Dumbarton Oaks Park: A Slender Country Finger
When the countryside is far away the city becomes a prison.
– Christopher Alexander, A Pattern Language
I need green places, but I also need the city. I grew up walking, running, and mountain biking on acres of public land behind my house, recharging body and soul in nature.
Humanity grew up among trees and sun, fields and streams. Cities feel unnatural—honking horns, wafting stenches, glaring glass—but we concentrate in them for better access to jobs, ideas, resources, and each other. Cities are only cities if they are dense, full of people and streets and buildings.
The city takes a toll. Nature recharges.
Small parks don't do it for me. Green blocks break up the glass and concrete, but if I can still see and hear cars, I'm still in the city. To recharge, I need to escape to a more natural soundscape and landscape.
To safeguard our sanity while fostering the connectivity that makes cities so valuable, we must balance density with access to nature.
To address this need, Christopher Alexander proposed a design pattern named "City Country Fingers," swaths of countryside woven into the urban area. They are wide enough to disappear in, but narrow enough to leave room for streets and buildings on either side, so they are accessible to lots of city dwellers. They are long enough for a long walk.
Today I experienced a lovely miniature specimen: Dumbarton Oaks Park in Washington, DC. It's nestled between two hills in Georgetown. Just over the crest of the western hill is busy commercial Wisconsin Avenue. Atop the eastern hill sit embassies and homes. Three paths braid their way along the valley floor through this slender City Country Finger. The drop in elevation cuts out the street noise. The foliage allows few glimpses of the buildings above. A stream bubbles beside the path. It's an escape.
I wonder how much this land's value has increased since the park opened 77 years, 2 weeks, and 2 days ago on April 12, 1941. Yet in all that time, no one has co-opted it for a more financially productive purpose. There are signs of misuse, but recent restoration efforts—planting trees and blocking footpaths that encourage water to move quickly and erode soil—belie the tragedy of the commons and speak of a community's love for this place as clearly as this adorable, usable watercolor map. Dumbarton is a testament to the designation of land for public use.