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date: 26 March 2023

Parks in Urban Americalocked

Parks in Urban Americalocked

  • David SchuylerDavid SchuylerDepartment of American Studies, Franklin and Marshall College


The creation and evolution of urban parks is in some ways a familiar story, especially given the attention that Frederick Law Olmsted’s work has commanded since the early 1970s. Following the success of Central Park, cities across the United States began building parks to meet the recreational needs of residents, and during the second half of the 19th century, Olmsted and his partners designed major parks or park systems in thirty cities. Yet, even that story is incomplete. To be sure, Olmsted believed that every city should have a large rural park as an alternative to the density of building and crowding of the modern metropolis, a place to provide for an “unbending of the faculties,” a process of recuperation from the stresses and strains of urban life. But, even in the mid-1860s he sought to create alternative spaces for other types of recreation. Olmsted and his partner Calvert Vaux successfully persuaded the Prospect Park commission, in Brooklyn, New York, to acquire land for a parade ground south of the park as a place for military musters and athletics; moreover, in 1868 they prepared a plan for a park system in Buffalo, New York, that consisted of three parks, linked by parkways, that served different functions and provided for different forms of recreation. As the decades progressed, Olmsted became a champion of parks designed for active recreation; gymnasiums for women as well as men, especially in working-class areas of cities; and playgrounds for small children. He did so in part to relieve pressure on the large landscape parks to accommodate uses he believed would be inappropriate, but also because he recognized the legitimate demands for new forms of recreation. In later years, other park designers and administrators would similarly add facilities for active recreation, though sometimes in ways that compromised what Olmsted considered the primary purpose of a public park. Urban parks are, in important ways, a microcosm of the nation’s cities. Battles over location, financing, political patronage, and use have been a constant. Through it all, parks have evolved to meet the changing recreational needs of residents. And, as dominant a figure as Olmsted has been, this is a story that antedates his professional career and that includes the many voices that have shaped public parks in U.S. cities in the 20th century.


  • Urban History
  • Environmental History

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