The Landscape Guide

Public parks in Europe and America

In the course of the nineteenth century it came about that princely gardens lost the special interest which attaches to the best models. Public gardens, which grew ever more important, and being every man’s property alike, captured all hearts and all eyes, took their place. In the course of our history we have over and over again met with public gardens in towns, where all the people could go. When the Greek polis became democratic, the first real city park found its way into the gymnasium. Cimon embellished places like the agora with shady trees. In towns like Antioch and Alexandria we have seen how Hellenistic cities developed in a modern spirit; they took over their inheritance from Greece and then extended it to a size and magnificence truly oriental. In Rome the emperors were careful that round the narrow crowded dwellings of the townsfolk free spaces for recreation should be provided in a belt of gardens and beautiful grounds. The development of the public garden took a different direction in the Middle Ages. No doubt the burghers found open walks in the gardens of the guilds before the town gates, but they did not need them much, as the pasture-lands were so near at hand. Afterwards, in the days of the Italian Renaissance, the fine private gardens of the gentlefolk came into existence, and it became a point of honour to open them to the public. 

Travellers from northern countries, where the feeling of the Renaissance was not so fully active among the townsfolk as it was in Italy, and the love of private possession was much stronger, recognised this with surprise, noting in Rome, above all other places, what they considered the liberality and magnanimity of the rich. It is seldom indeed that we hear of hospitality being extended to all corners in the patrician gardens of the great towns of the North, as it was in the Roman gardens of Montaigne’s day. However, northern princes became more and more imbued with the new spirit in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Whenever possible the smaller princes made their residence in garden cities, and most of the parks were thrown open to all their subjects. The people were not, however, at home there— not the real masters. True, there were not many places where an inscription was put on the front gate threatening common people with a cudgelling if they presumed to sit down on a seat where some noble visitor wished to sit; but this was actually done at the entrance to the Herrenhausen garden; and particular gardens were often closed at the owner’s pleasure; in Paris, for example, places which the people had supposed to be theirs by right were suddenly closed to them by some caprice of the actual owner. Thus, in 1781, the Duc de Chartres closed the Palais Royal Garden, which had been open ever since it was founded by Richelieu. In 1650 Sauvai writes of the Luxembourg Garden, “ It is often open and often closed, just as it may please the prince who is living at the castle.” The Duchesse de Berri had all the doors but one blocked up, so that she might be undisturbed at her gay parties.

In England Queen Caroline, intelligent though she was, held the views of the despotic little court which she came from, and had the fancy to shut up Kensington Gardens. She inquired of Walpole, who was at that time her Minister, what it would cost, to which he gave the significant reply, “ Only three crowns.” In London the great parks were the property of the Crown, though in the eighteenth century they were completely given up to the use of the people. Queen Caroline took a lively interest in these parks, which crossed the interior of London like a broad green belt, and particularly in Kensington Gardens; the fine avenues and the great basin in the middle are due to her. This garden never quite lost its formal character, whereas in the reign of George II. Hyde Park was converted into a picturesque garden, with the artificial long lake that is known as the Serpentine. Both in London and in Paris parks of this kind were an indispensable theatre for the world of fashion and wit, as it existed in the eighteenth century. But the people also gained from the parks, particularly in England, for they served as large club-rooms, and provided open spaces suitable for public meetings. During the nineteenth century it was the citizen class which really carried out the traditions of the parks.

In France the intellectuals were delighted to meet one another in the garden of the Palais Royal. It is the scene of Diderot’s work, Le Neveu de Rameau, and there many of those ideas were hatched which matured in the great Revolution. It is curious to notice how the rendezvous of fashionable society changed according to the caprice of the owner of the place or the leading coterie of the moment. The Champs Elysées and the Cours de la Reine were among the most famous meeting-places for people of fashion in the earlier days of Louis the Fourteenth’s reign, but when he became less attached to Paris they were neglected. In Louis the Fifteenth’s time Madame de Pompadour lived at the palace of the Champs Elysées, and considered making a view right through to the dome of the Invalides, but this she only carried out in part. The Champs Elysées remained in high favour until the end of the First Empire, and Napoleon set up the Arc de Triomphe to complete the view. After the Restoration people turned away from this part of the capital, which was associated with so much bloodshed and misery, and allowed what the invaders had spared to fall into decay. The promenades were gradually made what they are now, and came to form a prominent feature in modern Paris.

The parks, all open to the public, cannot be regarded as of much importance from the point of view of art in the earlier half of the nineteenth century. The special interest of the princes was cooling down, and as yet there was no active superintendence, for no one had a right to undertake the care of them. Most of what we hear about the parks in Paris during the first three decades is a tale of decay, and the ornamental parts disappeared. Dead trees were replaced in the long straight walks, but little more was done, There was hardly a trace of the picturesque style in these parks. Even as late as 1835 Vergnaud complained that the French would never get rid of the notion that a public park had to be a formal one. He proposed to include the whole of the Tuileries Gardens as far as the Bois de Boulogne, and to convert the place into one connected park such as would be made in England.

At the time when several of the chief streets of London were being altered under the auspices of Nash the architect, and so came to look very different, especially Regent Street, there was an attempt to beautify the belt of park-land. St. James's Park was remodelled, and its long canal received the new form of a natural lake with a wavy outline. Everything else was in a style to match: the single trees, the meadow-like surroundings of the woodland parts, and all the rest. As early as 1811, when an insignificant and  neglected park at Marylebone became Crown property, an Act of Parliament was passed  by which a public garden was to be provided for the north of London, called Regent’s Park after the Regent who was later on to become King George IV. In the design for Regent’s Park there appeared all those fixed schemes which were now being carried out in every public park: there was a large lake of the picturesque kind for rowing-boats, and by the side of its winding banks there were shady walks, with views continually changing.  There were wide meadow-grounds, suitable for various games and for large gatherings of people, and these various arrangements filled nearly the whole space. In fact, here we have the type of park which is so familiar to everyone who knows London, The architect had nothing to do with it; indeed, great efforts were made to conceal the neighbouring houses by planting trees in front of them. The refreshment-houses inside the grounds were small, and had to hide among the trees as well as they could. By the middle of the century London seemed to set an unrivalled example in the size and beauty of these parks. A total area of 1200 acres was covered by Kensington Gardens and Hyde Park, with the Green Park and St. James’s adjoining, and Regent’s Park on the north.

But Paris also was very well off with the Tuileries Gardens, the Champs Elysées, the Palais Royal, and the Parc Monceau on the right bank of the Seine, and the Jardin des Plantes and the Luxembourg on the left. In both towns the parks were Crown property. In the forties, consequent on the increasingly flourishing condition of the towns, there suddenly came a new advance in the matter of public gardens. 

Now, for the first time in the history of the garden, America took an important place. It was not that she had not progressed, but that she demanded here, as for her art in general, a certain independence and originality. After the American Civil War town-dwellers began to build houses in the country, which served them for a rest and holiday during a part of the year only, or for week-ends. In architecture and in garden planning America made progress side by side with Europe, or more accurately, followed its leader England. As early as 1682 William Penn had laid out Philadelphia according to a regular plan, with square ornamental plots; and at the end of the eighteenth century the French architect, L’Enfant, had made, at General Washington’s desire, a complete plan for the town which bears his name, It resembled one of the great residential towns of Europe, transported, so to speak, en masse. The central point was the dome of the Capitol; broad avenues were to form an approach, with boskets and parterres at the side (Fig. 615).

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 But the plan was only on paper, and a hundred years passed before a fresh movement towards laying out park-lands carried it through, and on a grander scale. When, in consequence of the amazing growth of her population, due to the influx of emigrants, America had to deal with New York, provision was made by laying out a great park in the very middle of the city, about 850 acres in area. This was a municipal act which deserves all praise. Frederick Law Olmstead, the most important landscape artist that America had produced, laid out the park in 1854, in the picturesque style universal in his day. He wanted to effect a strong contrast with the distressing surroundings of the great city. The park was bounded by a wall, and had some extremely beautiful parts.

The first American parks owed their existence and their character to the desire for some refuge for citizens from the nerve-racking life of a great town. They were meant to be a real incursion by Nature into the ever-increasing sea of houses. General wheel traffic was not allowed, and vehicles could only pass through by four sunken roads spanned by bridges. This creation of people’s parks was among the first acts of importance done by citizens for the good of citizens, of a democratic power that had now grown to maturity.

At the same period, but with less to contend with, all Europe was making ready for similar efforts. In 1852 Paris took over the Bois de Boulogne from the Crown, on the understanding that in the next four years two million francs were to be expended on improvements. Many changes had the Bois seen since in 1528 Francis I. erected the grand Château de Boulogne in the middle of the wood, since Henry II. had put a wall round it to make a hunting-park, and since Margaret of Navarre had built the charming little castle of Muette. Louis XIV. had had the wood pierced by wide avenues, with crosses at the intersections, The Revolution made its home there in terrible fashion, Later on Napoleon had seen in the site a great opportunity for associating his name with a place whose size and grandeur could compare with what Louis himself had created. So after the little King of Rome was born, Napoleon thought he would build a marble palace where the Trocadero is now, the gardens of which should extend as far as the Bois, On the other side of the palace the Champ de Mars was to form a great promenade, flanked with public buildings.

Two skilful architects, Percier and Fontaine, were commissioned to carry out the project, and several months of work had been devoted to the levelling of the hill and the making of terraces when the Battle of Leipzig put an end to it all. The Bois was often the field of operations for troops in 1814, and was nearly given over to destruction. Its preservation meant for Paris the retention of her finest park-site.

The place was laid out eventually by Hittorf, the architect, and Varé, the landscape gardener, in confessed imitation of the parks in London,. and especially of the lake features of Hyde Park. We must look upon Alphand as the real author, for his name is bound up with the creation of new and the restoration of old parks, in the same way as Haussmann's name is connected with the altered appearance of the town itself after the great new streets had been formed. 

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The Buttes-Chaumont (Fig. 616), which was considered at the time a triumph of garden art, was made a little later. A very short time before it had been a wretched, squalid place, with a gibbet and a skinner’s yard—lurking-place for criminals. This unpromising site was converted into a fine landscape park in the early sixties. The steep walls of a chalk cliff were partly pulled down and partly raised. The whole had a romantic hilly appearance (Fig. 617).

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Paris intended to have parks at all four corners of the town. On the south Monsouris was added. The Bois de Vincennes was restored, for the park attached to the ancient royal castle had come into the possession of the town.

In London the royal parks, great as they were, soon had to be added to. More and more thought and care were given to the subject, especially with a view to providing parks, great or small, for the districts east and south of the Thames, which hitherto had been much neglected. Victoria Park and Battersea Park were the largest, but a considerable number of smaller ones were added to these. A few figures will show how London was feeling the need of parks and was trying to meet it: in 1889 the whole area of town gardens and ornamental grounds, with the exception of royal parks, was 2656 acres, whereas in 1898 it was 3665 acres.

A peculiar system prevailed in the case of certain ornamental plots. Originally the so-called London squares were semi-private gardens, to which nobody had the right of entrance except the people who lived round them. For this reason they were generally enclosed in some way. There were hedges or at least bushes cutting them off from the streets; and within there was a garden of the picturesque type laid out with paths, groups of trees and shrubs, and even a small lake. There might also be a couple of carpet-beds on the lawn as the chief decoration. In many cases, however, the private character of the places was lost, passers-by could go in, and the places were treated as ornamental appendages to the street. Paris adopted the name “ square “ as well as the style of laying out, and Alphand in particular planned a great many of these (Fig. 618).

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Germany did not hold aloof from the movement for making parks in the towns, and one of the smaller towns, Magdeburg, had the honour of being the first to come forward. As early as 1824 Lenné was commissioned to lay out a public park there. He replied in a letter that plainly shows how unusual this was: “ It is nothing new to me that princes and wealthy private persons should spend large sums on the beautiful art of the garden. But an undertaking of this kind, which from a rough computation will cost, exclusive of buildings, no less a sum than $18,000, undertaken by the town authorities, is the first example I have ever encountered in the whole of my life as an artist.” Berlin could not lag behind.

At the centenary festival of Frederick the Great’s accession, the town council at Berlin resolved to lay out a People’s Park, to be called Friedrichshain, on the eastern side of the city. No happier occasion for inaugurating a town garden could have been found. It was a way of showing homage and gratitude to the creator of Sans-Souci, who loved gardens, and also a proud demonstration of the growing spirit of citizenship, which now felt prepared to take out of the hands of royalty the ornamentation and the hygiene of the towns. But the Crown made a presentation to the people at the same time, handing over the garden for wild animals as a public park. Ever since the sixteenth century this woodland tract of about 6oo acres had been in the possession of the Princes of Brandenburg, and its conversion into a pleasure-park was due chiefly to Frederick the Great, who had the avenues made in the shape of a star with basins and statues, small green rooms and labyrinthine walks. Later on, one part of the grounds, to the south of the great star, had been changed into the English style; the large lake and the Rousseau island are really picturesque in the best sense of the word. On the north of the great star there is also a landscape garden at the Castle of Bellevue. In 1840 Lenné was entrusted with the modernisation of the Friedrichshain and also of the animal garden. But whereas the first was laid out entirely after the pattern of an English park, in the second he kept the avenues and walks of the old place, and confined his renovations to what was already in progress on the southern side, where he made a second picturesque lake (Fig. 619).

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 It seems as though the spirit of Frederick William IV. must have had some share in this, at least there is one sketch in existence, which he made while crown prince, of a garden round a great hippodrome, laid out in a purely classical style, to which he wished to annex a portion of the animal garden. The great avenues which still cross the park were in one way a drawback; for traffic did not cease, as in the American and English parks, at the outer boundary, but was everywhere carried through, and consequently the roads were cemented or paved, which is out of harmony with the park spirit. In 1837 Gustav Meyer, a pupil of Lenné, and author of the Instruction Book, was appointed the first director of the town garden at Berlin, and he was very active there until his death. He laid out all the parks at Berlin including the later Schiller park, and his advice was asked for by many other towns.

In this first period the idea was before all else to make the towns beautiful. People were quite satisfied to make one park after another according to the English pattern described above, wherein certain æsthetic principles prevailed, but which grew more commonplace and spiritless as time went on. England differed from other countries in one respect: her fields and lawns were thrown open to the people, whereas on the Continent there was always a peremptory order, “ The public must not walk on the grass.” Wherever possible, the uniform level of a park was varied by an imitation of a hilly landscape, as at the Buttes-Chaumont in Paris and the Victoria Park in Berlin, the latter being an imitation of the fall of the Zacken River in the Riesengebirge.

For a fairly long time public parks were unaffected by botanical interest. It is true that foreign trees and shrubs were planted, so far as climate permitted, and so far as they were needed for picturesque grouping; but the rarer and more expensive kinds, especially those conifers which gave a distinctive character to private gardens, were generally absent. 

Uncommon exotic plants, especially flowers, were relegated to the Botanic Gardens, where artistic arrangement was superseded by purely scientific division and classification. There were scarcely any flowers in the parks in these early days, only stiff carpet-beds in the squares, on the promenades or on the ramparts of fortifications.

In due course civic authorities were faced with far wider demands. The democratic feeling of the masses grew until it exercised a powerful and irresistible influence in all domains of art, and it now turned the treatment of public gardens into new directions. Once more America pressed to the front in the development of People’s Parks. The enormous growth of the population in many of her towns was felt to be a menace, If the people were to be saved from asphyxiation there must needs be more open parks.

Chicago made a successful experiment by converting a sea of houses into a place that has earned the honourable title of “ Urbs in Horto,” It was said, no doubt with truth, that before the change was made there were fewer green trees in the whole town than there . were rooms in one of the gigantic business houses. Chicago's plan, which succeeded, was to separate the blocks of houses at fixed intervals by interposing People’s Parks, larger or smaller as circumstances would allow, and varying from two and a half acres to sixty-three. In a comparatively short time about twenty-four playing-grounds were made, at a cost of $42,000,000, and one or other could be reached from every house in the town in a few minutes. The features which are found in all these parks, even the smallest, are a football ground with walks round it, gymnasium, a playground for children with a shallow pond in the middle—and finally a swimming-pool with baths attached. The larger parks have facilities for rowing. There are club-rooms, after the pattern of private clubs, with a large central hall and private rooms for meetings. Round the inner park Chicago has set a belt of outer park that takes in more and more ground as time goes on (Fig. 620).

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 The Grand Park in the south is one of the finest. In addition to all this, Chicago planned a Lagoon-garden, a thing never heard of before. The Grand Park had been made on a mound artificially constructed from the town rubbish-heaps. For the Lagoon-garden the refuse was to be used in a systematic manner, so as to form tongues of land in the lake, 100 to 300 metres in breadth, each strip to be laid out as a garden, with the quiet waters of the lagoon between, providing a shore for bathing.

What Chicago, that great centre of trade, did, other towns accomplished in their several ways. Boston made park-like streets radiating into the interior of the city from a great belt of park outside. Washington, St. Louis, and Philadelphia all laid out magnificent streets inside the towns. The administrative bodies of the giant cities of America consider it one of their chief duties to provide parks and garden grounds, and there are Park Societies whose aim is to support the municipal authorities in their work.

In the Old World, Paris made not very long ago a circle of parks where the belt of fortifications used to be. This was effected by means of a grant that extended to milliards of francs, and even America was amazed. At Vienna plans were considered for laying out a belt of meadow- and wood-land, with the same objects in view, In Germany societies were formed to extend parks. The efforts of the towns to develop gardens and parks seem to extend to private property in Germany. The Schreber gardens, as certain small plots are called, have acquired an importance which may increase, About the middle of the last century a certain physician of Leipzig, Dr. Schreber, made over to the town a considerable sum of money on condition that land was bought and leased out to the citiZens in small garden plots, about two hundred square metres in area. Private societies, called " Schreber-Vereine,” carried the plan farther, and subsequently enlarged the grounds . by the addition of gymnasiums and halls. The playgrounds were put in the middle, so as to connect the tiny plots of garden, which were left to each individual to cultivate, The intention was to give poor people pleasure in a little bit of land. The plan was copied in many towns, and in, 1901 Schreber gardens were laid out at Breslau.

The Garden City movement owes its origin to the development of parks. The idea arose in England of checking the ever-growing congestion of large towns, by making little towns outside. These recall the Residence towns of the eighteenth century, but in place of the castle garden which as a rule was in the centre, there is generally an open space for games, and streets radiating from it with small separate houses, each with its own garden. The leading idea was to provide light and air for the working classes, and to lead them back to Nature, which they had ceased to know. It is not a part of our subject to discuss the economical and social bearings of this movement.

Space for games became increasingly in demand in the public parks. America had imbibed, chiefly from England, the love of sport, of games in the open air, and had cherished it in a more democratic fashion, There were two demands to fulfill: large level grounds must be acquired, with a view to people’s fêtes and meetings, and also to provide sites for sport and games of every kind. The older parks were adapted for walking in—“the ideal place for taking a walk,” as Meyer says; and people had not yet quite broken away from the delight in views. A solitary stroller, or a small party of friends, found pleasure in a constant variety of pictures, and it was a real triumph of beauty when some lake, some meadow, was so placed that, owing to ingenious turns in the path, it was impossible to see where it ended. But it was only the quiet, observant strollers who noticed these things ; the majority wanted to meet for games in smaller or larger parties, and to mingle with their fellows so that each individual or each group should feel like a member of a corporate body without, however, being overwhelmed by numbers. The games ground, which is best in a regular shape, must be open to the view of players and spectators alike. The places designed for people's fetes and shows must not be lost in woodland surroundings. There must not be deceitful effects of distance, with twists and turns. The public wishes to see and to be seen. The water, which was not, as in early days, to serve only for people in rowing-boats, who might prefer a winding course, must now follow a new plan, so as to serve for swimming-baths and for skating. All these requirements led more and more towards a formal design; yet the public park, so strongly bound by tradition, could hardly have found the way to an essentially new type had it not been helped by a great movement which came from another direction.


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 Buttes-Chaumont  in Paris