Andersen: The urban experiment is failing |

Andersen: The urban experiment is failing

Paul Andersen
Fair Game

The New York Times reported Aug. 3 that the New York City Parks Department was forced to close Central Park to avoid the trampling feet of tens of thousands of park visitors.

“Staircases were barred. People could barely move. Workers implored everyone to quit stepping on the flowers,” the Times reported.

The Times reported that city parks are being mobbed on hot summer days when the urban pressure cooker is about to blow. The hordes are elbowing their way to find a peaceful shade tree or space enough for cooling off in municipal pools. The parks themselves have become stressors because of the sheer numbers occupying them.

“Across New York City, outdoor time used to be the perfect antidote to the bustle and frustration of urban life. Not anymore,” the Times reported. “Today, it can just add to the stress. More people than ever are jamming into the city’s public parks, pools and beaches, filling the most popular ones to bursting, creating noise and trash problems and making the experience altogether less enjoyable for those looking for a bit of serenity.”

Central Park is an icon of visionary urban planning. It was created in 1904 as a relief valve to the stressors of urban life in what many feel is America’s most vital and significant American cityscape. Today, it’s obvious that Central Park is not enough for the throngs that mass there seeking solace from each other and from the collective noise and congestion that defines today’s supercities.

Designer Frederick Law Olmsted realized that the often frenetic pace of city life is unnatural and harmful to the human organism. Central Park was his prescription for the future in a world where humanity would be concentrated into larger and larger beehives. Substantial city parks, if taken in regular doses, could stave off stress from the experiment of urban living.

This experiment is failing today as human beings struggle with unprecedented psychological and emotional pathologies from dwelling in high density, noise, pollution and an overwhelming mass of humanity crammed tighter and tighter into claustrophobic canyons of glass and steel.

“Central Park alone will see a record 42 million visits from residents and tourists this year,” the Times reported. “Up from 35 million in 2011, according to estimates by the Central Park Conservancy, which has rolled out a campaign to raise money to repair the wear and tear on the infrastructure.”

Park infrastructure is wearing thin because, during peak demand, there is not enough park space in New York City to meet the mental-health needs of its residents. Those needs are stamped on our DNA.

During our 2 million years of evolution, the human species lived a thousand times longer in nature settings than we have in high-stress, fast-paced, industrialized, urban lives. Cities are only a recent chapter in the story of humanity.

And it’s not only New York City that’s feeling urban pressures. Denver is one of the fastest growing cities in the US, as tens of thousands flock there annually. The Denver skyline is often blotted out by air pollution from the massive vehicular onslaught that comes with crowds of urban American refugees.

Why Denver? Because it promises a mountain environment that’s nearby natural grandeur, where the air is cooler than in Phoenix, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, Detroit and most metropolitan centers across the nation.

The spin-off effects are visible in the Roaring Fork Valley, where traffic on Highway 82 is pushing toward gridlock, where urban crime fosters fear and distrust, where stress is showing fractures in once placid, rural communities.

If you live in Aspen — east of the roundabout — traffic and congestions don’t seem like an issue. Try commuting up or downvalley at peak hours, and you see it and feel it. And still there are local promoters clamoring for more growth, more people, more urban pressures.

Evolution did not prepare us to be literally jammed into subway cars, or to stress out in traffic jams, or to crowd together like lemmings. Evolution brought our lives into balance with nature, and it is nature that provides the antidote Olmsted prescribed in Central Park — when it’s not closed for repairs.

Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays. He may be reached at

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