I have been on the Brackenridge Park Stakeholders Advisory Committee for the last half year and was one of the facilitators at the public hearing January 8 which drew some 114 people for two hours of discussing what Guiding Principles should be used for evaluating future projects in Brackenridge Park. We will be having another public meeting January 30 where we will share the revised criteria. There is also an online survey you can fill out before then here.
Urban parks have inherently competing interests within them. They are designed to preserve and promote nature. They are also designed to promote recreation. Those two elements can be at odds. They are home to wildlife, but also part of human life and again, those two uses will be in conflict at times. The Guiding Principles are designed to help negotiate these inherent conflicts. Here is what I said at the meeting, according to the San Antonio Express-News: “When you are dealing with a place where people are doing things, and there’s also nature and wildlife, there will always be conflicts at some point. So, respect for compromise is one of our guiding principles.”
Here is a bird eating a fish in Brackenridge Park recently, so we have those conflicts as well.
Brackenridge Park is kind of unique. The Brackenridge Park Conservancy (founded by the Conservation Society of San Antonio in 2009) did a Cultural Landscape Report for the park a little over a year ago. See, unlike most parks – Central Park in Manhattan, or Jackson Park in Chicago – the park was not undevelopable land that was transformed by a landscape architect into a community amenity. That is how most urban parks are formed.
Central Park. Designed by Frederick Law Olmsted AFTER he visited San Antonio.
Brackenridge Park is actually a natural area near the source of the San Antonio river that was preserved as a park. The largest part of it was donated to the city by George Washington Brackenridge in 1899. He owned it because he owned the first public water system in town, so it is kind of a real estate development story, but it is still unlike most urban parks in that many elements of the landscape are NOT designed.
The 1877 Pump House in Brackenridge Park, built for the first public water system.
Consequently, the Cultural Landscape Report and our Guiding Principles include reference to 12,000 years of human interaction with the park, long before it became part of New Spain. One of the reasons we are in this whole community process was the strong reaction to proposed tree cutting by citizens concerned with both the environment and traditional spiritual practices of indigenous people. I covered the tree issue, and my own participation in traditional cultural practice regarding trees here last year.
View from the river to the golf course. Like many urban park golf courses, it is one of the oldest in the area.
So, unlike most urban parks, there are portions of Brackenridge Park that are arguably “wilderness”. “Wilderness” is where both natural area conservation and historic preservation began 150 years ago.
Here. Well, also Yellowstone. 1872.
Today the wilderness model of natural area conservation is as outdated as the house museum model in historic preservation. Over a decade ago the two started coming together to create a new, more practical and less Puritanical approach to conservation as a whole, as I described here in 2013.
Goats in Brackenridge Park in 2023 to help clear undergrowth. Sheep – designed to eat grass and thus “mow” the lawn areas, were part of the original 19th century design of many large Chicago parks.
Brackenridge Park not only has 12,000 years of human history, but a lot of interesting cultural practices as well, such as Easter weekend, when many many families camp out in the park for three days.
So the whole exercise is setting up principles and criteria to help negotiate between natural, cultural and other environmental wants and needs. As I explained at the opening of the public meeting, these goals will be in conflict and the principles and criteria are a way to balance their competing interests.
Well, that is a lovely waterfall! But unlike some parts of the park, there is nothing natural about it. This is an industrial site – a quarry – that was transformed into a Japanese garden over a century ago. This part of Brackenridge Park was designed, and it was an adaptive re-use of an abandoned industrial quarry. Heck, there are even lime kilns surviving from when the dimension stone gave way to gravel.
The Japanese Tea Garden is one of the highlights of San Antonio I always bring visitors to see. I am a frequent user of the park and my bike rides through it at least once a week offer a variety of natural and cultural highlights. We begin coming up the concrete ditch along Avenue A next to the golf course, which again is not a very natural landscape.
We continue across the Mulberry bridge and past the Witte museum. Last year the egrets had taken over the next section of trees to the level of public health hazard.
We then stop to enjoy the river flowing over the Low Water Crossing, built in 1937 for automobiles to get from one side of the park to the other. Probably not ideal for water quality to have cars splashing through there, and it hasn’t been allowed in some years. We will often see the Zoo mini train in the distance at this point.
We then follow the river south through a portion of the park that is undesigned save for picnic tables and walkways and a road. In addition to dog walkers and picnickers we occasionally see trapeze artists and jugglers in a small meadow as we near Mulberry Avenue again.
We follow the river south of Mulberry along Avenue B between the golf course and the River Road neighborhood until we come to another 1937 crossing, scheduled to be replaced. Here the artificial waterfall attracts migratory waterfowl.
Soon we are back in the neighborhood reveling in the aftermath of the forest bath and commenting on what we may have seen – tents, jugglers, low riders, family picnics, fishers and historic buildings. It is a swirl of competing uses that is richer for its complexities and contradictions. One of the participants in the January 8 public meeting said, we should maintain the “romantic and quirky” character of the park.
Joske pavilion, 1920s.
In 2006 I wrote a blog called “The Fallacy of Primacy” focused on the idea that the “first” to discover something was not necessarily historically important. The Vikings got to North America and the Chinese maybe got to Peru before the Spanish, but it doesn’t matter. They didn’t affect the trajectory of history like those who came later. In addition to the fallacy of “firsts” and “discoveries,” there is also the problem of category and context.
This is San Pedro Springs Park in San Antonio, sometimes claimed as the second oldest park in the United States after Boston Common, since it was set aside as public land by King Philip V of Spain in 1729.
That fact is not true in two ways. First, there are older public lands in places like St.. Augustine so San Pedro Springs Park is more like 10th oldest.* Second, there is no context for public parks until the 1830s – the category of a city park simply did not exist. If you look it up, San Pedro Springs Park is the oldest city park in Texas, dated not 1729 but 1852.
The urban park as a type begins no earlier than 1827 when they start redesigning St. James Park in London. The oldest “parks” in U.S. cities are more like the squares in Savannah, which were open space but not parks. There was no context for “park” as a place of recreation and relaxation outdoors. If you wanted that, you went to a cemetery.
So here is the oldest city park in the U.S., Boston Common, and you can see that it is also a cemetery. When it was created in 1634 it could be used for celebrations, militia drills, burials, and yes, even picnics and sport. Interestingly, the design of “parks” in the 19th century begins with the design of the first rural cemetery at Mount Auburn outside Boston in 1831. It then inspires the first generation of park designers.
So, we have a whole new context emerging in the second quarter of the 19th century. Parks. By the end of the 19th century, Boston has its Emerald Necklace of Parks, New York has the massive Central Park, Chicago has a boulevard and park system stretching 30 miles and even Los Angeles had the 575 acre Elysian Park. Parks, like museums, were an idea less than century old.
We have a similar movement in the current century to create urban linear parks from old railroads or other rights-of-way. Think New York’s High Line, Chicago’s 606, or San Antonio’s San Pedro Creek Culture Park. Rails or canals to trails is also roughly a century old, and getting more and more elaborate.
When you ask whether something is first, or oldest or original, you are in fact asking a present day question about how a place is perceived and categorized. It is kind of like the difference between fact (to aléthes) and truth (alétheia) in Greek. A fact – to aléthes – is that San Pedro Springs Park became a public space in 1729. Alétheia is truth in the sense of a body of truth, like urban parks were started in the 1830s and 40s. Boston Common is the oldest park – to aléthes – but it is also a collection of other ideas about public space between 1634 and 1834 – Alétheia.
FUN FACTS: A San Antonio native, Robert Hammond, was behind the High Line in New York! Also, another San Antonian, Elizabeth Barlow Rogers, founded the Central Park Conservancy!
* a list of “oldest” parks in the U.S., understanding that none are really “parks” until the 1830s:
- 1573 – Plaza de la Constitucion, San Augustine, Florida
- 1634 – Boston Common
- 1641 – New Haven Green
- 1680 – Washington and Marion Squares, Charleston
- 1686 – Battery Park, New York City
- 1718 – Jackson Square, New Orleans
- 1729 – San Pedro Springs, San Antonio
- 1733 – Bowling Green, New York City
Bad weather for flying gave me an extra eleven hours in New York City so I decided to visit the High Line, which is to urban design what Facebook was to social networking in 2008 or what the iPhone was to telephony in 2007. Even though rails-to-trails are older than my creaky knees, the High Line has been HOT, HOT, HOT. Every city that wants to have the coolest in infrastructural fashion is getting one. Chicago’s Bloomingdale Trail is the premier project in town largely thanks to the High Line analogy. So I had to see it and here are my impressions. Continue Reading