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Tydskrif vir Geesteswetenskappe

On-line version ISSN 2224-7912
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GRUNDLINGH, Louis. "The great outdoor living room of the city": A survey essay on the thoughts and aims of urban park development in the late 19th and early 20th century in Europe and the United States of America. Tydskr. geesteswet. [online]. 2017, vol.57, n.2-2, pp.542-561. ISSN 2224-7912.

The city park was a constant in the ever-changing city and an effective antidote to the feverishness of city life. The current emphasis on the benefits of parks is understandable in the light of environmental issues such as, inter alia, earth warming threatening humankind's existence on the planet. By the 1970s, there was already a substantial canon of literature on urban parks. Since then, a new generation of urban environmental historians has emerged with new interests and approaches. It is therefore prudent to revisit the thinking and aims inherent in the early establishment of the urban parks of the late 19th and early 20th centuries in Britain and the United States of America. The aim of this paper is to explore both the views of middle and upper class urbanites in Britain and the USA on the mostly harsh living conditions in their cities, labelling them as "evil"; and the establishment of parks being seen as one solution to alleviate said conditions. The paper also focuses on how ideas on "nature", "progress", "health", "morals", "romanticism", "social control" and "middle class respectability" underpinned views on public parks as pristine rural environments that should be transferred to the city. Lastly, the way landscape designers echoed the ideas and aspirations of the middle class in the design of parks is considered. Rapid industrialisation and urbanisation led to a lack of connection between urban residents and previous rural/natural areas and their benefits. The perception was that this, in turn, contributed to the decline in moral and physical health and the eroding of culture. The rural environment was idealised and seen as inherently good and superior to city living. If transferred to the city, it could create an ideal urban environment. Fredrik Law Olmsted, the doyen of American parks, fully supported these views. By the turn of the 19th century, the permanence of the city was well established and perceived dichotomy between the urban and the rural resolved by a hybrid relationship. As England was the leader in die development of parks, it had a huge influence in the Western world with many countries tapping into English ideas on parks. However, from the 1850s there was thus a lively cross-fertilisation of ideas on the urgency of park development. The City Beautiful movement would have a significant influence on these dominant ideas on parks. The "problems" to which the provision of parks was expected to offer some relief, were easy to describe: ill-health, overcrowding and squalor. The reasons for addressing these problems were various. The breathing space parks could provide was seen as one solution to improve the health of those living in over-crowded conditions. During the middle to late 19th century the British government expressed concern about the lack of exercise amongst its citizens. Initially, the park was seen as the ideal urban space for contemplative recreation and an escape from the harsh city environment. However, by the turn of the 19thcentury park advocates called for active recreation. They believed that there was a connection between poverty amongst the working classes and a lack of fitness. Fundamental to this was the hope that exercise in the park could contribute to a more productive working class. By the 1930s parks as spaces for exercise were well established in Europe and the USA. This first era of park establishment in the Western world was heavily influenced by the interests of the city elite and middle class reformers. They viewed themselves as the keepers of respectability, "civility" and "civilization" and the driving force behind reform and progress. The target of "improvement" was the working-class and the ideal place the city parks. By "civilizing" the masses, there would be fewer encroachments on middle class sensibilities. Moral reformers claimed that the health-giving character of parks provided an alternative to "urban vices" by bringing the poor into visual contact with respectable bourgeoisie behaviour. In addition, parks offered strategic spaces to provide a safety valve for social upheaval. By controlling how, when and where parks were provided the middle class could supervise the working class in their non-work hours and attempt to control their behaviour. Consequently, urban parks became socially constructed spaces. Park design reflected the ambitions and beliefs of especially middle and upper class city dwellers. The vision was to introduce to the city spacious green spaces where city dwellers could delight in the beauty of nature, fresh air and healthy exercise. Generally, park designers demonstrated their conviction of the historical inevitability of the permanence of the city but also that city living could be pleasant. Tapping into the 18th century English landscape gardening movement landscape architects applied the same basic use of trees, grass and water, suitably modified for mass usage. The aim was to link green spaces to utilise the ecological value thereof and simultaneously create a work of art. The layouts were contrived with great insight into human needs and behaviour, fostering gentle promenading and inducing the park visitors to forget their mundane concerns. Later parks made provision for active recreation. The characteristics of the designs varied. On the one hand the romantic idea of a pristine wilderness prevailed while on the other hand pastoral parks were laid out. Mostly it was a combination of both. Olmsted and Vaux opted to contrast wilderness vistas with more subtle arrangements to express their vision of the "picturesque". Urban parks became the ideal location for the erection of scientific and cultural exhibitionary complexes, becoming the repositories for glasshouses, monuments, art galleries, museums and sculptures mostly commemorating conspicuous political and cultural people. Two further prominent characteristics were the military parade grounds and the elaborate entrance gates. Hence parks fulfilled an educational and ennobling function becoming an essential feature of the urban fabric. They grew into powerful symbols of civic pride, community spirit and expressions of civil identity. However, whilst parks contributed to the improvement of living conditions in the city, the realities of the city's manufacturing and trading character prevailed. Thus, it remained difficult to completely marry the agrarian deference for nature with the fundamental character of the city.

Keywords : Romanticism; nature; evil of the city; green spaces; health; overcrowding; middle class; respectability; morality; social control; relaxation; park design.

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