A few weeks ago, armed with lightweight beach chairs and snacks, Doug and I walked over to the Boston Common and joined the crowd gathering to enjoy this year’s production of Shakespeare on the Common. On another recent daily walk we found ourselves on a park bench in the Public Garden, watching the ducks and the swan boats, the street musicians and all the different people passing by. (I even found a good mystery novel, left on the bench by another mystery buff!) From there it was only a hop, skip and a jump to the Charles River Esplanade, where we found another bench from which we could enjoy the breeze and watch the sailboats flitting across the wide expanse of the Charles against the Cambridge skyline.
Near the Dartmouth Street footbridge, we came across a marker commemorating “Boston Brahmin” Oliver Wendell Holmes (1809-1904) for guarding and preserving the wide basin of the Charles from developers who wanted to put in more fill land and then sell it as house lots, which would effectively narrow the river. The marker commented that Holmes felt the Boston Common, the Public Garden, and the Charles River were the “lungs” of the city.
Public parks are great -- always there, ready to help you “breathe.” In a sense, the city is one huge living system and its parks are literally its “lungs,” pouring oxygen into the environment. Holmes’ training as a medical doctor may have attracted him to this living system metaphor of viewing the city’s parks as its “lungs.”
The idea of city parks as the “Lungs of the City” originated with Frederick Law Olmsted (1822-1903), creator of New York’s Central Park and Boston’s Emerald Necklace, which begins at the Common and ends at Franklin Park. Driving through that park a few days ago, we were amazed to see it packed with people. From golfers and joggers to hundreds of seniors at a picnic, to school busses and families at the zoo, the city was enjoying its “lungs,” collectively breathing in and out God’s good air! It’s a great thing to hang out in a park, inhaling the life of the city! If you live in a city and have relaxed with your friends at your local park, you may know how it feels. When we were staying in Berlin a few years ago, I enjoyed jogging in the park near our friends’ house. They told us how the parks helped them survive the long ordeal of enclosure within East Germany until the wall came down. The woodland parks gave people the look and feel of countryside.
But some parks get caught in turf wars and then become lonely, dangerous places. We first learned this decades ago when, holding Gospel meetings with churches outdoors on the hot summer nights, we sometimes chose a park that was turf to only one group or was the dividing line between groups. Then we could feel the pain that was tearing that neighborhood apart. We can’t really inhale the life of our city until we participate in her joys and her sorrows, until we feel her pain, until we suffer with the part that hurts. Remember Paul’s words to the Corinthians: “…there should be no division in the body… its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.” (1 Cor. 12:25, 26)
Our city is one living system. When its parks and other public places are caught in this negative dynamic, they become sick and can no longer perform their role as “lungs” for the living system, the city. Trees full of sneakers, if you know what I mean, cannot be “lungs” for the city!
I think the “lungs” of the city can only function as they should when public worship of God occurs in them. Public places can be habitats of healing. Many times when our city was suffering, large gatherings in public places, through street rallies, public prayer for peace, even public officials asking religious leaders to pray, brought healing to our city. All the more reason to keep lifting up the Name of Jesus our Creator and Savior in the public breathing spaces of our city! Think about all this next time you head out to your local park.