According to notable landscape librarian Theodora Kimball, it was a letter of complaint addressed to a Burgermeister in Magdeburg, Germany, in 1815 that instigated the municipal park movement in Europe. Writing in 1923, Kimball quoted the Magdeburgian grouser, who feared that the incursions of troops during the war had so badly damaged the environs, "there would soon be no rural enjoyment possible in the vicinity." The city council subsequently underwrote the transformation of certain municipal properties into the first parks created specifically for public enjoyment. While urban parks already existed in Europe by this point—Charles I (r. 1625–1649) had opened the royal preserve of Hyde Park to the public in 1637—the idea that a park might be built for and owned by the public, as opposed to being merely publicly accessible, was novel.
By the end of the nineteenth century, this public aspect of the urban park would itself be entirely natural, due in large part to British Parliamentary legislation regarding the sanitary conditions of the working classes and similar concern for creating what would be called "urban lungs" for the growing industrialized urban centers of France and Germany, especially evidenced by the comprehensive Parisian park system designed under Georges-Eugène Haussmann (1809–1891) and Jean-Charles Adolphe Alphand (1817–1891) in the 1850s and 1860s, and the German Volksparks from the end of the century.
Throughout the nineteenth century, many royal hunting grounds and country estates in England were opened, thereby exposing the public to the results of the previous century's debates over the picturesque and sublime that had established the reputations of such landscape designers as Lancelot "Capability" Brown (1715–1783) and Humphry Repton (1752–1818), father of the "Gardenesque" landscape movement. These Romantics, like their counterparts in France and Germany, sought to balance the natural and the scientific, carefully composing nature into a sublime tableau all the while artfully compensating for limitations of reality, such as property boundaries and views unto neighbors. The majority of public parks resulted not as much from the dissolution of these estates, however, as from British legislation, such as the Public Health Act of 1848, which recognized that public urban parks offered intertwined political and economic benefits. By improving air quality and providing space for recreation, the parks distracted the lower classes from their lives of drudgery and kept them out of the pubs, while improving their health and therefore their productivity. These public parks were simplified microcosms of the more elaborate picturesque gardens of the English Romantic movement.
Paralleling these parks aimed at ameliorating industrialized conditions in England's urban centers were pleasure parks, epitomized by the design of the Great Exhibition of 1851 held in Hyde Park. Joseph Paxton's (1801–1865) Crystal Palace was such a success at the Exhibition that after its close, the Palace was moved to Sydenham Hill in South London where it became the anchor of what could only be called a 200-acre Victorian theme park. Such attractions, like the public promenades of London, designed by John Claudius Loudon (1783–1843), were aimed less at providing health benefits than at creating a leisure landscape for the developing nineteenth-century urban bourgeoisie that emerged under industrialization.
In France, unlike England, the public parks that developed in the nineteenth century were situated primarily in the nation's capital and, furthermore, were less the result of industrialization than that of royal decree. While they helped to clean the city's air and provided nature for those who had neither time nor money to travel outside of Paris, these parks primarily provided a setting for the leisure of the bourgeoisie, as illustrated by Impressionist paintings such as those of the Parc Monceau by Claude Monet (1840–1926). Napoléon III (r. 1852–1871) provided Baron Haussmann, the Préfet de la Seine, with the power to transform Paris, cutting a Baroque network of monuments and parks into the city's dense medieval fabric. With the assistance of engineer Alphand, Haussmann created the first comprehensive urban park system. This network consisted of two large forests, the Bois de Boulogne to the west and the Bois de Vincennes to the east, as well as three primary interior parks: the Parc Monceau, the Parc de Montsouris, and the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont, completed in 1863 in a working-class district on a site that had previously served as a gallows, a lime quarry, and even a waste dump. This final park is the most dramatic of all of Haussmann's interventions into Paris. Using dynamite, he blasted the quarry rock to create cliffs, a waterfall, and a 61-acre romantic park, complete with grotto, temple, and a suspension bridge. All three parks, along with the two forests, adopted the English Romantic style, although the Parisian examples retained a degree of control for which the French garden is famous: Rather than providing large spaces for informal recreation, Haussmann's parks emphasized the ordered—and carefully orchestrated—sequences of promenades for stylish strolling.
The roads that Haussmann cut through Paris, linking the city's many monuments in a dramatic Baroque web, gave an ordered elegance to a previously chaotic city, but were largely aimed at facilitating the movement of the emperor's troops through Paris. Haussmann and Alphand's generous
parks, however, like the parks in England, were more purely aesthetic: while they certainly increased the value of land where they were inserted, they primarily provided the public with sites of leisure—especially for the strolls of the bourgeoisie—while simultaneously cleaning the city's foul air.
As in France, the English Romantic style influenced the German parks of this period as well. Peter Joseph Lenné (1789–1866), the landscape designer of the Klosterberg public gardens in Magdeberg, which were among the first manifestations of the pressure to preserve spaces for "rural enjoyment" after the ravages of the Napoleonic Wars, had traveled to London and had greatly admired Regent's Park by Repton and architect John Nash (1752–1835). In Berlin, Lenné was responsible for the designs of the Neuen Garten in Potsdam (1816) and Berlin's famous Tiergarten (1818), to the west, which were both designed in Loudon's "Gardenesque" manner.
The most original contribution that the Germans made to public park design, however, were not these beautiful Romantic gardens, but the more utilitarian Volksparks, or "people's parks," which proliferated especially at the beginning of the twentieth century. Functional in design, unpretentious in character, these parks were aimed at the working classes. The famous slogan for these parks was that they were places "where families can make a cup of coffee," which underscores that they were not sites of pomp and promenade, but rather open spaces designed for everyday use. They included restaurants, playing fields, and bathing areas, and were used for games, demonstrations, and workers' parades. Lenné designed Berlin's first Volkspark, the Friedrichshain, which was laid out by the city in 1840 to celebrate the centenary of Frederick the Great's (r. 1740–1786) accession to the throne. Later famous Volksparks include the Stadtpark in Hamburg, the Grüngürtel (Greenbelt) around Cologne, and the Jungfernheide in Berlin.
The Volkspark movement brought the development of the European municipal park full circle. For while the great parks of the nineteenth century were Romantic exercises in designing sublime, elegant gardens in city centers that served as stage sets for the strolls of the developing middle class, ultimately both the impetus and the greatest benefactors of these green spaces were the working classes, whose grumblings at the beginning of the nineteenth century prompted the entirely new discipline of landscape architecture.
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Cosgrove, Denis E. Social Formation and Symbolic Landscape. London, 1984.
Jellicoe, Geoffrey, and Susan Jellicoe. The Landscape of Man: Shaping the Environment from Prehistory to the Present Day. London: 1975. Reprint, London, 1987.
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