The Need for Green
Assistant Professor Richard Hopkins spent a year researching the history of Paris parks and greenspaces. He is pictured here at a man-made waterfall at Montsouris.
By Kelsey Styles '17
It wasn’t the Eiffel Tower that drew Dr. Richard Hopkins to Paris, despite the view he had of it from his garret apartment.
On a fellowship in 2007 to research the parks of 19th century Paris for his doctoral dissertation, Hopkins would spend every morning waking up to the sound of church bells from the neighboring church of Saint-Ambroise in the city’s 11th arrondissement. Six days a week during his 10-month stay, he would pore through boxes of documents at the Archives de Paris, studying how the city developed its public green spaces. “I spent most of my time in the archives with my head down working,” Hopkins said.
But on Sunday, when the archives were closed, “I would just walk,” he said.
He found himself gravitating toward parks. Every greenspace fascinated him. “I took a lot of pictures of the park constructions, of grottos that were built, as well as steps and railings,” said Hopkins, who earned his PhD in European history from Arizona State in 2008 and joined Widener’s faculty last year as an assistant professor of history. “I’m sure Parisians thought I was crazy, walking around the park taking pictures of the ground.”
His research regarding the city’s numerous gardens and parks led to his book Planning the Greenspaces of Nineteenth-Century Paris, published in May by Louisiana State University Press.
Hopkins found that parks in Paris “seemed to function as extensions of the home.” The green squares located all across the city act as backyards to people who don’t have their own. Parisians, Hopkins said, have great appreciation for even the small “pocket parks” dotting their city.
That same respect of parks and greenspaces birthed in Paris two centuries ago is resonating in transformations of public areas across the United States, including Philadelphia, Chester, and Widener’s own campus. “People feel such an affinity to greenspace, whereas in other parts of the city, even public spaces, you might not feel that kind of emotional connection to a space,” said Hopkins. “And that ties back to what ocurred in Paris in the 19th century. There is an inherent right to air and nature, this basic right that humans have.”
Philadelphia has been actively expanding and redeveloping parks and green areas, prompting Philadelphia magazine to declare the “Public Space Revival” as the city’s top real estate trend. Among numerous greenspace projects, the Schuylkill Banks, a collection of riverfront trails and greenway, is in the process of creating more walking trails for visitors. Dilworth Park, located on the west side of Philadelphia’s City Hall, underwent major developments and transformed from a hard-surface plaza into a green public space. “We’re seeing a coming together of municipal governments, populations, and private entities thinking about how to create these spaces that are alive and vibrant and relevant,” Hopkins said.
In nineteenth century Paris, there was no concept of community outreach, yet the individuals
who utilized the parks ensured their vitality by jointly participating in their growth,
Hopkins said. Together with the government, citizens created public spaces where people
would want to spend time.
A similar movement of citizen involvement is taking shape in Chester. Chester Made is an arts-based initiative to help promote local arts and culture as well as revitalize the City of Chester. Like Parisian park-lovers of the 1800s, citizens here are aspiring to create safe and welcoming environments.
Dr. Sharon Meagher, dean of Widener’s College of Arts and Sciences and a key supporter of the Chester Made effort, said enhancing public parks in the city is a primary goal of the project. “Chester has some really big parks and greenspace resources that aren’t fully utilized,” said Meagher, who has written about cities and edited the anthology Philosophy and the City. “Part of this project is to utilize the arts to help people share stories and visions about how we can use and develop those greenspaces better. The hope is that those stories will then inform county and city planning. It’s putting flesh on what would otherwise be a completely dehumanizing mapping and zoning process.”
One example of a potential greenspace enhancement in Chester is Deshong Park. The park had once been a beautiful estate, complete with a mansion and art gallery. When Alfred O. Deshong died in 1913, he willed his property to the people of Chester with instructions that it be made into a public park. Ultimately, the estate became too expensive for the city of Chester to maintain. The land fell into neglect and the area was closed to the public. “One of the real challenges in cities these days is that more and more spaces that historically have been public spaces are becoming private spaces,” Meagher said.
In 2013, Chester residents held their first annual Deshong Park Commemoration Day celebration on the streets of Chester in an attempt to draw attention to the park. In 2014, the commemoration day was held on park grounds. The ultimate goal is to restore the park and create a suitable place for city residents to use and enjoy, a move that Meagher said would enhance the quality of life in Chester. “Humans find nature beautiful, and aesthetics matter,” Meagher said. “Beauty isn’t a luxury. Everybody needs it.”
A Greener Widener Campus
On Widener’s campus, greenspaces have been further enhanced and beautified in recent
years. Widener trustee Tom Bown ’67 and his wife Bonnie gave Widener a $1.25 million
gift for the Bown Dome Sculpture Garden behind Old Main. Bown said the design including
pathways, gravel, sections of grass, and 36 Japanese Zelkova trees was inspired by
European parks he visited. This revived greenspace created a beautiful new core in
the center of campus after Widener’s football field moved to the Quick Stadium in
1994. “If you saw what was there before, after the stadium was taken down, it was
just a parking lot,” Bown said. “That whole area was just bleak in my opinion.”
Bown said he is very pleased with how the campus values and celebrates its greenspaces. “It’s very important to create beauty and a sense of pride,” he said. “The entire university community has done really well in creating a great looking campus.”
If anyone can speak on the changes Widener grounds have been through, it is Dennis O’Shea, the university’s groundskeeper for 37 years. He remembers well the football stadium that preceded Memorial Field. Now, students use the field for sports, and the Bown Dome Sculpture Garden creates a meeting place for both university events and smaller student affairs. “Some folks really enjoy it and take advantage of it,” O’Shea said. “Where the stadium used to be, Memorial Field, is a spot that has been well utilized. That’s a great space to have.”
Joann Klein, a junior communications major from Broomall, Pennsylvania, said she and other students appreciate and enjoy the outdoor spaces on the campus. “There are almost always students relaxing or playing a sport on Old Main’s lawn,” she said. “Whenever it is nice outside, I like to lie down on a blanket and do my homework.”
A World of Park Possibilities
While Hopkins’ book offers readers a chance to learn about Paris and engage in conversations regarding its greenspaces, he hopes it will also help “people realize how central greenspaces are to the quality of life in cities, and really take ownership of them and become involved in shaping those spaces and making them relevant.”
Looking at the Chester Made project and all of the current changes being made in Philadelphia,
Hopkins said, “There’s so much possibility out there in terms of what people can do
Beyond these areas simply getting a facelift, individuals are actively seeking them out. The concept of taking ownership of public spaces is a growing trend that began in Paris hundreds of years ago and continues today. “It’s happening all over the United States and the world,” Hopkins said. “There is a real appreciation for greenspaces in the urban environment.”