City parks can be defined as naturalistic areas in urban environments. Public markets, shared-use areas for keeping and grazing domestic animals, and places for religious, governmental, and other celebrations all contributed to the concept of open spaces for public use. These areas, however, were not the same as modern city parks. They were simply areas open to public use.
Areas that would more closely fit the idea of parks as areas of natural types of settings for passive and active enjoyment were originally the domain of nobility and the very rich. The Hanging Gardens of Babylon, very likely a terraced pyramid, complete with irrigation, are the best known from the ancient world. But park-like settings existed in almost all early cities as part of palaces or royal grounds.
The evolution of parks remained the purview of the rich for centuries. People of lesser means would not have had access to extensive green spaces in urban areas. Nor would they have had the means to escape to the countryside to catch a respite from urban life. Areas set aside for public exhibitions, fairs, festivals, and so on would have been the limits for most individuals.
Early American City Parks
In America, the Boston Commons stands as an early example of shared space that evolved into a cherished city park. Originally set aside as pasturage and as a military parade ground, the Boston Commons evolved into an area used for more recreational pursuits. A public green space in the heart of a rapidly growing city became a "right" of all Bostonians over time. The exact moment that the Boston Commons became a park is unknowable. It is very likely that the idea took time to evolve and occurred at different times for people in Boston. Similar evolutions of open space in urban areas occurred throughout the United States.
The most famous example of park construction in the United States is, of course, Central Park in New York City. Initially, such a park was subject to tremendous heated debate among the citizens of New York City. Developers and park supporters were heavily at odds with one another in a manner remarkably similar to fights for city parks in the early 2000s.
A design competition for Central Park took place in 1857, and the ultimate winners were Calvert Vaux and Frederick Law Olmsted. Vaux, being an Englishman, was heavily influenced by the naturalistic design of rich country estates in England, while Frederick Law Olmsted was an American, though also heavily influenced by the naturalistic style of English manors. Olmsted's influence on American design through his own efforts and through his firm, which continued on well into the 1900s, is difficult to overestimate. Communities on both coasts and numerous places in between have parks designed by Olmsted and his firm. The deliberate placing of plant material and taking advantage of natural rolls of the land to open up and create view scapes is a trademark seen nationwide in city parks designed or influenced by Olmsted.
Olmsted's Influence on City Parks
The popularity of such designs has led to fierce protection of Olmsted-designed parks to keep them from being altered in any manner by newer developments. Interestingly, this has led to strong advocates of city parks battling one another over design concepts, creating conflict that parallels that of preservationists and conservationists on the use of larger-scale lands. The point of conflict is whether parks should be preserved for activities that are primarily passive in nature or for pursuits that are more active in nature and require green space more as a backdrop.
The concept of "showcase" parks caught on quickly, and cities throughout the United States competed to create parks of a compellingly beautiful nature, each city trying to create something unique and different that would "balance" the ills of living in urban environments.
Variations on parks occurred quite frequently over time. Initially parks were very much in the Olmsted tradition—places to enjoy naturalistic scenes. Visitors to these parks were to enjoy them passively, meaning that they were to enjoy them at a leisurely and stately pace. Peaceful walks, picnics, enjoyment of nature, fishing, or rowing on ponds were typical pursuits. The point of the parks was to escape the hustle and bustle of the city, not to create more noisy and active areas.
City Parks Evolve
The Boston Sand Gardens of the late 1800s created a different concept of city parks. The Boston Sand Gardens were to be a park where children could escape the dangers of the street to play in safety and to pursue wholesome activities. These parks were designed for activities where the landscape was secondary to the activity. And these parks were extremely successful. Children were no longer being a nuisance, bother, or hazard on the streets. Instead, they were drawn to parks that promised activities that were fun and enjoyable. The concept quickly spread to other cities throughout the United States.
Cook County, in Illinois, created forest preserves in the early 1900s. These areas were not landscaped as Olmsted-type parks were. Rather, these areas were supposed to be kept more or less in their natural state. Development was limited to appropriate activities that did not take away too greatly from the natural forest landscape. Trails, picnic areas, and open playfields were, and are, common features of such forest preserves. Similar types of such preserves are commonly found throughout the United States in the early twenty-first century.
Parks designed to accommodate sport activities also have a long history. The Olympic Games in ancient Greece, the Coliseums of the Roman Empire, and early horse-race tracks are common examples. More frequently thought of as playfields, sport areas are part of many parks. Activities such as organized baseball, soccer, softball, field hockey, lacrosse, and so on, can be found on such fields. Sport fields are the most activity-intensive areas of parks. Conflicts over the inclusion of sport fields in a park design are common. Managers of parks with mixed active and passive use make use of landscape design principles to separate active and passive users from each area for their own protection.
Linear parks are parks that are transportation corridors that preserve natural features along their length. The Emerald Necklace that Frederick Law Olmsted originally designed to connect the parks he designed in Boston is an example. The Emerald Necklace is still awaiting completion, but there has been a great deal of effort to move it along in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Such parks may be greenways that allow automobile use such as parkways in many eastern states. Or a linear park may make use of abandoned railroad beds as in the Rails-to-Trails program common across the United States.
The Rails-to-Trails Program emerged in the Midwest in the mid-1960s. This program converts railroad beds into hiking and biking trails. Such trails are also used by a host of others, some of whom are welcome, some not. Conflicts occur on such trails between those using the trails for passive enjoyment by walking or biking slowly and those who use the trails to practice sport activities such as running, race biking, skateboarding, and so on. Resolving these conflicts is a necessary task for many parks departments across the country.
Benefits and Costs of City Parks
City parks help connect urban dwellers with their environment, and may even preserve or restore natural areas to close to pristine conditions. Contact with nature, even in urban environments, allows educators and nature interpreters a forum for allowing urban dwellers to understand their dependence on nature for their survival. And this connection can be made even in the middle of the concrete jungle that otherwise surrounds them.
To be sure, city parks also have their negative attributes. They can be perceived as, and sometimes are, dangerous places. Muggings are not unknown in some city parks, even during daylight hours. Some parks are home to drug dealers and to the mentally disabled turned loose to fend for themselves, and parks can act as gathering places for youth with no other place to gather late at night. Changes in design, increased patrolling by police, neighborhood cooperation and activism, and renewed interest in parks as a community asset are combating social problems that spill over into parks.
City Parks Are Solidly in America's Future
City governments no longer need to sell the public on the need for parks as they once did. People in cities see parks as an amenity they do not wish to live without. City governments instead struggle with managing various demands put on parks. They struggle to find areas for new parks; they work to minimize inappropriate uses of parks; and they have to find creative ways to fund parks even when budgets may be very tight. The benefits of parks to cities have become very clear: the billions of dollars invested in park structures and real estate is evidence in and of itself. The political will of people to protect, maintain, and operate their parks continues without question across the country.
City parks continue to evolve. In many places, skate-board parks are appearing as areas to accommodate youth who otherwise would be out on the streets participating in their favorite activities. While skateboarders still persist in using inappropriate places for practice of their sport, the popularization of skateboarding via television coverage of extreme sports has served to legitimize both the sport and the appropriateness of skateboard parks, which emulate the venues used in competition. Cities, much like Boston with its Sand Gardens, would prefer children to play in environments safer than the streets. Increasing sensitivity to diverse users of parks is forcing park designers and managers to rethink how parks are designed and to what purpose. There is little doubt that conflicts will continue to occur about city parks. But what once was a radical, forward-thinking idea is now safely in the American mainstream. The social experiment of parks for people is a success.
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