Changing Roles of Urban Parks

From Pleasure Garden to Open Space

Urbanist Article

Pleasure Garden, 1850-1900

By 1840, urbanization and industrialization had begun to change American life. The spread of cities prohibited daily travel to the countryside. The pace of factory production meant that time-off, leisure, and contemplation was no longer intertwined with work. Transcendentalist reformers were agitating for large, open, green places in order to get people into natural settings that offered relief from the rigors of their jobs.

The pleasure garden was a vast landscape of alternating trees and meadows, undulating hills, slowly meandering waterways, and broad reflecting ponds-an idealized agrarian scene, orderly but without the fussy decorations of architecture, sculpture, or flower beds. Pleasure grounds were always at the edge of the city where land was cheaper, but the peripheral location was also regarded as an appropriate way to gain distance from city life. The grounds covered thousands of acres; designers argued that being able to see beyond the boundary of the park into another landscape would shatter the bucolic illusion.

Frederick Law Olmsted, the designer of many of the great parks of this era, believed that the greatest counterpoint to urban form was pure wilderness, but this belief was tempered by his recognition of the impracticality of achieving the illusion of wilderness anywhere near a city. Consequently, he chose the pastoral landscape as the most pragmatic and appropriate way to provide relief from the city. He manipulated masses of trees to create settings for picturesque elements. Olmsted disapproved of flowers in parks; he felt that flowers revealed the hand of man, which the park visitor saw all too much of in the city from which, presumably, they had just escaped.

Buildings were kept to a minimum in the pleasure garden. Pergolas and bandstands were light, airy structures, usually without walls. Structures were often built in a rustic style. Sculpture, like buildings, was also restricted. Not only did it show the presence of civilization; it also was associated with European aristocratic formal gardens, a democratic anathema.

Circulation paths were probably one of the most distinctive elements of the pleasure garden. Because city streets were straight and laid at right angles, park carriage ways and footpaths were curved. In New York's Central Park, Olmsted separated vehicular from pedestrian traffic so that a toddler could use the park without paying attention to cars. This separation of pedestrians and vehicles was an innovation that became a part of urban planning.

Each element of the pleasure garden tradition emphasized the primary rationale underlying the design: people were supposed to experience a pastoral landscape that would take them out of the normal hard-surfaced busy urban center. 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.

Designers created settings for group activities in response to two social concerns. In mid-nineteenth century America, the family was perceived as threatened by the vices of modern city life. Park promoters hoped to reinforce the family by providing a setting for family activities. These same men were also concerned that democracy should not be destroyed by urbanization and industrialization. Class differences became more obvious when workers and owners lived in separate districts. The pleasure ground provided a setting in which all social classes could interact. Despite the democratic intent, however, its appeal was upper-middle class. Planners excluded aspects of popular culture-such as alcohol, raucous music, and dancing-associated with immigrants and their crowded slums.

Reform Park, 1900-30

The most enduring legacy of the "reform park" is the playground; indeed users often referred to this model as the "playground" as opposed to the "pleasure ground". That model is connected to the larger reform movement of the Progressive Era and the motives that generated the playground, field house, and utilitarian landscape style. Since the 1880s, reformers had been agitating for the construction of children's playgrounds. 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 two ideas-the need for playgrounds and the need for local parks-came together around 1900 and gave rise to the reform park. The shift from the pleasure garden to playground marked the sharpest change in American park history up to that point.

The typical neighborhood park was a square block or two surrounded by housing. Paths in the reform park were straight and at right angles to one another, and the siting was frank and straightforward. Park structures looked similar to adjacent factories, apartment houses, and commercial buildings. A new building type emerged: the field house, which incorporated showers, community rooms, meeting rooms, and a gymnasium. Architecturally conventional, they had none of the picturesque details of pleasure ground buildings. Playgrounds and playing fields flanked the building in rectangular plots. Flowers were no longer forbidden; the only constraint on their use was space. Grass was squeezed out by sand, blacktop, and buildings.

Professional play leaders organized and supervised activities. No longer were families expected to amuse themselves as a group. Each age and sex was assumed to have special needs. The activities were heavily, although not exclusively, child-oriented.

A split between the recreation movement and the park movement originated in this era. Some cities such as San Francisco, had separate commissions – one for parks and another for recreation. The conflict between active and passive recreation that continues to this day began during this time. The reform park was oriented toward meeting the needs of the working class as perceived by business, philanthropic, and professional elites. Its location in the tenement districts, and the emphasis on physical exercise, supervision, and organization indicate an acceptance of industrial culture and an effort to rationalize it.

Recreational facility, 1930-65

By the 1930s park administrators abandoned idealistic efforts to use parks as a mechanism of social reform. Parks no longer had to justify their existence as accomplishing needed social change. Recreation was accepted as a municipal function and an established institution, rather than a reform movement. The frequent use of the term "recreation" came to stand for the importance of serving all age groups, not just children in playgrounds. There was an important break between the playground park and the emerging recreational facility.

The term "facility" was appropriate because new construction was not necessarily a building. Active recreation was the password of this era. For children, supervised play continued to be important; for adults, such field sports as baseball, football, and basketball gained legitimacy. Swimming pools were more popular than any other single facility.

Three trends-professionalism, standardization, and surburbanization-had a great impact on park evolution. As the vast professional middle class emerged in society, all reference to class issues was abandoned in park literature; discussions of efficient management and "service to the community" was substituted.

Standardization of organizational structure, park design, and programming also proceeded rapidly in this era. In order to save money, playground plans were duplicated without regard to differences in topography or local needs. Gymnastic equipment, picnic tables, fencing, bleachers, and even recreation centers were ordered in multiple quantities.

As the nation suburbanized, the operating assumption in park design became that people had greenery and small intimate open spaces in their yards and needed large-scale facilities for field sports and basketball. The urban park served the most explicit and direct needs of the population without regard for a more subtle need to stimulate other parts of the psyche. It became a single-purpose, highly utilitarian outlet. The resulting banality of urban parks from this era has dulled our ability to think of them as potentially interesting, amusing, engaging, stimulating, or exciting.

Open Space, 1965 and After

After 1965, some feeling about the importance of parks-strictly defined-diminished, while ideas about the significance of open and green space gathered strength from the new concept that parks, streets, plazas and empty lots were parts of a continuous system. Citizens and professionals viewed all unbuilt spaces as potential sources of psychic relief.

The new park type perhaps is characterized best by the adventure playground. Conventional gymnastic equipment-swings, slides, teeter-totters, climbers-was abandoned in favor of free-form environments and play equipment. Railway ties and 12 by 12 timbers in different lengths formed a module for many play structures; cement culverts were another popular material. The forms were extremely sturdy, had few movable parts, and were neither easily vandalized nor costly to maintain. The tot lot was another version of the same form, often done in an extremely small space and in an abstract style. Finally, the small urban plaza or "vest pocket" park was popularized in the same era. These parks created little oases meant to offer the same kind of relief that Olmsted thought required two thousand acres.

The three park types-the tot lot, adventure playground, and urban plaza-use small lots previously thought unusable. The open-space philosophy viewed every bit of land as a potentially valuable gem in a network of open spaces. Tot lots and adventure playgrounds were justified on the basis that play should be free-form, and therefore, so should the equipment that facilitates play. Pleasant rest spots for business people on lunch breaks were intended to help keep the central business district attractive at a time when corporations were flocking to the suburbs.

The underlying ideology of the open space system is that the city is an art form worth saving. This new attitude toward the city and its open space occurred precisely when the inner city was perceived as decaying. The apparent contradiction disappears if we recall that the social and physical consequences of massive urban destruction and renewal were judged disastrous-and so a new tack was taken: selective revitalization.

Contemporary Parks

The most important lesson in park history is that form always reflects immediate social goals, an ideology about order, and an underlying attitude toward the city. Park history can be divided into periods, but no model has died out. Rather, each new one has emerged alongside earlier models so that at any given point in time we can find examples of several types. Playgrounds, for instance, were tucked into pleasure grounds. A consequent temptation is to take an eclectic view of park purpose and design that results in a hodgepodge of elements from each model. Because no one is sure what parks are for and whom they should serve, park planners tend to favor a scattershot approach in the hope of covering the most bases. A closer look at our own era might crystallize park policy based on contemporary needs. Balancing all our needs will yield a park model appropriate for us and us alone.


Galen Cranz is Professor of Architecture at the University of California at Berkeley.