A friend from Adelaide visiting New York recently was enthusing about Central Park.
“I didn't realise it would have all that stuff in it,” he said, eyes wide.
“It had all these lakes and cafes and bike trails and little gardens. I thought it would just be, you know, a park.”
Given that Central Park spans 50 blocks and 843 acres, the idea that it would just be a huge empty lawn with a few lonely trees in it struck me as surreally amusing.
Then again, I probably shouldn't have been surprised. Growing up in Adelaide, surrounded by the vast expanses of dull nothingness that are the Parklands (yes, I said it), that's how many of us think public spaces are supposed to be.
A park? That's a big, boring, open area with dried-out grass in it, and trees, and maybe a few (broken) benches. Definitely some bindis. Fountains? No way, too much water wastage. Public artwork? Too hard to keep the graffiti off. Somewhere to get a coffee or a drink? Shame on you, you're commercialising Colonel Light's dream! Don't even mention parking, or you'll be chased down King William Street with pitchforks.
Exactly what to do with the Parklands has long been a point of contention in Adelaide. Sadly, while the argument continues between those who campaign to keep them untouched and those who want to revamp them, the vast majority of the population just ignores them completely. Because they're almost all totally boring. Why would you go there?
Our five city squares aren't that user friendly either. Three of them are carved up by intersecting streets into virtually unusable chunks, and two aren't much more than pretty roundabouts.
We could do worse than take a leaf out of New York's design book.
Many people tend to think of New York as a city of no open space – millions of people crammed inside tiny apartments in huge skyscrapers, and not a speck of green amongst the grey. Funnily enough it's the opposite. The city has more than 1700 parks across its five boroughs, and few of them are ever empty.
Perhaps because New York doesn't have the luxury of such wide open land that Adelaide does, its forced to treat its squares and parks in a more utilitarian manner, so they're not just spaces but useful spaces. There are always plenty of tables and chairs, fenced-off dog runs, plazas and amphitheatres where people can perform or hold markets.
As a result, they're always full of people enjoying them: eating lunch during their work day, walking their dogs, picnicking, gathering to dance and sing and busk, to read, to study, to meet people, to protest.
Can you imagine anyone picnicking in Hurtle Square? Sunbathing in Light Square? People would assume you were pulling a prank, and look around for the hidden cameras.
Admittedly, New Yorkers' enthusiasm for public parks probably springs in part from their lack of private backyards. If you don't have your own garden to relax in, you kind of have to go public.
Conversely, perhaps that's the same reason most Adelaideans ignore our city's parks. Maybe it's the reason why we're still talking about what to do with Victoria Square 175 years after it was built.
Here's my tip: Ban the backyard for a weekend. Head into the city and rediscover its squares. Work out how you'd like to use them, and how they could be changed for the better and tell the council. Then maybe one day visitors will be enthusing about all the “stuff” in Adelaide's parks.
This article was first published in Messenger Newspapers on May 3, 2012.