An Introduction to City Parks
An afternoon in the park has evolved from picnicking in the local cemetery to sun-bathing atop a retrofitted railroad trestle. Philadelphia Inquirer architecture critic Inga Saffron walks us through the best, worst, and future of city parks.
We’ve come a long way since our early ancestors roamed the primeval woodlands and grassy savannahs, but the need for open space is still hardwired into our very beings. No matter how tightly we pack ourselves into our modern cities, we can’t help yearning for a little patch of green. Parks are simply the human part of nature.
Birkenhead Park, across the River Mersey from Liverpool, is widely regarded as the first publicly funded park, and its opening in 1847 was a direct attempt to improve the well-being of local workers. Across the pond, U.S. cities had long set aside land for public use. William Penn marked off five public squares in Philadelphia’s 1682 street grid, four of which were later landscaped as parks. Still, for many 19th-century urbanites, a Sunday outing meant a picnic in one of the ele-gant new cemeteries on the outskirts of America’s cities. The desire to spend a few hours in a sylvan landscape was so intense that by 1860, Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery was hosting half a million visitors a year.
Perhaps because New York remains the most populated city in the country, it has continued to pioneer new kinds of parks. In the 1930s and ‘40s, park commissioner Robert Moses scattered pocket parks and playgrounds around New York; recently, the city has remade both an old elevated railroad called the High Line and a busy stretch of Broadway into rather lovely refuges from the urban bustle.