The Landscape Guide

15.3 Public Park History

Contents list

At the dawn of European history, on the eastern shores of the Mediterranean, land was imparked for four non-agricultural uses. The Egyptians made domestic gardens and temple gardens. The Assyrians also made hunting parks. The Greeks added public gardens, as meeting and market places protected within city walls. The Romans continued to make public meeting places, but the other three types of park became fused in the imperial villa and its progeny. Roman palace gardens, such as those made by Hadrian and Diocletian, merged the historic objectives of park-making. Parks were made for domestic pleasure, for exercise, for hunting, for the fine arts and for celebration of the emperor's godlike status. As such, they became models for Renaissance villas, in Italy and then throughout Europe, from the fifteenth to the eighteenth century. North European park and garden designers paid their respects to this ancestry when they included Greek and Roman statuary in their designs (Figure 15.4). So do all those gardeners who place concrete casts of Diana, Flora and Aphrodite amongst the roses of their suburban "villas'.

Fragments of classical park prototypes can be found in modern parks, but they are decayed and confused, like the statuary. Most urban parkspace is non-domestic garden, non-temple garden, non-hunting park. Those broad acres of green that look so fine on planner's plans and tourist brochures offer remarkably scant value to the public. They provide little to see and very little to do. A few years ago, at lunchtime on a hot Sunday, I visited Sheffield Botanical Gardens, a well-known public park in one of England's older industrial cities. There were about 30 people lazing on the grass or giving their dogs an opportunity to relieve themselves. I then drove 15 km over the hills to Chatsworth, a famous old landscape park, still owned by the Dukes of Devonshire. There, ten times as many people were queuing to pay money and enter the grounds. Why can't modern cities provide the outdoor space that people want? Partly, it is because too many are owned by municipalities, theoretically devoted to the "greatest happiness of the greatest number', but in practice over-willing to entrust parkspace to operatives whose training is in the use of machinery and chemicals for ornamental horticulture.

I offer a simple solution: distinguish parkspace from greenspace; bounded space from boundless space; "the public' from "the park'. Use walls and fences to protect imparked land from unimparked land. Cities need both. But the two should never be confused. As with public space and private space, both are desirable. Each square metre of those Olmstedian green necklaces, which push their way through the cities of the world, should be systematically re-evaluated. Some of the land should be properly imparked, to make it safe and to make it special (Figure 15.5). The remainder should be properly disimparked, to set it free. Only thus will the people's needs be met.

Fig 15.1 Classical statue

Eastern park wall

Bounded space in Egypt

The Agora in Athens