened in December 1980, is one of the newest public parks in Bangkok — and Queen Sirikit Botanical Gardens. But being downtown, these wonderful oases tend to be near where most of the citizens work, rather than where they live.
I see the idea of park as being a relatively peaceful area where a mother or father can pop out with their kid in a stroller for 20-30 minutes downtime, not just as a destination where you go to gawp at the orchids.
The same is true in Shanghai, Taipei, Seoul, Manilla, Mumbai – well, most Asian cities. Gongqing Forest Park is described as “a wooded wonderland” but it’s miles away from downtown Shanghai. Taipei has its Botanic Garden (very good) and Chiang Kai Shek’s Shilin residence, Daan ark and Daihu Park; all good places, but not really somewhere you take Johnny in a stroller for a half-hour’s escape from the 21st century equivalent of the smog (which is: traffic noise, too many people and a working day in front of a computer screen).
And I wonder – I wo-wo-wo-wo-wonder – should the Smart Cities movement be looking to populate these urban areas with thousands of sensors that help clean up the air, increase urban connectedness, improve participation, enable data sharing and so forth. Should it be doing that without first taking a step back and looking at something that many cities now take for granted – free and easy access to a ‘haven among the smog’?
Well, that’s enough bashing away on my 21st-century keyboard. I’m going outside to take a walk in the pa-ark.