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Opinion: The Destruction of Public Spaces

John Sunami John Sunami Opinion: The Destruction of Public SpacesPhoto by Anne Evans.
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A good public space is interesting, inviting, and accessible. Good urban public spaces create the character of a city and are a factor that people consider in choosing where they will live. Good public spaces are hard to create and easy to destroy. Columbus has recently lost one of its best.

Columbus has been fortunate that many of its civic leaders have had the vision and sensitivity to know that Columbus, lacking mountains or spectacular natural vistas, would have to cultivate friendly places where people would want to go. The Scioto Mile, the caps over the highways which lead into the Short North and King-Lincoln districts, and the Columbus Commons are examples of successes. The Metro Parks system, with its free easy access and variety of recreational areas and activities, is one of our greatest assets.

There have also been missteps.

When the historic houses on Town Street by the main public library were torn down to make parking lots, part of the character and personality of the area was lost. And the erection of fences to cordon off part of Franklin Park alters the nature of the park.

The three historic public parks in central Columbus are Goodale Park, Schiller Park, and Franklin Park. All have served as oasis of greenery and flowers and places of recreation and community gathering. Since 1895, the Palm House, fashioned after the crystal palaces of the Victorian expositions, has been the focal point of Franklin Park. It was enhanced in the 1992 Ameriflora exposition by the expansion of the Conservatory buildings and the installation of the NavStar sculpture of Stephen Canneto. More recently, it has been given greater interest by the changing colored lighting effects. The building has served as the setting for concerts by Pro Musica and celebrations like the Asian Festival.

Part of the charm of Franklin Park was the interplay of the Palm House, the NavStar sculpture, and the floral plantings as you walked into and around them from different directions. Now, that is impossible. Even if you pay for entrance to the Conservatory, the view is restricted, and is interrupted by the fencing. There are other disturbing messages, intentional or not, sent by the fencing. Fences are always erected to keep people out, not welcome them in. For over 100 years, all outside areas of Franklin Park were freely accessible to residents of neighborhood.

Now, just at a time when gentrification is occurring in the area, a significant portion has been walled off. True, there is a new children’s experience area, but, unlike the Sister’s Garden in Inniswood Park, which is open to all, this is one which most of the neighborhood children will only experience by looking through the fence.

We can contrast this with the approach of another institution, the Columbus Museum of Art. When the museum added a major expansion, thought was given to make the exterior interesting and attractive with a blue copper cladding, and a large glass window is placed to face Broad Street, which creates a connection between the interior and the street, allowing pedestrians to see into the museum. The outdoor sculpture garden, which previously was only accessible from the inside, now is freely open to all, and one day each week, entrance to the museum is free for everyone. The Art Museum recognizes its importance as a cultural and experiential resource that builds and strengthens the entire community.

The Conservatory has stated that these restrictive changes are necessary for it to survive and expand the quality of its offerings, and to have the finances needed to maintain the rest of Franklin Park, for which it is responsible. But, we have to question priorities, and whether making access more restrictive and expensive will achieve these ends. While money has been spent on erecting a fence, the cascades have been allowed to become stagnant, swampy pools.

The Conservatory has done many good things, but one wonders if the only reason the excellent community gardens have not been fenced off is because the land they are on is still owned by the city.

For Columbus to continue as a strong and vibrant place to live, we must not limit our vision to what benefits us, but to commit to and envision a future which connects and gives opportunity to everyone.

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