A History of Urban Parks

Urban parks, in the United States, have changed quite a bit since their inception playing an different, important roles in urban life. Many early parks began life as “commons”, a shared space/resource. There is a general belief that the Boston Common is the nation’s first or oldest park. Located in Boston, MA, it was purchased in 1634 and set aside to be public land by a vote in 1640. But what makes a park a park and not a commons? Definitions vary. One could argue that designated use dictates whether something is a park or not. I had this come up during my stint working for local parks and recreation when we had to define the difference between parks and zoned open space. The term “commons” is derived from the traditional English legal term for common land. Common land can be defined as “privately owned land over which other people have certain rights, such as to allow their livestock to graze upon it, to collect wood, or to cut turf for fuel.” These uses would definitely not fly in parks today nor would they have in parks during the late 1800s, often referred to as “pleasure gardens”.

Pleasure gardens typically consisted of an ornamented landscape composed of lawn, trees, shrubs, flowers, intersecting walks, and decorative structures. These were the first incarnation of what we, today, would think of as parks in the US with some distinctions. The pleasure garden period lasted roughly from 1850 to 1900 and were typically large and located on the edge of a city as it was difficult to plop a bit of “wilderness” into an already established urban fabric. “Meadows accommodated picnicking families and church groups. Rowing on ponds provided a pleasing contrast to urban routings. Open meadows and sequestered rambles were laid out for strolling. Benches encouraged people to stop and look at others on parade.” Many activities specifically associated with lower classes and immigrants were banned which, paired with their locations away from city centers, meant that, though parks were intended to be used by everyone from the start, they largely appealed to the upper-middle class.

During the early 1900s the vision for urban parks started to change. Thanks to the larger reform movement of the Progressive Era, reform parks were born. The longest lasting feature of which is the neighborhood playground but they also introduced field houses. A field house was a sort of club house for neighborhood residents. “Progressives interested in neighborhood reform argued that recreational needs should be met daily at nearby sites, rather than on occasional outings to the city’s outskirts.” The typical neighborhood park was one or two square blocks surrounded largely by housing. Paths in the reform park was frank and straightforward featuring right angles, grass pushed out by sand and blacktop.

By the mid-1900s the divide between recreation and the park was in full swing. The “recreation facility” was created. It was at this time that parks were recognized as a functioning part of cities. Athletic leagues were being organized including sports like: softball, tennis, table tennis, basketball, and golf. The idea of “togetherness” was rekindled and all reference to class issues was abandoned replaced by discussions of efficient management and “service to the community”.

Beveridge, Charles E. 2000. “Olmsted—His Essential Theory”. Olmsted.Org. https://www.olmsted.org/the-olmsted-legacy/olmsted-theory-and-design-principles/olmsted-his-essential-theory.

“Common Land”. 2014. Webarchive.Nationalarchives.Gov.Uk. https://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20140605104731/http://www.naturalengland.org.uk/ourwork/landscape/protection/historiccultural/commonland/default.aspx.

Cranz, Galen. 2000. “Changing Roles Of Urban Parks”. SPUR. https://www.spur.org/publications/urbanist-article/2000-06-01/changing-roles-urban-parks.

Cranz, Galen. 2008. “Urban Parks Of The Past And Future”. PPS. https://www.pps.org/article/futureparks.

“Parks, Parkways, Recreation Areas, And Scenic Reservations – Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site (U.S. National Park Service)”. Nps.Gov, 2022. https://www.nps.gov/frla/learn/historyculture/parks.htm#:~:text=Olmsted%20believed%20that%20in%20a,gathering%20and%20entertainment%20of%20crowds.

Walls, Margaret. 2009. “Parks And Recreation In The United States: Local Park Systems”. Resources For The Future. https://www.rff.org/publications/issue-briefs/parks-and-recreation-in-the-united-states-local-park-systems/.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s