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Lungs of the city

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Great City Parks By Alan Tate. Spon Press, 2001. 218pp. £49.50

City parks are the lungs of the city - places of escape where you can breathe, walk, listen to bird song, play football, feed pigeons, and fly kites. They are also places where condoms mulch the shrub beds and you can inject drugs or drink meths.

This well-presented academic text is by Alan Tate, with photographs mostly by the late Martin Jones. They began the work in the mid 1980s when Tate had a stint at the Bartlett with Professor Michael Ellison; it is informed by questionnaires sent out to park managers then, and by follow-up interviews.

Tate is an English landscape architect who ran practices in Hong Kong and London through the 1980s and 1990s and now teaches at the University of Manitoba.

He originally selected 40 public parks for his study but just 20 are in the book, from North America and Western Europe, ordered by size from the tiny 390m 2Paley Park, New York, to the whole 2,630ha Minneapolis Park system. He has written each up systematically with sections on development, planning and design, management and usage, plans for the future, and a conclusion - along with a line drawing. The selection is a pot pourri ranging from Regent's Park to the mid 1990's Parc de Bercy in Paris.

The book presents park facts on a comparative basis. It gives a review of where a range of important city parks are today and where they are going. Tate knows his stuff and writes as a landscape designer. In British terms it is a useful corrective to the view that a significant park (or garden) is a historical time capsule which can be restored back to a particular moment - a way of thinking which informs much National Lotteryfunded urban park conservation.

Not only is such thinking lousy landscape history (nearly all parks are palimpsests) but it can often fail to realise their communal, civic, recreational, public health, horticultural, scientific and social functions.

Tate writes from an Anglo-Saxon standpoint - indeed the view from Manitoba suggests a reasonableness and civility which is almost Canadian - and is a bit overly serious. It sometimes reads as a bid for North American academic street cred. So, for instance, Tate suggests that Richard Haag's Gasworks Park in Seattle was the precedent for the Latzs' Duisburg Nord Landschaftspark. It wasn't - it was their own earlier work at Hafeninsel Burgerpark, Saarbrucken, which the Latzs cite.

But then there are excellent accounts of North American parks that are new to me. It is peculiar to mix measurements (Canadian and European parks are described in metric, US parks in imperial), but that is quibbling.

Essentially this is a reference book, and it is not a light read, but it should be on the shelves of all serious landscape, urban design and city planning offices.

Robert Holden is a landscape architect who teaches at the University of Greenwich

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