Keney Park isn’t what it used to be. But Smith students and faculty are working to restore the one-time jewel of Hartford’s nationally renowned parks system.
A sprawling tract of open lawns, trailed woodlands and public facilities in the city’s northeast corner, near the Connecticut River, Keney Park has in recent years become a victim of budget constraints, lack of maintenance and public misuse. The 693-acre public park, which is comparable in size to New York’s 843-acre Central Park and was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted’s sons, is underused, neglected, and avoided by most residents of surrounding neighborhoods.
Students in two classes taught by Nina Antonetti, assistant professor of landscape studies, are contributing to an effort to redesign and revitalize the area as part of a project led by Community Solutions, a nonprofit agency that takes on municipal projects to strengthen troubled communities, in partnership with the City of Hartford.
“Keney Park could become an incredible resource for Northeast Hartford,” says Antonetti. “It’s one of the largest open public spaces in New England, and it’s a very important resource in our national park system.”
Like Smith’s campus landscape, Keney Park, which opened in 1896, was designed with the natural surrounding landscape in mind, incorporating local plantings to encourage native fauna, and an attempt to retain a natural look. Both landscapes were designed by Olmsteds—Smith’s by Frederick Law Olmsted, who was born and is buried in Hartford; Keney Park by his sons John Olmsted and Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., with associate Charles Eliot.
Antonetti’s students are analyzing public records and the park’s charter to determine its historical use and record of maintenance, as well as landscape changes throughout the past century.
The students, who are enrolled in Antonetti’s courses “Socialized Landscape” and “Rethinking Landscape,” will produce a cultural landscape report that will inform the park’s redesign by the Conway School of Landscape Design, a graduate program located in Conway, Mass., and renowned landscape designer Michael Singer.
“Historically and ecologically Keney Park possesses so much information,” says Jennifer Krain ’12, who serves as project coordinator for Antonetti’s two classes. “It is both rich in landscape and history. You can tell by the size of the trees there just how old the park must be. The Northeast neighborhood in Hartford has an amazing landscape in their backyard.”
Antonetti, who has been a visiting historian at the Conway School, sought to involve her students in the project as an ideal way to demonstrate real-world applications of landscape studies and the impact of cultural and sociological issues on landscapes.
“Students at Smith are activists at heart,” she says. “This kind of project gets them acting. The more I realized our students have unique resources at their disposal, and know how to use the resources at Smith, the more it made sense for them to be involved.”
Antonetti’s students have taken advantage of a number of Smith’s resources, including the college’s GIS Spatial Analysis Lab, the Lyman Conservatory, the Museum of Art and the Mortimer Rare Book Room, to inform their research.
“Our research has covered philanthropy around the park, the development of Hartford’s parks system, biographies of Henry Keney, who donated money to buy the land, and Charles Eliot, infrastructure, and crime,” explains Krain.
Antonetti hopes her students’ involvement in the Keney Park renovation will help encourage people in the city to use the historic park and spend positive time outdoors.
“Being involved in this project has made me realize that landscapes have a deep and rich history,” says Krain. “Keney Park can be a place where people gather, communicate, and create a sense of belonging.”
This month, four of Antonetti’s students, along with graduate students from the Conway School, will present their cultural landscape report at a community gathering of Friends of Keney Park with other associations. Her students are also exhibiting their work in Smith’s Campus Center Gallery for most of May. They will apply for a Ford Foundation grant to continue their research into next year.
“In the academic world, students are often given fictional situations or projects that never come to be,” says Krain. “But with the Keney Park project, I know my work will be used in the future. The understanding that people are counting on my research and that it matters has made me work harder and care more about the project. I’m confident that I can work on landscapes in the future because I have had this experience.”