Urban parks A history: 1839–2012
BY DR IAN THOMPSON
Dr Ian Thompson, reader in landscape architecture at the University of Newcastle, who has researched this piece, is amply qualified to do so. He has moved from being a practising landscape architect to an academic role, writing widely, and with a particular interest in landscape architecture theory and the history of the designed landscape.
Thompson has selected 15 parks for this exercise, starting with the Arboretum in Derby, constructed in 1839–40, and finishing with the Olympic Park in London which, despite its huge success, is still very much a work in progress. These two may be close together geographically, but between them, Thompson’s story leads us to the USA, France, China and Singapore.
In researching this piece, Thompson identified a number of threads of thinking, including the long-standing embrace of the pastoral/ picturesque and its subsequent rejection, the development of post-industrial parks, the burgeoning eco-movement and the growth of the linear park. As in any work of this kind, projects have been omitted which others will feel should have been included. Part of the pleasure in an exercise like this lies in stimulating debate.
Thompson explains his thinking as follows: ‘Studying the history and theory of landscape architecture (including the history of theory) one quickly comes to two conclusions. First, today’s designers often hold beliefs and attitudes with deep historical roots; second, a lot of new thinking turns out, upon inspection, to be a recycling or representation of ideas that have been around for centuries. These might seem like very conservative conclusions, but they need not be. The freshness comes in the recycling, because the ideas are always changed in the process — inflected, extended, reinterpreted — and this is how progress is made. New ideas and movements can also be conscious rejections of earlier paradigms, and we may even talk of dialectical processes of thought. Rejecting the picturesque, as did the Modernists and — more recently — the Landscape Urbanists, may be a step along the path to a new aesthetics based on a reconsideration of the urban-rural distinction and the collapse of the old division between nature and culture.
‘We can trace these shifts in the history of park design, which is a microcosm of landscape architecture in general. Indeed landscape architecture has its own foundational narrative based upon Frederick Law Olmsted’s visit to Birkenhead Park and his adoption of the title “landscape architect” when submitting the winning entry for the competition to design Central Park in New York City with his partner Calvert Vaux. Park design has had a central place in the discipline ever since and new thinking is often revealed in plans for bold new parks, such Gas Works Park in Seattle, Landschaftspark Duisburg-Nord or the High Line. Looking at the history of park design can tell us much about the traditions and trajectory of our profession.’
His research has been translated into delightful visual form by illustrator and map-maker David Atkinson and, as well as appearing on the printed page, there is a poster that you can pull out and enjoy on your wall.
If you would like to order further copies of the poster (which will be free of the unavoidable creases) then please email [email protected]
The claim that this was England’s first public park is contested because on some days there was a charge for entry, but it certainly kick-started the movement for public parks in Britain. A labelled collection of plants meant that the park, a gift from industrialist and former mayor Joseph Strutt, was educational as well as recreational.
This was the first London park specifically commissioned as such, and provided a major boost to the public park movement. It was created following a petition from 30,000 local residents to Queen Victoria, and became known as the ‘People’s Park’ because of the numerous political meetings that took place there.
Designed in the picturesque style, with parkland, woodland, lakes and sports facilities, Birkenhead had a great influence on Frederick Law Olmsted, designer of Central Park, who visited on his second trip to England in 1850. As was normal at the time, plots around the edge were sold for upmarket housing, helping to finance the park.
New York City, USA
America’s first purpose-built park was an interpretation of the British public park, set within the rectilinear grid of Manhattan. The rural scenery was intended to provide an antidote to the oppressive conditions of the city. Vaux and Olmsted referred to themselves as ‘landscape architects’ in their submission — the first use of the term.
PARC DE LA VILLETTE
Parc de la Villette
This controversial design was developed in collaboration with deconstructivist philosopher Jacques Derrida, and reacted against the conventional idea of a park. Bernard Tschumi (an architect not a landscape architect) described the park, on the site of a former cattle market, as ‘the longest discontinuous building in the world’.
PARC DE LA VILLETTE
Parc de la Villette
2nd stage runner up
This was considered even more radical than the winning proposal, with its 43 parallel strips covering the entire site, allowing visitors to traverse it in an infinite number of ways. The strips could change with time. The design has been immensely influential, cited by Landscape Urbanists even more often than Tschumi’s built scheme.
Set on the site of a former steelworks, Landschaftspark celebrated the social, cultural and heritage values of the existing structures, making them safe and keeping and reusing them wherever possible. Following on from Gas Works Park, this made the idea of retaining industrial and transport infrastructure mainstream, paving the way for projects like the High Line.
ZHONGSHAN SHIPYARD PARK
Designer Konglian Wu explained his ideas for keeping industrial heritage by showing images of Gas Works Park and Duisburg-Nord. The park, which was revolutionary for China, has led to similar schemes in the country. An ecological island and a flood-control channel help cope with fluctuating water levels. There is a Red Box for contemplating the Cultural Revolution, and green rooms for courting couples.
PARC DES BUTTES-CHAUMONT
Parc des Buttes-Chaumont
An impressive, early example of the recycling of industrial land, this dramatically conceived late-Romantic fusion of sublime and picturesque elements is on the reclaimed site of a former gypsum works. It belies its early history as a refuse dump and the site of a gallows, and was an innovator in the use of concrete and other new materials.
THE EMERALD NECKLACE
The Emerald Necklace
This chain of parks linked by parkways and waterways introduced the idea of the linear park or series of parks. It had an important environmental impact, both by linking habitats with wildlife corridors, and through remediation. Works to tackle sewage and drainage problems in Back Bay Fens improved public health.
The largest urban park created in the 20th Century, this ‘green wedge’ intended to provide recreational facilities for 6 million people, is set in an area of polders below sea level. It is functional in design, breaking with the picturesque tradition. Built during the depression of the 1930s, it was a giant jobcreation scheme.
GAS WORKS PARK
Gas Works Park
Parts of the Seattle Gas Light Company gasification plant were preserved for their historic and aesthetic importance. The park set a precedent for preservation of industrial structure, as well as pioneering bio-phy to-remediation techniques to ‘clean and green’ the water and ground. There is still some tar seepage, but it is easily removed.
New York City, USA
This re-use of an existing freight line on Manhattan’s West Side captured imaginations internationally, partly thanks to its position. Some rail tracks and ties have been maintained, and the planting is inspired by the selfseeded vegetation that existed previously. The linear park exists thanks to the energy of Friends of the High Line, who fought demolition and found funding.
GARDENS BY THE BAY
Gardens by the Bay
Bay South, Singapore
This combination of nature and technology, combining tropical planting with cooled biomes and giant ‘supertrees’ that host vertical gardens and incorporate services, has been designed to be spectacular by day and night. It is in the city centre, on remade land, adjacent to a bay that is being altered from saline to fresh water. It is one of a kind.
This has even exceeded the High Line in the attention it has attracted, playing a starring role in the Olympics with its vivid floral displays. A triumph of regeneration, and serious about biodiversity, it is intended to stimulate the regeneration of a section of London in legacy mode. The park reopens partially this summer, and fully next year.