How City parks compromise urbanism and nature



Every common working citizen in our nation has a set routine they go through every day, Monday through Friday.  Usually in involves getting up around 5:00-8:00 a.m. every morning, fighting the same traffic every morning on the way to work, working for eight hours on basically the same job over and over again, gaining more and more stress as the day goes on, in turn building our stress levels.  Then we clock out, go home and try not to let the miserable day we had at work get us down.  We need a balance, or harmony in our lives to keep us going back to work every day and putting up with the life of the city.  I believe we need a downtime, or just a time to relax and think.  We have places in our communities such as museums, cinemas, health clubs, libraries, etc. to help us achieve that balance.   Unfortunately, these places are themselves in and among the big buildings and busy city.  We need a place for us to be able to just step out of character, so to speak, and look at where our life is going.  I believe the places that provide us with the essential balance in our lives is city parks.

The effects of the Industrial Revolution

Ever since the Industrial Revolution, our cities have become a huge collection of large buildings, even bigger factories, and of course the millions of people packed into these factories and buildings.  Large American cities have just become an enormous disgusting ball of stress, metal and concrete.   Our cities needed parks for, if nothing else, just simply scenery diversity and urban beauty.  The parks break up the buildings and provide the city with a healthy, balanced, and cultivated look.  Beyond the purpose of landscaping art, city parks contradict our hectic work lives with a peaceful, beautiful, and natural appeal.


City parks are also an example of a compromising relationship between urbanism and nature.  Since the beginning of European settlements here in America, its citizens have had an agrarian orientation.  This agrarian mindset led Americans to believe that their task was to develop a way of life in harmony with nature.  This American agrarian believed that a life lived close to nature was a wholesome life, but he insisted that nature we lived with be well mannered and civilized.  The agrarian’s love of nature was not in a wilderness forest or nature in the raw, it was in a man-controlled nature.  In fact, the wilderness even consisted a moral and physical wasteland.  I believe this, in some sense, still holds true for many Americans.  We want our presents felt in any situation, especially if it shows power over something, such as nature.


This middle state between the primitive and the urban was used as many 19th. Century author’s utopia.  Such utopists writers such as Daniel Bond, Leo Marx, and Albert Merrill’s described their utopia as a landscaped, garden-like America.  They wrote about lusous pastoral landscapes, beautiful farms, and even two hundred foot wide roads with fountains and gardens in the middle.  This idea of a cultivated nature was the popular idea of a modern utopia.  On the other hand authors such as Thoreau, Emerson, and William Wordsworth loved the natural wilderness.  It was an escape from the menacing cruelty and greed found in the city.  I believe the modern day inner city park’s purpose is somewhere between thses two viewpoints.


I believe city parks provide citizens with a feeling of escape and seclusion.  In many of our city parks, you can find a place to sit down and look around you, seeing no sign of tall buildings or busy streets.  Also, many parks are designed with a view of the city, overlooking from a hill or just a view down a city street.  Both views give us a sense of escape, either by totally removing the city or by letting us step back and take a good look at our home towns.  I also see the cultivated side of our city parks.  Sure, our parks are designed to look like a picturesque natural setting, but the key word is designed. Let’s face it, they are basically large gardens.  Many citizens don’t want true nature, for reasons discussed earlier.  The wilderness is too far away, it’s full of annoying bugs, deadly animals, it’s unpredictable, and worst of all, uncontrolled.  Our natural fear of the unknown kicks in and we become scared of the dark and yearn for the comfort of our well lit and half paved city park.


This strong critique of city parks stems from my extreme love of the wilderness.  I wish our early European-American forefathers had more of a love and respect for nature, much like the Native American’s poetical love for the land.  Native Americans saw nature as more of a life provider instead of the exploitive and controlled view that the Europeans had.  But I am a strong supporter of our city parks for reasons already discussed.  I believe they are a crucial part of our everyday lives.  Even if you are just driving through the parks on your way home, you still get a chance to relax a little, drive a bit slower and look at all of the people who are out enjoying all of the parks assets.


Throughout my life I have been fortunate enough to be able to travel quite frequently.  My father is an avid traveler, which makes it easy for me to just tag along.  I’ve beenall over the globe and to many of our cities in the U.S., such larger cities as Boston, New York, San Diego, San Fransisco, Los Angeles, Denver, Detroit, Seatle, Washington D.C., Atlanta, New Orleans, Dallas, Houston, etc. I’ve been able to see most of their city parks and I would have to honestly say that our very own Cherokee Park is still one of my favorites. I’m sure a little local pride goes into making that decision, but that shouldn’t take anything away from the beauty of Cherokee Park.


Fredrick Law Olmsted designed and built Cherokee Park in 1891.  It was part of a three park system, Cherokee in the east, Irquois in the south and Shawnee in the west.  Cherokee Park was 409.3 acres and cost $116,000 to purchase.  Olmstead designing methods were focused on harmony between architecture and the environment.  Cherokee park was known for its old, beautiful trees. “Oh, if we had such trees, Boston would be famous.” -Olmstead.


Olmsted’s goal behind his work was to attempt to improve American society. He had visions of spacious recreational and cultural accomplishments in the hearts of cities. He didn’t see his works as open fields with a few trees and shrubs, giving the city just a void of space, instead he saw city parks as places of harmony; places where people would go to escape life and regain their sanity.  He also was a strong believer in equality, he wanted his parks to be available to everyone no matter what walk of life you were.


Olmsted saw his profession as a way to bring a community together, a feeling of communitiveness.  By designing parks for a wide range of recreational needs, he in turn helped to shape our cities.  Olmsted created a sense of shared togetherness through his dedication to our community


Olmsted’s expectations were high for his design’s psychology and visual effects on people. He thought that the perfect remedy to the stress, grime, and crowdedness of urban life was a nice walk through a pastoral park. He foresaw places with graceful undulating greensward and scattered growths of trees. He believed and promoted the idea that an environment of graceful greensward, rolling landscapes, and scattered tree and vegetation growth would promote a sense of tranquility. Olmsted created a setting of placid beauty and calmness derived from his variety of landscape themes and varied uses.


Separation and subordination were applied by Olmsted more clearly than any other landscape architect of his era. Subordination was achieved in his parks where carefully constructed walks and paths would flow through the landscape with gentle grades and easy curves, thus requiring the viewer’s minimal attention to the process of movement. Also, many of the structures that Olmsted incorporated into his parks would merge with their surroundings forming a views that were complete and spacious.  Olmsted accomplished separation in his park systems by designing smaller recreational areas for other activities and where “park ways” handle the movement of pedestrians and vehicular traffic offset these large parks.  And on the other hand he designed larger parks for the enjoyment of the scenery.


Olmsted drew upon the influences of natural scenery throughout America. Social structure and value system of his native region were also used as Olomsted;s influences in his designs.  Andrew Jackson Downing, (1815-1852) who was probably the greatest promoter of the “modern method of building, “which was basically rural improvement. Olmsted used his influences the most to blend the city and the rural together.


Olmsted thought the picturesque, rural landscape contrasted with and offset the constricting and unhealthful conditions of the overcrowded urban environment and served to strengthen the society by providing a place where all classes could mingle in contemplation and enjoyment of the pastoral experience. Olmsted sometimes referred to his designs as “pleasure grounds”, and he wanted them separated completely from the intrusions of daily life by screening them with thick plantings along their borders, separating and excluding commercial traffic, and discouraging all usage of the grounds which were not in harmony with this goal. Olmsted wanted his parks to be as close to the main population as possible, so it can be available to as many people as possible.


Louisville’s Olmsted Parks and Parkways are considered some of his best works.  Olmsted was invited to Louisville in 1891 to help develop a park system. Olmsted was famous for his designs of Central Park in New York City, the Biltmore Estate and the U.S. Capital Grounds. Like I mentioned earlier, his idea was to create a system of parkways and three major parks – Iroquois, Shawnee, and Cherokee.  Each park would anchor a region of the city, with the parkways extending throughout the park and benefits of green space.


Coming out of the Industrial Revolution and extremely population growth due to the river port, Louisville was extremely excited to receive these parks.  Once built, our park system was considered the ultimate park system of Olmsted’s career, Louisville’s system is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. An Olmsted scholar Dr. Charles E. Beveridge considers the Willow Avenue entrance into Cherokee Park to be the most beautiful park entrance of Olmsted’s career.


Olmsted’s presents was felt all over our city, with over one hundred and fifty projects just in Louisville.  These projects were done by the Olmsted firm, which included his sons Fredrick Jr. and John Charles.  The projects included eighteen parks, six parkways, the Brown-Forman and University of Louisville campuses and garden courts, and several projects in Bernhiem Forest


Cherokee Park was beautiful, the citizens of Louisville were quite pleased with the outcome.  The tall, ols, thick trees gave Cherokee Park its look.  The trees provided privacy from the city and gave the park a genuine beauty.  Unfortunately all of that would change on April 3, 1974.  A tornado ravaged through Louisville causing millions of dollars of damage and destroying Cherokee Park.  The trees that made the park famous were now lying dead on the ground.  Citizens said you couldn’t even recognize it.  “The park looked as if it had been bulldozed”-Richard Vollmer, citizen of Louisville and resident near the park since 1921- present day. “The Tornado destroyed years of old beauty, it will take at least another century to rebuilt it”


Perhaps more than any other person, Frederick Law Olmsted (1822-1903) affected the way America looks. He is best known as the creator of major urban parks, but across the nation, from the green spaces that help define our towns and cities, to suburban life, to protected wilderness areas, he left the imprint of his fertile mind and boundless energy. Out of his deep love for the land and his social commitment he fathered the profession of landscape architecture in America. Olmsted’s unique contributions stemmed in part from the conjunction of strongly felt personal values and the needs of a young nation. America was experiencing unprecedented growth in the mid-19th century, making the transition from a rural people to a complex urban society. City life became more stressful as the crowds grew, the pace quickened, and the countryside was pushed into the distance. Olmsted and others saw the need for preserving green and open spaces where people could escape city pressures, places that nourished body and spirit. His intuitive understanding of the historical changes he was living through and his rare combination of idealism, artistry, intelligence, and practical knowledge enabled him to help soften the shocks of industrialization. Unable to separate his love and respect for the land from his belief in democracy, Olmsted saw parks as bastions of the democratic ideals of community and equality. He confronted a period of rapid mechanization and unabashed materialism with a natural sensibility and the old Jeffersonian virtues of restraint and rural simplicity, values still represented in his parks. Olmsted was a true Renaissance manwho’s many interests and ceaseless flow of ideas led him into experimental farming, writing and publishing, public health administration, preservation, and urban and regional planning. With other reformers, he pushed for protection of the Yosemite Valley. His 1864 report on the park was the first systematic justification for public protection of natural areas, emphasizing the duty of a democratic society to ensure that the “body of the people” have access to natural beauty.


In what he created and what he preserved for the future, Olmsted’s legacy is incalculable. The informal natural setting he made popular characterizes the American landscape. Beyond the dozens of city and state parks enjoyed by millions of people, Olmsted and his firm set the standard for hospital and institutional grounds, campuses, zoos, railway stations, parkways, private estates, and residential subdivisions across the country. Olmsted’s principles of democratic expansion and public access still guide and inspire urban planners. From the broadest concepts to the smallest details of his profession, the sign of Olmsted’s hand is everywhere in our lives. Although Olmsted had no formal design training, he displayed a genius for creating landscapes both practical and beautiful. Ordinary, even desolate, spaces were often transformed into lush wildernesses and meadows complete with lakes, rustic furnishings and an intricate system of paths and drives. All this was accomplished under Olmsted’s direction with such skill and respect for nature that the viewer was frequently unaware of the metamorphosis which had taken place or of the idea behind the design.


Olmsted moved to Fairsted, his Brookline estate, in 1883 at the height of a long and active career. He was 60 years old and eager to settle with wife and children into his first permanent home. The surrounding neighborhood had once been described as “a kind of landscape garden.” At Fairsted, Olmsted was able to carve out a small piece of that garden, perfecting those design principles and ideas for which he had become famous. Nearly 200 different varieties of trees, shrubs and ground covers were planted on the grounds of Fairsted in order to create areas distinct in style and scenery. In 1886, a Chicago journalist took note of the property “In no Portion of the grounds is there any display of magnificence. Every shaded walk and every rocky nook shows but a careful oversight of nature’s own simple ways. It is a bit of nature’s magnificence, and human hands by seeking to embellish it with hothouse plants and marble figures and fountains of bronze cannot improve it.”


Fairstead promised the “ideal suburban lifestyle,” combining the social and cultural advantages of the city with the restful and peaceful qualities of the country. The landscape has changed since Olmsted’s death in 1903 and is today being restored by the National Park Service to most closely reflect the late 1920’s-a period with adequate documentation and one that marks the peak of the Olmsted design work. Dense planting of trees and an irregular “wave” of shrubs border the lawn at Fairsted, lending privacy to the setting while suggesting mystery and depth within. Spaciousness, another of Olmsted’s design principles, is achieved by using various shadings of green, indefinite boundaries, and a delicate interplay of light and color. A single elm, or clump of elms, was often planted on an Olmsted meadow landscape – a personal signature of the designer. It is easy to imagine Olmsted and his family admiring the shape and majesty of the Fairsted ELM from within the pleasant confines of their CONSERVATORY or “out-of-door apartment.” This spectacular tree is a focal point for the contemplation of scenery yet does not draw attention from the landscape as a whole – something which might be true of a manmade monument.


Olmsted’s true genius can be found in both his artistic skill and his ability to touch the heart and mind of the viewer. In describing his own response to beautiful scenery, Olmsted wrote: “gradually and silently, the charm overcomes us; we know not exactly where or how.’


The landscape of Fairsted, like the many others created by Olmsted, is a special place in which to observe, escape, unwind, and imagine.






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