The future of urban parks in Europe; the role of landscape architecture in design and research

1. Design of parks and urban landscapes


(From previous issue No.33)

This article is based on a presentation at a conference held in Budapest in 2013. It is part of a series of three articles that gives a broad overview of the design of urban public parks in a European context. This is the first in the series and focuses on design and research of parks and urban landscapes.
We start with a short historical overview of urban park development. It sketches a development of gardens and parks as green elements towards the concept of park systems and eventually the creation of urban landscapes.
In the second part the actual situation of the urban park is elaborated. This done by taking closer look at an approach basic for landscape architecture; the distinction between different levels of intervention and their design means. Two design approaches specifically for urban park design are further elaborated; urban & suburban, existing & newly designed parks.
In the last part the focus is on the relation between design and research.
The future and further development of landscape architecture as an academic discipline is predominantly based on research. The great amount of plans that have been made in the past can function as a research base for developing design knowledge which can be developed by systematic analysis of realised plans, nowadays called precedent analysis.



This study is limited to Europe, not because outside Europe there are no interesting cases or developments on urban parks but because the subject is so vast that we have limited it to planning and design of urban parks in Europe. So far we have not found many publications relating to this subject. A second limitation is that here we focus on urban parks, so the large regional parks outside the cities are not taken into account.

Terminology and definition

'Urban park' is not a univocal entity and is defined by several authors; we select just a few to give an idea. Baljon, in his study on an analysis of park designs for La Villette, states: Parks are planted places in which vegetation, earth, water, and constructions are cultivated in such a way through composition that they acquire a meaning beyond the significance of the single plant. Through cultivation a variety of images of nature can be created. Hargreaves in a study on 'large parks' defines them as larger than 500 acres (202 ha). Even though Városliget (Budapest) is smaller (less than 100 ha), for Europe it is a large park. Konijnendijk et al. define 'urban park' as: "(…) delineated open space areas, mostly dominated by vegetation and water, and generally reserved for public use". Urban parks are mostly larger, but can also have the shape of smaller ‘pocket parks’. Urban parks are usually locally defined (by authorities) as ‘parks’. This last one fits best in the concept of 'urban park' that we deal with in this article.

From individual parks to urban landscapes

History of the urban park

Tobey, in his study on the history of landscape architecture, states about the evidence of man-made parks in Assyria around 700 b Chr., devoted to the kingly sports of hunting and riding and to the development of war skills with the bow and javelin. Urban parks and open spaces have been part of cities in the Roman times, albeit with different functions; parks have been made for domestic use, for pleasure, exercise, hunting, the arts and for celebration of the owners or ruler's status. ‘Urban parks’ in general is a vast domain of practice and study in landscape architecture. Chadwick first of all distinguishes between three different types of green spaces in the city; the public garden, the park and the public walk. Although the general idea is the same, the providing of open and green space in the city, each refers to a specific type of use. Even though he considers the main development of public parks taking place from the 18th century on, with the emergence of the industrial revolution, he mentions three different origins for the phenomenon of the public park.
First there are the public gardens in the Roman cities and even earlier elsewhere. Secondly the botanical gardens basically as transformations of herb and medical gardens in the monasteries and starting to develop since the Middle Ages. These botanical gardens gradually developed with the rise of the first universities but have always been public. As third origin he mentions the former private parks that were opened to the public starting in the 18th century. In London this is done by opening up the Royal Parks, St. James Park, Green Park, Hyde Park, for the public already in 1635 and transforming them for public use. In Paris the major public parks were created by Alphand much later, although the Jardin des Tuileries was opened to the public before.

Parks, park systems and urban landscapes

A park system or a system of open space is a network of green and open spaces (urban parks, cemeteries, botanical gardens, rivers, waterways, boulevards) which are connected by public walkways, cycle tracks, bridleways or other open spaces. From the 19th century on the concept of 'park systems' emerged first in London, later in Paris. A classic example is the first park system in London made up by some of the Royal Parks that had been opened for public use by the 'Crown Lands Act' of 1851. London as a city grew rapidly during the 19th century and the Royal Parks got surrounded by urban developments. The parks were — and still are — so close to each other that they formed an almost uninterrupted stretch of green space from Kensington to Whitehall. Already at that time there was a proposal to integrate the river Colne into this system by John Martin. In Abercrombie's County of London Plan of 1943 for the reconstruction and development of London, a major proposal for a park system was proposed. The open space proposals in the 1943 London plans constitute one of the most interesting open space plans ever prepared for a capital city. They were written as the bombs dropped on London, apparently creating opportunities for new open spaces. Abercrombie’s open space plan modified the dominant ideas of a 1929 plan and linked them to a visionary planning concept of the highest order: the creation of a coordinated park system for the region of Greater London. Abercrombie defined the connecting links in the system as ‘parkways’ and placed them in seven categories: linear strips of open space; riverside walks; footpaths through farmland; bridle tracks and green lanes; bicycle tracks; motor parkways; express arterial roads. The last two categories are now surprising. They date from the time when driving a horseless carriage through a park or along a treelined street was a recreational activity.

London, the proposal for a park system by Abercrombie in 1943

London, the proposal for a park system by Abercrombie in 1943

The green belt proposals in the Greater London Plan 1944 made a distinction between a ‘Green Belt Ring’ (about eight kilometres deep) and an ‘Outer Country Ring’. Recreation was intended to be the predominant use in the former, and agriculture in the latter. In these zones the construction of new buildings was restricted. Control of building development became possible with the passage of the Town and Country Planning Act 1947. Ambercrombie's plan was not fully realised but the most developed parkway was for the Lee Valley in North East London. A special Act of Parliament in 1968 gave powers for the creation of the Lee Valley Regional Park Authority. It continues to levy a tax on all Londoners, despite the fact that almost all the Park's visitors are from the local area.
In France the concept of park systems was developed by Forestier. In his study, he considers the city as an urban landscape and a system of parks as an urban green structure. He realised park systems outside France. In Paris the park system was first realised by Alphand as a complement to the works of Haussmann which were first of all concerned with enabling new and better modes of mobility and transport in the city. The system of green spaces was developed on the basis of the idea of making the city more liveable for the citizens; providing fresh air, open space and green space as complement to the built environment.

Park systems in other European cities

Copenhagen is a green city with a wide variety and large surface of open spaces. It has an extensive and welldistributed system of parks for public use and that act as venues for a wide array of events and urban life. Next to parks there are a number of public gardens, open spaces and some cemeteries doubling as parks. It is official municipal policy in Copenhagen that all citizens by 2015 must be able to reach a park or beach on foot in less than 15 minutes. The system of greenways enables the creation of a network of bicycle routes for the entire city. These networks will stretch out a system of bicycle tracks of 100 kilometres. We see here two important aspects of park systems; a diversity of uses and a more or less equal dispersion in the urban landscape as a whole.
In modern landscape architecture, the park system concept has evolved into the concept of networks of green space (greenways), blue space (water courses, blue ways) extending the concept also outside the built up area especially in the United States. The city of Rotterdam has launched a new 'Waterplan'; this ‘Waterplan 2 Rotterdam’ outlines how the municipality of Rotterdam and the water boards want to deal with the city’s water in the period ahead. The core of the plan is the creation of a city with a strong economy and an attractive place to live. Water is an important aspect of an attractive city, certainly one that profiles itself as ‘water city’ and is located on the banks of a river, close to the sea.

Waterplan 2 for Rotterdam; main projects on both the left and the right bank and the river Maas as third part of the watershed

Waterplan 2 for Rotterdam;
Main projects on both the left and the right bank and the river Maas as third part of the watershed

There are three crucial developments for the period ahead.
• Protection: Rotterdam needs to be protected against flooding, both inside and outside the dykes. All quays and dykes which are not yet high enough, according to the current standards, will be reinforced in the coming years.
• Clean water: ‘Clear and plant-rich water’ is the general objective for water in Rotterdam. One way of working on cleaner water is changing the sewer system. In practice, rainwater usually drains away via the sewers. The increasing rainfall is leading to problems with the existing sewer system. One possible way of avoiding these problems is to collect the rainwater and allow it to drain away in a system other than the sewers.
• Attractive city: This is perhaps the most important decision: how can the city be made even more attractive as a place to live, work, study and spend leisure time, and can the water problems be solved at the same time? Innovations such as green roofs, ‘water squares’, alternative forms of water storage and the like are therefore essential for the further development of the city.
The plans for Rotterdam Water City 2030 consist of enhancing existing qualities and responding cleverly to new developments in three main areas of the city; the river city (parts of land that are directly influenced by the river), the right bank and the left bank. These three parts correspond with the three main watersheds, so water systems and urban green structure are providing a new foundation for urban planning. The plan follows the European Water Framework Directive (Directive, 2000) which is based on the watershed management approach. What is remarkable in the context of park systems is that in Rotterdam the urban green structure is not only based on green and open spaces but also on the water system which is completely integrated into the park system.

/read the rest of this post in issue No.33/

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