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

2. Public parks in europe; use, performance and design


(From previous issue No.34)

This article is based on a presentation at a conference on urban parks organised by the Hungarian Academy of Sciences and the Faculty of Landscape Architecture of Corvinus University of Budapest in 2013. It’s the second part of a series of three articles that gives a broad overview of the design of urban public parks in a European context. This article focuses on use, performance and design of public parks in Europe, from the origins of public parks in the 18th century. The variety of use starts from the issue of health, at first technical in the form of sanitation services and later on physical exercise and the outdoors.

Stadtpark, Hamburg The archetypical 'volkspark' designed by Schumacher

Stadtpark, Hamburg
The archetypical 'volkspark' designed by Schumacher

After WWII public parks become 'public green space' with a diversity of functions, forms and distribution in the urban landscape. The recent rise of the service economies in Europe has brought new roles and uses to public space in general and to public parks in particular. The relation between research and design is a key element. More research is needed especially for use and performance in the form of evidence-based research and post-occupancy evaluation.


This article is focused on public parks in Europe. Even though there have been urban parks in ancient Greece and during the Roman Empire and even before, the concept of 'public park' as we know it, originates from 19th century Europe. A second limitation is that here we focus on public urban parks. It means that the social aspects and use of parks play an important role. In Europe there are also a growing number of public parks, mostly nature or landscape parks, outside the cities, while in the US most of the large public parks, the so called national parks are outside the cities. Some consider the 'commons' as the origin of public space. The commons is a fundamental social institution that has a history going back to English common law which existed already before the Roman conquest. That law recognized that in societies there are some entities, both material and immaterial, which have never been and should never be, exclusively appropriated to any individual or group of individuals. This fundamental right not only applied to land, water and air, but also to non-material goods. The commons in feudal society was land that could be used by everybody. In England - but also in other European countries - the classic example of the commons is the pasturage set aside for public use. Traditionally the commons in Medieval England were owned by landlords, or other members of the ruling class but tenants had the right of use. With the 'Enclosure Acts', from 1604 on, the land was subdivided to the individual users and the right of use by others was gone. From the 17th century till the 19th on the commons were enclosed by Act of Parliament. At the moment some view public space as a reminiscent of the idea of the commons, and the same goes for government-owned land and services. 'Public' is no longer only distinguished from 'private' but also from a third category 'publicly accessible privately owned and commercial'. In the 19th century the idea of the commons was certainly not the first that was thought of in the creation of public parks. It was rather an urgent need for open space and better living conditions. The urgency was first of all the banning out of diseases like cholera that could be prevented technically by a sewer system, good quality drinking water and access to sunlight. This has led to the creation of the first public parks, in some cases by opening up private parks, in other cases by creating new parks like in the case of Birkenhead in England. In the present times the function of public parks has changed and they are also used as a social space and thus can be seen as an expression of urban culture. The London Royal parks, the Place des Vosges in Paris are well known examples. Recently the creation of 'urban beaches' in Paris, London, Rotterdam and other cities are also examples of public space in the city as an expression of contemporary urban culture.

The Place des Vosges in Paris on a Sunday afternoon.

The Place des Vosges in Paris on a Sunday afternoon.

A short history of public parks

The history of public parks goes back to the public gardens in Roman cities according to Chadwick. The first mentioned example was the 'Porticus Livia', a colonnaded garden in Rome during the reign of Emperor Augustus. The garden was privately owned but opened for public use. Jashemski states that there were many gardens, vineyards, orchards in Pompeii, and there were also gardens related to public buildings. Botanical gardens are also to be seen as forerunners of public parks in the European tradition. Gardens for cultivation of plants for medical use was common in the beginnings mostly in monasteries. After the Middle Ages the rise of sciences in general and of medical sciences in particular transformed those gardens into gardens for study of plants for medical purposes and later on for study of taxonomy and biology in general. From that time on the term for those gardens was Hortus Botanicus. These botanical gardens were mostly located in the cities close to the university and medical faculties. From the very beginning these botanical gardens have been also for public use. Examples can be found in the Jardin des Plantes in Paris, the Orti Botanico in Padua, the Hortus Botanicus, Leiden. Tomasi states that botanical gardens might be the first step to modernisation of garden architecture because functional principles for the growing of medical plants and rare plants formed the basis for the design instead of aesthetic and style principles. Remarkable is its development of public use by others being non-professionals in botany but just used the space for social events, relaxation and enjoyment. From the 18th century on private gardens opened up for public. In Britain, the Victorians invented and developed the concept of public parks. Chadwick describes the case of the Derby Arboretum which was privately owned and where the owner, a large manufacturer, already in 1839 opened the grounds for the public under certain conditions. The landscape architect Loudon was asked to make a plan for making changes that were needed for public use. Apart from the trees and plants the garden provided walks, a statue of the owner, some booths and a gate. When the plan was realised it was assigned to trustees and was opened to the public by decision of the city council. In Paris the Jardin des Tuilleries – located between the Louvre and the Place de la Concorde – was originally designed as private garden for the Palace of the Tuilleries owned by Catherina de Medici and was opened to the public in 1667. In the 17th century it was redesigned by Le Nôtre. After the French Revolution in 1789 the garden became a public park. This third origin — the opening up for the public of private or royal grounds — is the most important and also had an impact on the design of cities and later of urban landscapes. For the first time in history, public parks became part of the city either by creating new ones in the existing city or by including public parks in new urban extensions. The concept of public space was further extended in the beginning of the 20th century into the rural landscape and later to infra landscapes. In a study for the Dutch situation a short overview is given of the design of public space in Holland both in urban, rural and infra landscapes. It shows how the design of public space not only started in the 19th century in the design of public parks but continued in the 20th century to the design of public space in the rural landscape in the form of landscape plans for new polders and consolidation plans. A major development was the design of public space in the infra landscapes; the landscape plans for motorways, major waterways and the Delta works. So, in the 19th and 20th century for the first time in history, landscape architects got involved into a new domain of work; the planning and design of the landscape as public space. This new work domain required also a completely different design approach; the program became dominant for the design approach instead of the style, at that time the landscape style.

/read the rest of this post in issue No.34/


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