A history of greenspace and parks A history of greenspace and parks
by David Thorpe,
illustrations by Hunt Emerson

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The American experience

In the last decades of the 19th century, Americans looked at their own cities and realised that they needed the refining effects of parks and art. They derived their concept of an urban park from the traditional solution for people seeking relief from the evils of the city - to escape to the country.

They realised that people needed breathing space in which to walk, and drew on Emerson's lofty idea that the contemplation of nature, and attunement with it, 'trains the spirit'.

Their parks injected fresh air, meadows, lakes and sunshine into the grim, rigid grids of their towns. "Exercise, instruction and psychic restoration" were intended to improve the outlook of the impoverished slum dweller. Visitors often spent the whole day in the park.

Frederic Law Olmsted

A new specialism, that of the landscape architect, was developed, pioneered by Frederic Law Olmsted, the designer of Central Park in New York City and the Golden Gate Bridge Park among many others. Work began on Central Park in 1858. Olmsted was helped by Calvert Vaux.

Their attempt to create a wilderness atmosphere in 'The Ramble' in the heart of Central Park influenced the design of many city parks in the United States.

Romantic and formal design

It introduced romantic, irregular clusters of shrubbery, interspersed with patches of open ground and winding paths that opened up new vistas at every turn, giving the impression of a much more spacious area that it really was.

Research has shown that this is the type of layout Westerners prefer nowadays. It is the very opposite of the regimented Victorian geometric and brightly coloured flower beds.

What is wonderful about it is the wildness: the brambles and undergrowth, the trees growing willy nilly in the woods. The best part of the formal parks is the water — lakes, ponds, rivers, canals. People always cluster around them, as if they are thirsty just to see the water.

Frederic Law Olmsted

Above: Frederic Law Olmsted. Below: Central Park 1863, from a lithograph by J Bachmann.

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