What’s in a name?

By: Dan Camenga

The difference between the definition of a park and a garden is not a question that reaches conscious thought for most people. If it does, it may not be perceived as an important question to consider. Is the difference just “in name” or is there a fundamental characteristic between parks and gardens that might provide the key to a clear and consistent classification? Can parks also be public gardens – and can public gardens also be parks?

For me, these questions and related ideas are at the heart of my lifelong interest in public spaces. I believe these questions deserve serious exploration, discussion, and commentary.

While waiting in the checkout line to pay for my groceries last week I was once again reminded of the blurry lines between parks and public gardens. I was captivated by the January issue of National Geographic. “The Power of Parks”. The cover displays a stunning photograph of Yosemite National Park that seems somehow too big for the paper – even after expanding the three-panel folded cover!

Parks in our country are unquestionably one of our most treasured and important national assets. These spaces help shape our mental image of our heritage and they give us a sense of pride and hope for a bright future. Diverse in character, size, and location. Yes – PARKS ARE POWERFUL! But what about public gardens? Can public gardens with all their diversity of design and character also be powerful sources of inspiration? Of course!

There are differences, but similarities are abundant. For example, West Potomac Park in Washington DC is not as well known by name as it is by sight or for the cherished collection of trees (think – cherry blossoms on the National Mall). This public space is as much an arboretum (a type of public garden) as it is a park. Hosting over 24 million visitors each year, the National Mall draws “almost twice the number of [people as] Yellowstone, Yosemite, and the Grand Canyon combined” (1). Are urban greenspaces important? You bet! Do public gardens in these greenspaces add value and contribute to our sense of national pride? Absolutely!

I hope you’ll agree with me that there are many public gardens that can also be considered parks (or at least having “park-like” qualities) and there are many parks that are (or at least include) public gardens. My goal here is not to provide the final word on the value of “a name” (park/public garden). Instead, I hope I have persuaded you to consider the importance of clarifying this fundamental question and encouraging a broad recognition of the countless public gardens across our great country.

In the most elemental level, I believe we can identify parks as public spaces that reflect time through geologic patience as well as seasonal flow whereas public gardens reflect the passage of time primarily with seasonal exuberance. The more apparent difference is the fact that public gardens display human design intent and the deliberate use of plants, while parks include plants that are primarily located through natural independence (e.g. seed dispersal without human cultivation and installation). To appreciate our humanity, BOTH must be celebrated!

(1) Quammen, David. “A hundred years ago,” National Geographic. Jan 2016: 42. Print.

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