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  • Writer's pictureBruce Boyce

Parks and Recreation

Updated: May 15, 2022

"It is therefore good policy to provide a healthy and agreeable place of resort to secure the permanent benefits of pure air and exercise."

Liverpool Courier, 1842

As the Industrial Revolution began to take root both in England and the United States, there was a migration of labor from the countryside to the major urban centers. Industry owners, needing a settled workforce, established communities near their factories and workshops. In the second quarter of the 19th century, a group of industrialists in Liverpool, England, decided to create what they envisioned as a city of the future. They chose the small town of Birkenhead on the opposite side of the Mersey River from Liverpool as their community site. In the two decades from 1820 - 1840, the population of Birkenhead went from the hundreds to the tens of thousands. Like other areas in the same period, this sudden increase in population brought substandard living conditions. The Birkenhead Improvement Commission was created to address the problems that arose from such conditions. In 1841, it recommended that Birkenhead build a public park.

Roman Boathouse, Birkenhead Park

Parks were not a new concept. Many began life as parts of royal estates or the estates of wealthy individuals: Regent Park in London and Tuileries Gardens in Paris. Some evolved from common spaces used for grazing and public gatherings: Boston Commons in Boston and Bowling Green in New York City. During the 18th century, pleasure gardens appeared, Vauxhall Garden in London, for example, owned by individuals. These parks were for an exclusive group of people, but sometimes they would be open to the general public. Then there were the marketplaces, squares, and plazas found in almost any city. But the movement toward free open public urban space grew out of the philosophy of utilitarianism.

Ice Skating in Central Park, 1861

Some version of utilitarianism has existed since classical antiquity. Still, at the beginning of the 19th century, modern utilitarianism was developed by the notable English reformer and thinker Jeremy Benthem. At its core, utilitarianism focuses on maximizing utility. Utility is defined as the quality of well-being or happiness. People are ruled by two primary motivations: pain and pleasure. All actions are judged by the principle of whether they increase or diminish pleasure. Later utilitarian thinkers such as John Stuart Mill would argue that good actions directly lead to happiness and utility. They extended this from the individual to society as a whole. They advocated for the concept of social utility - the well-being of society. They believed that as individuals, we desire happiness, but we also desire happiness for everyone, thereby leading to greater social utility. We must perform actions that lead to the greatest pleasure of society as a whole, as Benthem phrased it - the greatest happiness of the greatest number.

Many early social reformers adopted this philosophy of social utility or well-being. These reformers recognized the problems associated with explosive and unchecked urban growth. We still equate these problems with urban living: poverty, overcrowding, ill-health, squalor, among others. Beyond the Utilitarians, even the newly established middle class felt actions needed to be taken. By the 1840s, there was a real fear of the uneducated working class. These people, recently removed from their subsistence living on farms, had not yet benefited from the civilizing effects of urban life. A rise in labor riots and the threat of revolution gave tangible expression to these anxieties. This compelled many to believe that it was the duty of the wealthy to educate the poor in order to guarantee the safety of the upper classes. From this mixture of self-interest and genuine concern for the lives of the working class, the idea of parks or open spaces became socially and politically desirable as a means of relieving some of the problems of newly industrialized cities.

Opening of Birkenhead Park 1847

Commons, public walkways, and other public spaces have always existed, but with specific areas like Birkenhead Park, we begin to see a trend where public parks become an intentional part of public policy. The Birkenhead Improvement Commission took advantage of an 1843 act of Parliament that allowed them to borrow funds to purchase land to create the park. They purchased over two hundred acres of marsh and pasture land on the western side of the town. The commission hired noted gardener and architect Joseph Paxton to design the park. Paxton was the head gardener at Chatsworth, the home of the Duke of Devonshire. He would later design the famed Crystal Palace for the 1851 Great Exhibition in London and cultivate the Cavendish Banana, now the most consumed banana globally.

Joseph Paxton

Paxton's vision was to create a place where people could escape and experience fresh air and exercise. It would be a place for relaxation, rest, and reflection away from the noise, grit, and grime of urban living. The park would be natural and informal, with lakes, bridges, and many varieties of flora to create different vistas to be enjoyed. A carriage drive would encircle the park boundaries, and adjacent properties would be sold for villas as a means of defraying the cost of constructing the park. Paxton, and other landscape architects who followed him, desired to bring the countryside into the city. But this wasn't the authentic countryside, wild and unkempt. The Romantic vision of the country influenced these designs. These were meant to be idealized pastorals. These were living landscape paintings expressing order and rationality, displaying beauty, and uplifting the spirit.

Edward Kemp, another landscape professional, was given the task of seeing Paxton's vision come to fruition. It took three years to complete the park, and on April 5, 1847, the park had its grand opening attended by nearly 10,000 people who gathered at the Grand Entrance, which was reminiscent of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. Kemp would be named park superintendent and remained so for forty years. In 1850, the park would be visited by another up-and-coming architect and influence the creation of another park across the Atlantic in New York City.

Frederick Law Olmstead

When Frederick Law Olmstead visited Birkenhead, he was immediately impressed by the town. Upon experiencing the park itself, Olmstead would later remark how "five minutes of admiration and a few more spent studying the manner in which art had been employed to obtain from nature so much beauty" impressed upon him the desire to do the same in the United States. He admired the skill, taste, and ingenuity behind the park's landscape. Olmstead felt strongly that America, the home of democracy, was ready for such a park, open to all regardless of class. He would not be the only one, albeit for varying other reasons, to feel this way. Yet even then, the idea of Central Park was a long way from being conceived.

The idea of Central Park was the result of many differing motivations. By the end of the 1840s, New York firmly established itself as a financial, industrial, and media capital. The burgeoning immigrant populations of mainly Irish and Germans created a widening gap between the wealthy and the poor. More and more, society in the city became more stratified. After a year of European revolutions in 1848, many feared similar upheavals in New York. Andrew Jackson Downing, a contemporary of Olmstead, feared that social classes in America no longer co-mingled with each other. He came to believe that New York needed a place devoid of social class and return to America's egalitarian roots. In this spirit, he proposed a massive People's Park. Like the Utilitarian reformers, Downing believed that the lower classes would be uplifted and influenced by this interaction with the elite and refined. He also argued that the park would address many public health concerns calling it the "lungs of the city."

The original Vaux and Olmstead Central Park design

Another group of park proponents reached a similar conclusion but had different reasons for supporting the concept of Central Park. Most of these were well-to-do merchants, businessmen, and financiers. Many spent the winter months participating in the European Grand Tour. They saw the contrast between New York's small plots of green space and the grand open spaces of European capitals like Hyde Park in London. A group of merchants decided that New York needed a great public park that was worthy of New York City's stature as a leading metropolis. Such a park would help advance the city's commercial interests, counter rival cities' attractiveness, offer a healthy retreat, and be a place where the more respectable members of society could promenade and roll about in their carriages far from the more crowded sections of Manhatten.

Central Parl c. 1900

The decision as to where the park would be located was influenced by a myriad of competing real-estate development concerns. Its central location at mid-island was chosen for the poor topography and cheap land that limited real-estate development but came at the cost of removing many immigrant and poor communities. The city held an open design contest of which Olmstead and his partner Calvert Vaux were the winners. Birkenhead Park greatly influenced the design with bridges, pathways, lakes, and a carriage drive that encircled the grounds. Today, Central Park is indelibly linked to the character and image of New York City.

Different philosophies and interests drove the need for public urban open space. But the goal remained essentially the same. It was to address the unprecedented challenges brought on by industrialization and the growth of urban centers in the 19th century.


Further Reading

The Park and the People: A History of Central Park: Roy Rosenzweig and Elizabeth Blackmar

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