Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Ping Pong in the Park

I pulled this off the web, but it just so happens to be taken from the park outside Sagrada Familia, Gaudi's church I happened to visit last week. See my pic here:

This, I did take.

The reason for the post is actually my morning visit today to Main Street Gardens in downtown Dallas. On the wooden cafe platform, where more tables and chairs once sat was a new ping pong table. Playing on it was a white collar bro with (presumably) his 5-year old (or so) son before it got too excruciatingly hot in the sun-baked park.

It was pretty cool to see and a great example of the concept of emergence in cities, perhaps the key discovery in the understanding of underlying dynamics of city forms, processes, and morphology - the way a city molts and shape-shifts and adapts. Emergence tracks back (a very short time period) to people like Michael Batty, Bill Hillier, Nikos Salingaros, Chris Alexander, and all the way back to Jane Jacobs, considered the godmother of the concept who actually didn't really spell it out, but inspired the study and elaboration. Much of it also tracks with mathematicians like Benoit Mandelbrot.

But even before Jacobs, people like Patrick Geddes et al were making the connection between cities and ecosystems. So it has been a long process to get where we are today. Funny enough, as the awareness has grown, the application of it has gone in the opposite direction as we've gutted our cities into completely dysfunctional places.

(**edit: I decided I should come back in and rewrite this section to summarize emergence rather than gloss over it and tell you to look it up somewhere else)

Emergence is what happens when numerous single entities or organisms acting in their own particular interests or following their own impulses (typically guided by a simple set of rules), result in orderly patterns of the super organism the entire group comprises. It is the same idea as a fractal. One example of a fractal is water trying to find its own level makes for incredibly intricate series of streams, lakes, and oceans. One example I just read of emergence was the stadium wave. Without the broader lens, one individual in a stadium is just standing up and sitting down, but when perceived as part of a group an identifiable pattern appears.

The concept helps to explain why what planning used to think of as disorganized, unplanned historic cities (seemingly) are actually quite ordered, but followed simple localized rules. It also helps to explain why centralized planning (especially when it comes to the application of transportation) tends to create disorder.

The key is understanding how emergence happens and effects our daily life. How did that ping pong table get out there and why, when I see it, say "cool." And what is the broader context of why there?/why now? What are all the steps in the timeline for someone to add a layer to the place? Why didn't somebody add a ping pong table in Victory for example?

First, emergence needs location. You've heard it before "Location Location Location." Come to think of it, I have no idea the history/etymology of the phrase, but it is still important today, at least in understanding the difference between functional (where location matters and the correlative value is relatively predictable) and dysfunctionl (where location has been replaced by "if you build it they will come" nonsense that applies to decentralized places).

As I've written before, Main Street Garden is in the right place for two reasons. One, because of its adjacent location to the successes of Main Street, sufficiently buffered from the negative effects of the freeways, the park allows for incremental expansion of a 3-block stretch into a four block stretch. This is far easier to do than create a sense of place that doesn't build off something, that is part of something rather than trying to create something entirely new without the existing critical mass.

The second is for its place within the movement network, the framework of the transportation grid. Although this has been somewhat minimized with the tragic decision to cut-off Harwood entering the city from uptown. It is still in a key location, but it was short-sighted to close Harwood. Helps one park to spite another.

Then, since the idea of the park is in the right place, then the platform has to be provided. The park has to be financed and constructed. Anything that happens afterward, if it is successful in cultivating ownership, the park will be a platform for adaptation and expression of the locals, the users. The key to cultivating ownership is typically directly connected to location and proximity (centrality), aka once again what is outside of the park is far more important to the success of a park than what is actually IN the park. How do I get there? How far is it from me (wherever I might be coming from)? Will other people be there, since fundamentally it is a place of gathering?

Who added the ping pong table? It is irrelevant. Who cares. What matters is that the park is shape-shifting. Adapting due to the individual actions of its numerous agents, including just the regular users. That is emergence. Cities are the amalgam of millions of numerous actions often acting independently. Somebody said, "I would like a ping pong table here." And there it appears.

It may come. It may go. But you know a place has come alive when it becomes the result of numerous actors, a superorganism comprised of the actions of individual organisms. It starts to have a life of its own. Constantly adapting to and adapted by its surroundings.

So who is really responsible? Well, to know that you have to follow the process beginning with the initial inspiration for the idea of the park being in the right place for it to work. All else afterwards is just facilitation (which is also important). The history of the park, as I've detailed before actually traces to the many many many efforts to revitalize the Mercantile Building which sat empty for nearly two decades. During one of those efforts, somebody suggested, "hey this part of town is harsh, sharp, abrupt and needs soften. It needs a place to breathe. Why not leverage the building's value with proximity to a new park?"

So fifteen years ago, the plan was elaborated to remove some of the buildings nearby to create a new park (however this version also removed the Statler Hilton to make a two block park, which admittedly would have been a mistake). Unfortunately, the numbers for various whatever reasons didn't work out and the Merc ended up sitting for another ten years and change.

The kernel of the idea for Main Street Gardens (which at the time was called "Commerce Gardens" -- an ironic spin on Dallas's reputation and acknowledgement of the second block) actually came from my current business partner. I was still in high school.