• Friday , 22 June 2018

Space, memory and connection – the emotional layer of urban public parks.

Fitzgerald Park 1

The central importance of parks and green spaces for children living in cities has been well established from multiple angles. Such amenities ideally provide platforms for mobility and give space for both physical and social development to occur. However, one less considered aspect of parks is the layer of emotions that overlay these urban spaces, as they can serve to continually attract particular families over long periods of time. The importance of this emotional aspect became evident whilst conducting park fieldwork in Cork City.

The park in question is called Fitzgerald Park. Named after a former Lord Mayor of Cork from the early 20th Century. This 75,000m2 enclosed space sits nestled within the leafy university quarter on the western side of the city. Uniquely, the northern border of the park is formed by the directly accessible, and much locally revered, River Lee. My fieldwork in Fitzgerald Park initially began as a simple pilot study to test methods, yet, as is often the case in social science research scenarios, once you are on the ground the complexities and daily flows of life within spaces provide important threads that inspire further investigation. The relevant thread in this case illuminated how an intergenerational emotional relationship was present between parents and children as they played, walked and socialised together.

While tracking the trajectories of park users to build a picture of the social life of the space I noticed a child playing (thoroughly enjoying the destruction of a huge pile of leaves). The loud noises of delight emerging from her process of diving into, and then through the leaves made me break off my trajectory and pause to observe. Her mother would pick her up and gently throw her into the autumnal pile, the girl would then burrow down and pop out only to be lifted and be made airborne again. When the mother and daughter had finished this cheerful endeavor I approached, explained my purpose and requested to interview them about their park usage, to which they kindly agreed.

Dee was in her forties and her daughter Joanne was five years old. In the interview it emerged that, sadly, Joanne had been born after both of Dee’s parents had died. Interestingly, Fitzgerald Park facilitated a form of intergenerational familial connection and knowledge sharing.

Dee: They were both sick [her parents] when I was carrying Joanne. I hoped they would last until she popped out but they didn’t. They used to bring me here all the time when I was small. I’ve a lot of happy memories from here and I feel in some way that I want to give herself [Joanne] the same memories, a few decent ones. This is an important place for me, for us. I hope she’ll bring her kids here too one day and remember me.

Fitzgerald Park 3

For Dee, the park acted as an intergenerational platform between the past, the present and hopes for the future. The historical acts of play and activities that were engaged in by Dee and her parents, such as ‘feeding the ducks’ and ‘going over the shaky bridge’ (a pedestrian bridge that shudders when crossed) carried meaning that could be replicated and shared forward. This meaningful replication was achieved by Dee engaging in the same familial activities with her own daughter, in the same material space of Fitzgerald Park. Walking on the same paths, touching the same earth and encountering the same features, allowed for a sense of emotional connection to the past, provided a stable platform for the present, and for the sharing of inter-generational memories. The park acted as a spatial anchor to which this family had weaved important everyday moments around. The seeds for the continuation of Fitzgerald Park as this familial anchor site had been instilled in Joanne. This was evident when I asked her the following question and Dee’s interjection:

Author: So Joanne, do you like playing games in the park with your mum?
Joanne: I do, I like when daddy is here with me too.
Dee: Daddy had to work today. Do you remember what games me and Granddad used to play here with me Jo?
Joanne: Uhmmm, hide and seek!
Dee: That’s right! Good girl.

This process of Dee asking her young daughter to recall what play activities had occurred with the grandfather figure, combined with Joanne’s positive response indicates that the relationship with the park was inter-generational. The park acted as a familial cultural platform. Diving deeper into this family narrative connected to the park I was curious to explore the emotions which the space elicited for Dee.

Author: Do you feel close to your parents when you are here?
Dee: Definitely, yeah, definitely. I feel them here sometimes. It`s been hard to know they will never meet Jo. I don’t like going to the graveyard and I don’t like bringing her to the graveyard; what am I supposed to do there? Point to the ground and say, ‘there’s granny now Jo’, that’s not something I want. I prefer to be in here and just remember them that way.

The importance of Fitzgerald Park as a container for memories is clear for Dee in the preceding quote. Dee and Joanne’s experiences highlight how the myriad of seemingly banal and ongoing everyday activities, such as playing in a pile of leaves, are crucial shared experiences. These public childhood practices can lead to profound emotional connections, not only within the family itself but also with spaces of the city. The emotional layer which ripples across the urban fabric of our cities is worthy of exploring further so we can better understand the links between space, memory and connection.

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