Large urban parks are complex and diverse systems that respond to processes of economic growth and decay, to their own evolving ecology, to shifts in demographics and social practices, and to changes in aesthetic sensibilities. Because of their size (defined here as having at least 500 acres in area) their location (often close to dense urban environments!, and their site histories (such as former industrial zones that need remediation to make them suitable for recreation), these parks require a process-driven design approach that does not intend to provide a definitive plan for the site as much as it seeks to guide its transformation into a public recreational space. Because the design and construction of large parks take years, if not decades—often with changes in public administration and funding in the interim, and lengthy public processes that require ongoing revisions—designs are open-ended, incorporating diverse approaches and uneven levels of intervention and management. They focus on frameworks that adapt to changing conditions rather than forms composed to conform to an aesthetic whole.
Yet for all their susceptibility to the ebb and flow of urban circumstances, large parks remain fundamental to cities, not only because they take on infrastructural and ecological functions displaced from densely built centers but because they are distinct, memorable places. They absorb the identity of the city as much as they project one, becoming socially and culturally recognizable places that are unique and irreproducible. Those large public parks that we are continuously drawn to as designers, ones that have captured the imagination of writers, artists, social historians, and philosophers, and that continue to be used intensely centuries after their making, have in common seemingly contradictory characteristics: they are flexible, adaptive, socially dynamic, emerging sites, and they are also visually powerful, unforgettable places. They are the product of deliberate decisions that leave them open-ended in terms of management, program, and use, and they result from equally conscious decisions that isolate, distill, and capture for the long term that which makes them unique. This chapter examines the relationship between process and place. More specifically, it explores how process-based practices, those that leave the site open to contingency and change—a contemporary requisite of large and complex sites—also incorporate strategics that accentuate a place’s enduring qualities.