Wednesday, November 12, 2014

20 Years of Urban Design in Maine 14

In July 2003 I wrote this article thinking Deering Oaks could be our Central Park. It was supposed to be. Both designed in the English pastoral and picturesque style. I thought how can we make this our jewel in the middle of Portland? First we need to get rid of State and High cutting through and make Forest Ave into a boulevard. And strengthen access into it.

As you can see both parks dominate the surrounding areas:
Central Park
Deering Oaks Park

Except that Deering Oaks has a freeway and cloverleaf exits bullying their way into what could be a peaceful oasis amidst the various neighborhoods.

Here is the first half of the article:

Deering Oaks Heading for Dead End
By Michael Belleau copyright 2003

Beautiful, tall, shady trees dot the gently rolling grass. Children laugh and dance through a pool of fountains that turn on and off, to the youngster's surprise. Music soothes the souls of families who are a mixture of ages, colors and means. People stroll between carts of fresh flowers and vegetables. Baseball diamonds, basketball and tennis courts, and playgrounds supply spaces to play. Skaters carve generous arcs on the the large pond. As a public park was meant to be, this park is ideal as an outdoor living room for all who visit or reside in Portland.

And then, as skaters sit down to take off their skates, a swarm of cars whizzes by at 35 miles an hour- just a couple of feet away. Looking across State Street, another two large areas of the park lie empty.

Deering Oaks is our jewel- our diamond in the rough. Like Central Park, Deering Oaks is a large rectangle in the middle of a city and proportionally probably similar. If we put our minds to it, we should be able to make a back yard out of it and use it to its full potential.

Deering Oaks takes its name from the Deering family, descendants of a wealthy ship builder who bought up much of the land around Back Cove in the 1760s. Originally, the area of the park was full of thick woods and tidal marsh. A wood in which Longfellow hunted ducks and read as a boy, it was a wilderness amidst pastures.

After the town of Deering was incorporated in 1871, an editorial appeared two years later calling for the annexing of the town by Portland and the creation of a park in this area. “It would be to them (Portlanders) what Central Park is to New York....”, the writer said. The Deering family and others agreed to the park idea and the land became public in 1879.

Horse races, sledding and circuses created activity in the fields. The city's civil engineer transformed the park by creating a skating pond and a bandstand and bridges. Portland architect Frederick Thompson created a stone structure as a waiting room. Deer, bears and monkeys were donated, eventually leading to a zoo. The first playground was built here. The rose circle came in 1931 and Portland architect John Calvin Stevens designed the post office facing the park. The park was full of all kinds of people from all parts of the city.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the park became a seedy place. The city had neglected it. But in 1982, what became the annual Deering Oaks Family Festival started, helping to reinvigorate the park. The neighborhoods responded as well with foot patrols, and eventually, the city began a park ranger program in 1991.

A master plan children's play fountain pool, Shakespeare in the park, summer music, and a food and flowers market have combined with the many playing fields to turn Deering Oaks into a true city playground. But it is sliced in two by auto traffic and not truly integrated into the city's urban fabric.


C Neal said...

Deering Oaks was actually designed by a city engineer named William Goodwin in 1879. Deering Oaks would later become an element of the Olmstead brothers' 1905 parks master plan, which included Baxter Boulevard and the promenades as well as connections between them all, but the Olmsteads didn't make any really substantial changes to Goodwin's original design.

And for that matter, those Olmsteads weren't the ones who designed Central Park, either. That was their father, Frederick Law Olmstead Sr., along with his partner Calvert Vaux.

Deering Oaks is pleasant enough, but it's not a particularly striking example of landscape architecture, in my opinion – the heart of the park is a monoculture of oak trees and lawns where people and wildlife rarely go. The roads that surround it are definitely part of the problem, but the fact that it was designed by a city bureaucrat probably also has something to do with it.

I'd love to see a dramatic redesign of the park that re-embraces its natural history as a salt marsh and reconnects it to Back Cove in response to rising sea levels. But nostalgia for the more formal, less wild 19th century design will probably prevent that from ever happening.

Michael Belleau Architect said...

"Formal" in landscape architecture is usually used to refer to geometrically laid out designs and actually the picturesque style you refer to as formal is usually referred to as "informal".

It would be nice to get a redesign and of course that would include today's acknowledgement of sustainable natural water management and ecosystem restoration or balance.

I'd like to see a ton of soccer and baseball fields full of local resident adult-after-work and kid teams!