How to Create a Park
Playgrounds for youths are needed, but these may be further removed from the crowded parts of towns. Public open-air gymnasia have proved valuable in Europe and in Boston.
Public flower-gardens are sometimes provided, but these are luxuries, and ought to be opened at the public expense only after the more essential kinds of public grounds have been secured.
[an error occurred while processing this directive]
Promenades, gardens, concert-grounds, out-door halls, nurseries, playgrounds, gymnasia, and gardens may, of course, be combined one with another, as opportunity offers. To properly fulfill their several functions none of them need take out more than a small space from the income-producing area of a town.
There remains another less obvious, but very valuable, source of refreshment for townspeople, which only considerable areas of open space can supply. The well-to-do people of all large towns seek in travel the recreation which comes from change of scene and contemplation of scenery. For those who cannot travel, free admission to the best scenery of their neighborhood is desirable. It is, indeed, necessary, if life is to be more than the meat.
Cities are now grown so great that hours are consumed in gaining the "country," and, when the fields are reached, entrance is forbidden. Accordingly it becomes necessary to acquire, for the free use and enjoyment of all, such neighboring fields, woods, pond-sides, river-banks, valleys, or hills as may present, or may be made to present, fine scenery of one type or another.
This providing of scenery calls for the separation of large bodies of land from the financially productive area of a town, county, or district; and, conversely, such setting apart of large areas is justifiable only when "scenery" is secured or made obtainable thereby.
Having thus made note of the main purposes of public pleasure-grounds, we pass now to consider (1) Government; (2) Sites and Boundaries; (3) General Plans or Designs; and (4) Construction.
The providing and managing of reservations of scenery is the highest function and most difficult task of the commissioners or directors of park works. Public squares, gardens, playgrounds, and promenades may be well or badly constructed, but no questions are likely to arise in connection therewith which are beyond the comprehension of the ordinary man of affairs.
If scenic parks, on the other hand, are to be well placed, well bounded, well arranged, and, above all, well preserved, the directors of the work need to be more than ordinary men. Real-estate dealers must necessarily be excluded from the management. Politicians, also, if the work is to run smoothly. The work is not purely executive, like the work of directing sewer-construction or street cleaning, which may best be done by single responsible chiefs.
The direction of park works may probably best rest with a small body of cultivated men, public-spirited enough to serve without pay, who should regard themselves and be regarded as a board of trustees, and who, as such, should make it their first duty to hand down unharmed from one generation to the next the treasure of scenery which the city has placed in their care. Public libraries and public art museums are created and managed by boards of trustees. For similar reasons public parks should be similarly governed.
A landscape park requires, more than most works of men, continuity of management. Its perfecting is a slow process. Its directors must thoroughly apprehend the fact that the beauty of its landscape is all that justifies the existence of a large public open space in the midst, or even on the immediate borders, of a town; and they must see to it that each newly-appointed member of the governing body shall be grounded in this truth.
Holding to the supreme value of fine scenery, they will take pains to subordinate every necessary construction, and to perfect the essence of the park, which is its landscape, before elaborating details or accessories, such as sculptured gates or gilded fountains, however appropriately or beautifully they may be designed. As trustees of park scenery, they will be especially watchful to prevent injury thereto from the intrusion of incongruous or obtrusive structures, statues, gardens (whether floral, botanic, or zoologic), speedways, or any other instruments of special modes of recreation, however desirable such may be in their proper place.
If men can be found to thus serve cities as trustees of scenic or rural parks, they will assuredly be entirely competent to serve at the same time as providers and guardians of those smaller and more numerous urban spaces in which every means of recreation, excepting scenery, may best be provided.
Park Sites and Boundaries
It is much to be desired that newly-created park commissions should be provided at the beginning, by loan or otherwise, with a supply of money sufficient to meet the cost of all probably desirable lands. Purchases or seizures of land should be made as nearly contemporaneously as possible. Before making any purchases, ample time should, however, be taken for investigation, which should be directed both to the study of the scenery of the district in question and to a comparison of land values.
The first problem usually is to choose from the lands sufficiently vacant or cheap to be considered: (1) those reasonably accessible and moderately large tracts which are capable of presenting agreeable secluded scenery, and (2) those easily accessible or intervening small tracts which may most cheaply be adapted to serve as local playgrounds or the like.
A visit and report from a professional park-designer will prove valuable, even at this earliest stage of operations. Grounds of the local playground class may safely be selected in accordance with considerations of cheapness and a reasonably equitable distribution, but the wise selection of even small landscape parks requires much careful study. It is desirable that a city's parks of this class should present scenery of differing types.
It is desirable that the boundaries of each should be so placed as to include all essential elements of the local scenery and to produce the utmost possible seclusion and sense of indefinite extent, as well as to make it possible to build boundary roads or streets upon good lines and fair grades. Public grounds of every class are best bounded by streets; otherwise, there is no means of insuring the desirable fronting of buildings towards the public domain.
In spite of a common popular prejudice to the contrary, it will generally be found that concave, rather than convex, portions of the earth's surface are to be preferred for park-sites. If the courses of brooks, streams, or rivers can be included in parks, or in strips of public land connecting park with park or park with town, several advantages will be secured at one stroke. The natural surface-drainage channels will be retained under public control where they belong; they will be surely defended from pollution; their banks will offer agreeable public promenades; while the adjacent boundary roads, one on either hand, will furnish the contiguous building land with an attractive frontage.
Where such stream-including strips are broad enough to permit the opening of a distinctively pleasure drive entirely separate from the boundary roads, the ground should be classed as a park. Where the boundary roads are the only roads, the whole strip is properly called a parkway; and this name is retained even when the space between the boundary roads is reduced to lowest terms and becomes nothing more than a shaded green ribbon, devoted perhaps to the separate use of the otherwise dangerous electric cars.
In other words, parkways, like parks, may be absolutely formal or strikingly picturesque, according to circumstances. Both will generally be formal when they occupy confined urban spaces bounded by dominating buildings. Both will generally become picturesque as soon as, or wherever, opportunity offers.
After adequate squares and playgrounds, two or three local landscape parks, and the most necessary connecting parkways shall have been provided, it may next be advisable to secure one or more large parks, or even one or more reservations of remoter and wilder lands.
In a city of five hundred thousand inhabitants a park of five hundred acres, however judiciously located, is soon so much frequented as necessarily to lose much of its rurality; in other words, much of its special power to refresh and charm. The necessarily broad roads, the numerous footways, the swarms of carriages and people, all call to mind the town, and in a measure offset the good effect of the park scenery.
It is then that it becomes advisable to go still further afield, in order to acquire and hold in reserve additional domains of scenery, such as Boston has lately acquired in the Blue Hills and the Middlesex Fells. In selecting such domains, however, no new principles come into play.
As in selecting sites for parks, so here it is always to be borne in mind that provision and preservation of scenery is the purpose held in view, and that demarcation of acquired lands is to be determined accordingly.
Discuss this article in the Architecture Forum...
Frederick Law Olmsted (1822-1903) is the best-known and most revered landscape architect in U.S. history. The codesigner of New York's Central Park, and designer of Boston's Emerald Necklace, Olmsted was also a high-profile public intellectual. His diverse activities included writing books about travels in England and the United States, coordinating medical treatment of soldiers for the U.S. government during the Civil War, and serving on the editorial board of The Nation magazine.
Robert Twombly teaches architectural history at the City College of New York. He is also the editor of Frank Lloyd Wright: Essential Texts and Louis Kahn: Essential Texts.
This article is excerpted from Frederick Law Olmsted: Essential Texts, edited by Robert Twombly, copyright © 2010, with permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton. Twombly has corrected any misspellings, British and archaic spellings and punctuation, and typesetting errors in the text without indication. ArchitectureWeek has added paragraph breaks.
The Lake is a 22-acre (nine-hectare) water feature in Central Park, originally created from a large swamp. Image does not appear in book.
Photo: Didier Bigand
As-built plan drawing of Central Park (1872).
Image: Olmsted and Vaux/ Courtesy Central Park Conservancy
Extra Large Image
Competition plan drawing for Central Park (1858).
Image: Olmsted and Vaux/ Courtesy New York City Department of Parks and Recreation
Extra Large Image
The Gothic Bridge (1864) is one of several cast-iron bridges surrounding the Reservoir in Central Park. The 93-foot (28-meter) structure was designed by Calvert Vaux. Image does not appear in book.
Photo: Historic American Buildings Survey/ Historic American Engineering Record (HABS/HAER)
Extra Large Image
Early aerial view of Central Park. Image does not appear in book.
Photo: Courtesy Library of Congress
The cast-iron Ladies Pavilion (1871) was originally a trolley shelter for park visitors located near Eighth Avenue and 59th Street. It now stands on Hernshead, a small peninsula in The Lake. Image does not appear in book.
Extra Large Image
The Bow Bridge is one of several historic bridges and structures in Central Park that are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Image does not appear in book.
Extra Large Image
Frederick Law Olmsted: Essential Texts, edited by Robert Twombly.
Image: W.W. Norton
Extra Large Image
Click on thumbnail images
to view full-size pictures.