written by:
illustrated by:
June 9, 2010
Originally published in Megacities

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.

an inroduction to city parks illustration

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.

101 boston commons illustration
The first parks weren’t clearly demarcated green spaces as we now know them but rather informal gathering places like public wells and market squares where people of all kinds mingled. With industrialization and the massive shift of population from farming to factory work, it became clear that cities needed to provide more formal opportunities to take in the fresh air and sunshine. European aristocrats, of course, had always enjoyed their palace gardens and hunting grounds. In 1625, Marie de Médicis, the widow of France’s murdered Henry IV, made the democratic gesture of opening her gardens at Luxembourg Palace to Parisian strollers—–at least, the better-dressed ones. The British royals followed suit a dozen years later at London’s Hyde Park. By then the colonial outpost of Boston boasted its Common, a grassy oasis that housed grazing animals and the local gallows.

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.

101 fountain illustration
Its popularity wasn’t lost on New York’s city fathers, who hired Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux to convert a swampy rectangle in the heart of Manhattan into Central Park. Olmsted, the father of American landscape architecture, was strongly influenced by Birkenhead’s picturesque vistas. He instructed engineers to shape rocky glens and glades of trees in a perfect simulation of the unspoiled countryside north of the city. By the time Central Park opened in 1859, every city in the United States wanted one.

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.

101 building illustration
Our notion of what constitutes a park has come full circle with designer Peter Latz’s transformation of August Thyssen’s blast furnace for a pig-iron plant in Duisburg-Nord, Germany, into a popular public garden. Latz’s design celebrates the furnace’s remains, which are pressed into new service as rock-climbing walls and planting beds. Other innovators are reclaiming urban crannies, from sidewalk medians to waterfront piers, for parkland. At this point, any scrap of land is viable as the next urban park.

Join the Discussion

Loading comments...

Latest Articles

senses smell products
The nose knows: Though fleeting and immaterial, scent is the lifeblood of Proustian memories, both evoking and imprinting visceral associations.
February 06, 2016
design icon josef frank villa beer vienna
Josef Frank: Against Design, which runs through April 2016 at Vienna’s Austrian Museum of Applied Arts/Contemporary Art, is a comprehensive study of the prolific architect, designer, and author.
February 06, 2016
senses sound products
From an alarm to a symphony, audio frequencies hold the power to elicit an emotional call-and-response.
February 06, 2016
Italian Apline home with double-height walls on one facade.
Every week, we highlight one amazing Dwell home that went viral on Pinterest. Follow Dwell's Pinterest account for more daily design inspiration.
February 05, 2016
A built-in sofa with Design Tex upholstery marks the boundary between the two-level addition and the bungalow. Leading up to the master bedroom, a perforated metal staircase, lit from above, casts a Sigmar Polke–like shadow grid on the concrete floor.
From a minimalist Walter Gropius design to a curving sculptural stair, these six stairways run the gamut.
February 05, 2016
distant structure lakeside prefab norway facade stones green roof
Dwell has traveled all over the world, from Tasmania to Indonesia, to report on modern houses.
February 05, 2016
modern lycabettus penthouse apartment master bedroom atrium
Get ready for a weekend of rest with these sleepy, little cocoons.
February 05, 2016
lamp show 99 cent plus gallery 0
At Brooklyn's 99¢ Plus gallery, 30 artists and designers re-imagine the lamp in an illuminating light show.
February 04, 2016
Hidden storage stairwell with raw brass hardware
Having ample space to stow items is a daily struggle—peep these modern homes for some ideas on maximizing your square footage.
February 04, 2016
modern fairhaven beach house blackbutt eucalyptus living room Patricia Urquiola sofa
Whether it's along a coast in Australia or the French Alps, wood provides a natural touch in these interiors.
February 04, 2016
Glass and steel sculpture in Printemps store of Paris.
In the Paris' venerable Printemps department store, two Toronto-based firms were tasked with enlivening a new atrium and creating a unique experience for visitors. YabuPushelberg, partnering with UUfie, designed this stunning steel "sail" embedded with vibrant dichroic glass.
February 04, 2016
Monochromatic Master Bedroom in Copenhagen Townhouse
Whether it's to maximize limited light or create a soothing interior, these five projects go white in a big way.
February 04, 2016
EQ3 Assembly quilt by Kenneth LaVallee
The new Assembly collection from EQ3 celebrates up-and-coming figures in Canadian design. Discover this newly appointed class, which debuted at Toronto's Interior Design Show, here.
February 03, 2016
The Greenhouses of Half Moon Bay
Each week, we tap into Dwell's Instagram community to bring you the most viral design and architecture shots of the week.
February 03, 2016
Deck of Australian addition to Edwardian home.
A 1,500-square-foot home in Melbourne welcomes a modern black and white kitchen, dining, and living area.
February 03, 2016
open plan concrete home in japan
Embracing the organic, imperfect material, these raw concrete surfaces are a step up from exposed brick.
February 03, 2016
Renovated DC Row House loft space with Arne Jacobsen Egg Chair.
The classic designer's signature and comfortable forms continue to be popular in homes today.
February 03, 2016
Zinc-roofed cabin France.
An architect builds an energy-efficient home near one of France’s most popular pilgrimage sites.
February 03, 2016
1973 Palm Springs home
Made for casual design enthusiasts and Palm Springs connoisseurs alike, Unseen Midcentury Desert Modern offers a peek into 51 buildings—some not open to the public—in that Southern California mecca of modernism. Begun in 2008 by photographer Dan Chavkin, the book is set for release this February 9th and will be available on Amazon and at multiple venues of Modernism Week in Palm Springs, February 11 - 21. Here we preview some of its images.
February 03, 2016
Millennial concept home with an outdoor living area
A concept home aims to reflect the requests of the Millennial market.
February 03, 2016
The two twelve-by-sixteen-foot bedrooms, directly above a comparable pair on the first floor, feature a glass transom that follows the pitch of the roof. “The stair and railings were very simple,” Depardon observes. “We added a bit of design, with panels
Skylights needn't be simple overhead daylighting; sometimes they can truly define a room.
February 03, 2016
Modern small space Rhode Island cottage with landscaping and cedar cladding
Surrounded by nature, these cottages are tranquil retreats from the city.
February 03, 2016
The couple kept original touches, including the arch.
Historic archways belie these contemporary homes with physical reminders of each structure's storied past.
February 03, 2016
modern guesthouse in norway with angular facade and cutaway patio with spruce cladding and ikea chair
These houses make room for nature, not the other way around.
February 02, 2016
Modern kitchen with yellow sectioned walls and monochrome appliances
Whether it's a splash of color or bold strokes, this collection of interiors brightens up these homes.
February 02, 2016
Rust-washed concrete wall in Moscow apartment renovation.
This 590-square-foot apartment was stripped down to admit sunlight and dramatically reveal forgotten surfaces.
February 02, 2016
Nendo's collection of objects inspired by Star Wars
In a galaxy not so far away, Japanese studio Nendo has released a versatile collection of objects inspired by classic Star Wars characters.
February 02, 2016
Monti catered to his mother’s love of cooking by giving her ample storage areas along the 70-foot long walnut wall-slash-cabinet. The refrigerator, kitchen items and other goods easily disappear into the wall when not in use. The nonporous, stain-, scratc
Sometimes the earthy colors and vivid grain of a wood like walnut is all you need to make a space.
February 02, 2016
renovated modern home in Austin interior kitchen
From California to Connecticut, these midcentury interiors still shine through thanks to the careful attention of architects and residents alike.
February 02, 2016
Outdoor dining area at a Saigon home.
A city home honors the local culture with communal outdoor space and reclaimed materials.
February 02, 2016