Central Park as a Model for Social Control: Urban Parks, Social Class and Leisure Behavior in Nineteenth-Century America

Article excerpt

University of Michigan School of Natural Resources and Environment

Throughout the nineteenth century, the leading landscape architects and park advocates believed that parks were important instruments of enlightenment and social control. Consequently, they praised and promoted parks for their healthgiving characteristics and character-molding capabilities. Landscape architects used these arguments to convince city governments to invest in elaborate urban parks. Many of these parks became spaces of social and political contestation. As the middle and working class mingled in these spaces, conflicts arose over appropriate park use and behavior. The escalating tensions between the middle and working class led to working class activism for increased access to park space and for greater latitude in defining working class leisure behavior. These struggles laid the foundation for the recreation movement. They were also pivotal in the emergence of urban, multiple-use parks designed for both active and passive recreation.

KEYWORDS: Urban parks, social control, inequality, leisure, recreation, social class, landscape architects, Olmsted, Central Park, environment.

Introduction

A Social Constructionist Perspective

Historical accounts of American parks tend to ignore the constructionist perspective in analyses of urban parks. In addition, few historical analyses view urban parks as contested spaces, do systematic examination of class relations in the parks, or recognize the use of parks as tools of social control. This paper addresses this oversight. It analyzes urban middle class activists' attempts to build parks and establish rules regarding acceptable park behavior. The paper adopts a social constructionist approach that views the American urban park not just as a physical place but also as a socially-constructed entity. By social construction I mean that urban parks and the issues relating to them are not static. They are not always the product of readily-identifiable, visible or objective conditions. Instead, urban parks are the product of many events and were defined through collective processes (Spector & Kitsuse, 1977, 1973; Klandennans, 1992; Hannigan, 1995). That is, groups in a society perceive, identify, a nd define park problems by developing shared meanings and interpretations of the issues. Therefore, a constructionist perspective is concerned with how people assign meanings to their social world. More specifically, the contexts in which urban park issues are constructed are also important. Consequently, this paper uses a contextual constructionist approach to study park activism. It does this by examining how the social, historical, and institutional contexts shaped experiences and events; influenced definitions, ideologies and perceptions; and stimulated activism (Best, 1989; Hannigan, 1995; Rafter, 1992).

A contextual social constructionist perspective helps us to understand that park advocates and other elites developed shared meanings about urban parks that enabled' them to propagate the idea that parks were a public good. Park advocates were also able to stimulate demand for parks, design and manage them. Though park advocates subscribed to some core values and ideas about urban parks, this paper will show how the social construction of urban parks changed (a) over time and (b) as different groups of elites attempted to develop and manage parks. The social construction of urban parks was also strongly influenced by class relations. These class relations can be viewed as an iterative process in which the attitudes and actions of the middle class affected the working class. The working class response, in turn, influenced further middle class response. Consequently, by the turn of the century, the social construction of urban parks reflected a synthesis of middle and working class perceptions of parks rather than the unilateral views of either class.

Social Location and the Construction of Social Problems

Social location or positionality also influences the construction of social problems. …