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What a Fool Believes...
by Todd Ziebarth : Editor, Terrain.org

The Gift of Space

We emerged from the bowels of Penn Station along with the masses of early morning commuters, en route from the city of brotherly love.  Maybe it was the overwhelming and almost stifling effect of the many skyscrapers suddenly hovering over me, ominously swaying in the gray sky of an early March day.  Maybe it was the sight of hundreds of taxi cabs darting across the avenues, resembling an ant hill during a feeding frenzy.  Or maybe it was the effects of too much alcohol consumption over the previous four days and nights, an all too common activity when I visit my friend in Philadelphia.  Whatever the cause, I felt dizzy, and without any bearings or footholds.  And it was only 7 a.m.

The sheer force of human activity before us, not any sense of composure or steadiness, propelled my friend and me to zig-zag our way through the worker bees, fellow tourists and still sleepy bums that dotted the streetscape on this particular morning.  In the midst of our wandering, we agreed that the first order of business was to locate the obligatory greasy spoon, and fortify ourselves with a generous helping of eggs and potatoes.  We easily found a diner, and fulfilled our hunger pangs.  The constant drilling of the construction crew's army of jackhammers outside the open door to our right, though, combined with the steady stream of bread and milk deliveries and starving customers entering the diner, reminded us of the din of activity that awaited us.

Throughout the rest of the morning, we wandered the city by foot.  We strolled from one bustling avenue to the next, stopping at an area of interest here and there, with no particular destination in mind.  All the while, the frenetic energy of the place increased in intensity, and by the afternoon we had clearly stepped over the line between stimulation and overstimulation.  It was at about this time that we stumbled into Central Park, the quintessential urban park in America and the creation of the father of American landscape architecture, Frederick Law Olmstead.  We found the nearest tree and, without a word, plopped down onto the grass.

After lighting a cigar that I found in my pocket from our previous night's activities, I began to take notice of my surroundings.  The dissonant sights and sounds of urban life no longer encompassed me.  Instead, what I found was space.  Granted, I was still stimulated, but by much different things, such as the sight of a tree, naked of its leaves, bullied by the biting afternoon gusts.  And the sounds of the critters scurrying from bush to bush provided me with an appropriate reminder that I was not alone in this wonderful refuge.  This space allowed us some much needed breathing room, and also revealed to us an integral element of a truly great city.

We sat there for some time, probably an hour, and then wandered around a small portion of the wide expanse of area within the boundaries of the park, probably for another hour or so.  We asked a passerby for the time, and discovered that we were due back at Penn Station in a short while.  With a mixture of dread for having to leave Central Park and appreciation for the gift that it had given us, we left.  On the train ride home, we laughed at the effects the Big Apple had on us, and found ourselves relieved to be returning to the small town of Philadelphia and the tiny hamlet of Denver.

Since that time, the circumstances of my daily existence in Denver have significantly changed.  I now am married, have a full-time job and am a homeowner.  With these responsibilities, my life has become increasingly busier, and the number of self-important tasks that make up a day seems to grow by the week.  The physical, mental and emotional space within my life is in ever more demand, leaving ever less supply to devote to some of the other things that are important to me.

Throughout this period of time, I have made much use of Denver's parks for a variety of activities, such as running, walking, sitting and napping.  I am fortunate in that three of the city's most beautiful parks are within a short distance of my house. Cheesman Park is five blocks away, and, on my running excursions, it takes me about 10 minutes to get to City Park and about 20 minutes to get to Washington Park.

A walk through Cheesman Park, amongst the trees, birds and squirrels, provides me with the space to move away from the daily grind and connect with the world outside of myself, in both fleeting and lasting ways.  Running through Washington Park brings the chance to observe the subtleties of the human experience, as I watch people engaged in all sorts of pursuits, from aggressively playing an apparently critical game of volleyball to simply sitting on a park bench, entranced by the fading winter grass.  Sitting on a hill in City Park and watching the sun set behind the Rocky Mountains provides a certain kind of space as well, one that often inspires and motivates me to engage in my more creative side.

Over and over again, I am reminded that a city's parks are truly a wonderful component of my quality of life in the city, and that they significantly enhance my well being by providing that increasingly elusive element in my life-space.


Todd Ziebarth is a policy analyst at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. He is also a founding editor of Terrain.org. In addition to his regular Terrain.org column, Ziebarth sometimes reviews books and CDs for the journal. He has a master's degree in public administration and a master's degree in urban and regional planning.
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