No matter what your feelings or reasons are on visiting public parks or botanical gardens, they accomplish many things in cities. Some are for recreation and exercise and others just the visual beauty for the visitors. But they do so much more…
What they do for cities and towns is act to define the design and feel of a place and its neighborhoods. They help residents to feel better about where they live and are a means to urban revitalization. They act as an area of respite where the hustle of the city can be unrelenting.
The power of parks is quite evident when they become an area for walking, resting and meeting to help centralize commercial areas. They help to turn around neighborhoods in disrepair.
Not to get too urban planning on you or dip too deep into my professional life, but urban planners are increasingly concerned about declining levels of physical and psychological health of city dwellers. City gardens have a long history too. While I try to stay miles away from my profession as an architect, I will share some of the history of public gardens as a background.
In the UK, community gardens were in existence dating back as far 100 BC. I believe some very old gardens are still in use today. In the early 1600’s, the manorial common lands were removed from public use and the town folk were then compensated with allotments of land attached to tenant cottages. By 1908, the Allotment Act of Parliament was established to meet the community demand for gardens.
Meanwhile in the USA, a program for allotment gardens began in the late 1890’s. This was in response to the economic depression of the times. Shortly thereafter, gardens in schools became part of educational reform. As a result of the reform, by 1910 there were thousands and thousands of such gardens across the USA where academic requirements were conjoined with practical experience. This was all about food production to meet the needs of the people, but these gardens also in many cases were adorned with flowers. Some to ward off insects from the food crops, but pretty none the less.
So what about floral gardens and wide open green space? As you guessed, parks became more ornamental in the US with the work of Frederick Law Olmsted.
Base of Niagara Falls shown in three seasons. State Parks are where something can be learned, like what is talus rock and that the Falls moves back a bit less than 1 foot every year due to erosion.
The Niagara Appropriations Bill was signed into law in 1885, bringing about possibly the most important event in Niagara Falls’ history. The leader of the Free Niagara movement, the 1860’s band of early environmentalists, was none other than, Frederick Law Olmsted, best known for designing New York City’s Central Park. Niagara Falls State Park was the first State Park in the nation designed by America’s first and most famous landscape architect.
In 1857 Olmsted designed Central Park. In a city the size of NYC, he was quite cognizant of the importance of a beautiful park to the health and well-being of city dwellers. I won’t get into the history of the park’s decline and subsequent revitalization, but the outcome is what is important.
Not only tourists visit, but when workers leave their offices they find themselves surrounded with urban green space. The changing of the seasons, trees of great size, birds singing, bees buzzing, ducks paddling, something happens all the time. People become responsive and positive. So much so that wildlife depend more and more on human dominated landscapes for their continued existence. Parks encourage visitors to be more sensitive to nature in their own backyards and see that biodiversity is for our own well-being.
If statistics are accurate, our nation has turned quite a bit of land use to something other than use for wildlife. Nowhere was there a recent consensus of land use percentages, but in 2002 forests in the US amounted to 28.8%; grasslands and pastures, 25.9%; crops, 19.5%; parks and wildlife reserves, 13.1%; urban use, 2.6%; other uses, 10.1%. (source)
I think people need to realize just how important public spaces have become for wildlife in addition to the people they serve.
So what else do parks do, much of which goes unnoticed? From a designer’s perspective on what they do in communities, they:
- Soften public space surrounded by hard surfaces.
- They mitigate the ravages of wind.
- They aid in improving the air we breathe.
- They establish a connection back to nature.
- They help cool the urban environment (tree transpiration and shade).
- They allow water to drain, increasing pervious surfaces, allowing groundwater recharge.
- They improve mood and health.
- They create an arena for stewardship, providing a sense of community.
- They beautify the area, increasing feelings of safety and community pride. In response, property values increase.
- They provide a “hands-on” learning opportunity of the natural world.
- They inspire gardeners to learn about plants and use the planting ideas of professional designers. I will have a post on that later this year.
Just so you know, there is National Public Gardens Day this year on May 8th, maybe it is time you visit your state park or botanical gardens. Yes, they cost a fee, but you probably won’t be having a better day of carefree relaxation. Public Gardens Matter.
To continue my series…Why Gardening depends on our nurseries. They matter too.