Park(ing) Day will again be coming to the Statehouse, thanks to Reps. Art Handy and Lisa Tomasso, and so I thought a little reflection was needed on the situation around the parking expansion at the Statehouse.
The capital city of Brazil, Brasilia, is known as a place of expansive parks and green spaces. It was built in 1960, moving the capital away from Rio de Janeiro. Like Washington, DC, it was a regional compromise attempting to move the center of government out of centers of cultural power and into more neutral territory. Even more than Washington, DC, it focused itself around monumental beauty.
The problem with Brasilia is that all that grass looks really great from a plane, and really is useless to get around in on a day-to-day basis. Brasilia is beautiful only from the outside, while from within it feels atomizing and lonely. People drive more. When people walk, it feels unnatural. It's not just the distances, but also the fact that if you do find yourself walking in a place like this, there are fewer people around. It feels dangerous and unwelcoming at worst, eccentric at best.
Our own state capital has lost some of its green space in the last year to parking lots at great expense. In the paper-scissors-rock of life, parking lots definitely lose to green space, and it's a real shame to have lost some plant life to asphalt. But the bigger question begs: moving forward, is our demand that we want the green space back, or should we ask for something else? In one of the earliest articles of this blog, cross-posted on Greater City Providence, the suggestion was to gradually grow larger and larger gardens on the Statehouse lots through the Lots of Hope program. But maybe what is needed is some more urban infill.
Rep. Art Handy (D- Cranston, and Chair of the Environmental Committee) made a nice parklet last year at the Statehouse, and this year he'll be joined by another representative, Rep. Lisa Tomasso (D- Coventry). The big challenge that always comes up with these parklets at the Statehouse parking lot is that the location feels isolated. Rep. Handy did an astounding job with the help of Joedega, Recycle-a-Bike, and Like No Udder in making a welcoming space that state workers came out to enjoy. But getting other people to cross town from even as close as the rest of downtown is a challenge--posed not by absolute distance, but by the feeling that big expanses of grass aren't the place to be walking around in.
|Venice: everything's close together.|
Our state capital is not as spaciously designed as Brasilia, for sure, but the concept behind the turn of the 20th Century Statehouse lawn was definitely the beginnings of the City Beautiful movement, which brought us things like the Ben Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia, and the National Mall in DC. These spaces have great beauty. But try walking around in them! Why do we marvel so much at Rocky climbing the Art Museum steps in Philly? Because, damn, he had to cross traffic.
The state already has legislation on the books that requires it to reduce the number of state employees who use cars as their means of transportation to get to work, and yet it does not enforce these laws. Free parking is part of the problem. The other part is that even if an employee could take the bus to work in the morning, they might feel inclined to drive instead so that they could access a greater array of lunch options. What's nice about the parklets at the Statehouse is that they bring some options to people. The state should take this as a lesson, and think about building infill on the parking lots, gradually reducing the number of parking spots while greatly expanding the number of businesses or residences nearby. This will help support transit frequency, and will also make it less necessary to take transit midday for things like lunch runs.
We're the Renaissance City, right? Well, this is what the Renaissance looks like: there's lots of places to walk. Lots of buildings. Everything is close together.
What does a successful green space look like? It's important to ask this, because I'm not saying that we have to destroy all the grass and trees and pave over everything.
A successful green space is one that has active uses around it. Think of Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia, or the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens. We should model the green space around the Statehouse on successful, active spaces, and use infill to create this action. We have a state capital building that's next to a train station, so let's make use of that fact.