The “public green”, or town commons, was originally a shared piece of land used for grazing livestock. In 17th and 18th century New England, this type of public space was usually the center of community activity. The public green is thus a referent to both a communal patch of grass and the color of money, demonstrating how economics and politics shape urban terrain.
Historic notions of public space fostered congregation and democratic negotiation of space. The town commons has been replaced by privately-owned spaces – the corporate plaza or mall concourse – which visually imitate the town square but privilege social control and discourage “improper” use through surveillance and monitoring. Aside from the streets themselves, parks are the only public spaces that Los Angeles provides for its residents and play a vital social role. Parks sustain many uses which surface at different times and circumstances: recreation and leisure; survival (sleeping, bathing, shitting); commerce (food vendors; drug trade); public sex; illegal dumping – playing out social metaphors of pleasure and danger, and providing a return to more democratic functions of public space.
In Los Angeles, verdancy is a marker of economic status – it is possible to determine the wealthier areas of the city by their lush street and private residential plantings. The geographic majority of the city – host to a large number of people in multi-unit buildings without yards, gardens, or lawns – is without access to private green space. Public green space, therefore, is a necessity, although inadequate in LA, as park creation depends on local politics, effective community advocacy, available land, and funding. The presence of public green space is a measure of civic wealth, and of political solvency within a community.
The planning of LA was negotiated without consideration for sufficient amounts of green space, although large-scale plans surfaced (and were submerged by city politics) several times throughout the city’s history. Sometimes prime picnic spots in Griffith Park (the largest urban park in the United States) are so sought after, that families mark territory with yellow “caution” tape. This eponymous park exemplifies the first public green spaces in LA, which were built on land deeded to the city by wealthy residents like Colonel Griffith J. Griffith. Griffith considered himself a social reformer, who, like others at the turn of the 20th century, had idealistic notions of the ability of landscape to “soothe the woes” of the working class. This altruism sometimes disguised financial gain or reputation-polishing, as land which would have such value for the multitudes had little commercial value for previous owners – land that was too swampy for grazing cattle or too steep to build on was donated for parkland.
The idea of open space plays into the boosterist mythology of the West. Land is a valuable resource in LA, and there is none left unclaimed. Any “natural” environments, from landscaped traffic medians to large parks, are carefully constructed. Parks are still carved from “unusable” land, although now this land epitomizes urban blight- brownfields, abandoned sites, and condemned properties. It is ironic that parks, cultural signifiers of nature, health, and play, are created on sites of failure- the urban wasteland. Much of this industrial land in LA is in low-income areas, where ideas of environmental justice are not served. These areas are ideal for park creation, since land is available, and is where parks are needed most.
In 2001, I initiated the Public Green project in Los Angeles. This mapping of publicly accessible green space in the city and environs is posted throughout the public transit system, inside city buses and in transit shelters. The map locates public parks and frames an understanding of historic and current practices of acquisition, creation and maintenance of public green space in regards to Los Angeles economics, real estate practices, and history. Cartographic and textual information shows the distribution of green space across LA, illustrating the complex and symbiotic relationship between the development of parkland and the growth of the city.
In Los Angeles, the local, accessible nature of parks is all-important. Individuals who rely on public transportation may not have access to private green space or live in an area where there is a public park located within walking distance. Without maps or other information, non-local parks are virtually invisible to transit-dependent communities. Public Green is distributed within the transit shelter system in space donated by four communities who use local transit kiosks for community postings; and through Viacom Outdoor, which owns and operates the advertising “real estate” of all city transit shelters. Public Green suggests the use of the public transit system as a vehicle for tourism of parks-a fragmented greenscape connected by transportation networks. It also reveals park-poor areas in the city- LA’s decentralized, autocentricness means that parks need to be even more widely distributed in order for people to access them.
Public Green poses questions about ownership of land, and suggests the transfer of property from private to public use. Viewers are asked to rethink their local landscape, and to physically transform their environment. Through tactics of information distribution along existing transportation networks, the viewer becomes an agent of mobility and change. The information in the posters can be used geographically, to find parks locally or near daily commutes; or as a basis for community advocacy. Public Green proposes a dual function of maps: as wayfinding devices which locate self and possible destinations; and as political agent.