10 Public Parks that Changed America

The 10 Parks that Changed America. Infographic by Maria Sprow.

The new PBS series 10 That Changed America turned its attention to parks this week, and it's must-watch TV for anyone interested in how our public spaces have evolved and how nature and the landscape can be used to solve our biggest challenges. 

The parks featured on the show include: 

The Savannah Squares:

Statue of John Wesley in Reynolds Square. Photo from Wikimedia Commons/ Public Domain.

Statue of John Wesley in Reynolds Square. Photo from Wikimedia Commons/ Public Domain.

Designed in 1733, the city of Savannah, Georgia decided to create each of its residential neighborhoods around a public square. The small squares were originally intended to provide space for military exercises and to give residents public open space.  As the city grew, the number of squares grew. There have been 33 squares in all, though some have been lost or destroyed. 

Why It Matters: The squares revolutionized city design and planning, as city of Savannah was the first to create landscaped spaces for the public and to make those squares the center of their democratic space. 


The gazebo by the horticultural center in Fairmount Park West. Photo from Wikimedia Commons by Frederikto.

The gazebo by the horticultural center in Fairmount Park West. Photo from Wikimedia Commons by Frederikto.

Fairmount Park is a 4,180-acre park that includes the Philadelphia Zoo — the first zoo in the United States — and the Centennial Exposition grounds. It's the largest landscaped park in the United States. Today, the park is part of a large municipal park system that includes 63 neighborhood and regional parks, as well as the Philadelphia Msuesum of Art, Philadelphia's Horticulture Center, the Please Touch Museum, Bartram's Garden and other infamous public spaces.

Why it Matters: The park's history dates back to 1801, when Philadelphia was responding to a major public health crisis: a yellow feaver epidemic that had plagued the area for a decade. The City Council needed to system of providing save drinking water to its residents so it created a water works facility. The facility was replaced in 1815, when it become Fairmount Water Works. The city hadded a public garden to the water works facility in 1829, which is the earliest formalized public garden in the United States. 


Mount Auburn Cemetery. Photo from Wikimedia Commons by Bostonian13.

Mount Auburn Cemetery. Photo from Wikimedia Commons by Bostonian13.

The 174-acre Mount Auburn Cemetery, situated between Cambridge and Watertown in Massachusetts, was the first rural cemetery created in the United States. At the time, the park was created out of concern that crowded graveyards in urban areas might be a breeding ground for contagious disease, so local leaders wanted to create a resting place on the outskirts of the city. Dedicated in 1831, the cemetery consisted of sculptures and walking paths lined with shrubs and trees along rolling, tree-topped landscapes.

Why It Matters: The creation of the cemetery marked a shift away from the traditional depressed graveyards and burial grounds of churches and a movement toward more peaceful gardens and arboretums as our final resting places. It inspired many other public cemeteries and helped articulate the need for public parks. 


Central Park. Photo from Wikipedia by Ed Yourdon.

Central Park. Photo from Wikipedia by Ed Yourdon.

The New York State Legislature created America's first major landscaped public park in 1853 when it set aside 750 acres of land to become Manhattan's Central Park. The hope was that the public space would improve public health and bring residents together in the same way as public parks in London and Paris did. The park's creation was controversial. It's location displaced 1,600 poor residents, and local and state governing bodies fought over who should have political control over the park. Eventually, the park's commission became the city's first planning agency. 

Why It Matters: Central Park's success unleased the urban park movement that swept across America through the 19th Century.


Humboldt Park Field House in Chicago. Photo from Wikipedia by Steven Kevil.

Humboldt Park Field House in Chicago. Photo from Wikipedia by Steven Kevil.

In the 1850s, Chicago residents began to pressure their local leaders to create the comprehensive park and boulevard system that would encircle the entire city. It would become the first such city-wide, unified park system in the United States. The system began with Lincoln Park, then spread to South Park, West Park, and South Park. Unlike Central Park, which was created to serve the city's wealthiest residents, Chicago's parks featured field houses that allowed the city's immigrants to bathe, receive healthcare and take classes.

Why It Matters: Not only did Chicago create the first comprehensive park system in the United States, it also helped pioneer the creation and popularity of neighborhood playgrounds. In the 1890s, a coalition of educators, psychologists and other activists urged leaders to create areas where children could play to help improve their mental, moral and physical well-being. Leaders began planning gymnasiums, field houses and swimming pools, and elementary schools began constructing their own parks. 


Casa Rio restaurant along the shores of the San Antonio River Walk. Photo from Wikipedia by Daniel J Simanek.

Casa Rio restaurant along the shores of the San Antonio River Walk. Photo from Wikipedia by Daniel J Simanek.

The heart of everything in San Antonio, Texas, lies in the River Walk, a scenic paved pathway lined with cypress trees and stone bridges in the center of the city's downtown district. The River Walk, touted as the largest urban ecosystem in the nation, features fine restaurants, bicycle rentals, museums, boat rides, shops and more.

Why It Matters: Originally, area where the River Walk now stands was prone to deadly and damaging flooding. In 1921, Houston Street flooded with 9-foot-high waters, killing 50 people. Engineers worked for years to open a flood bypass channel and other flood prevention mechanisms while local business leaders urged city leaders to clean up and beautify the river area into a thriving commercial district. By the time another flood struck in 1946, the damage to the area was minimal thanks to the dam and bypass channel. It's a great example of how engineering, landscape architecture and urban planning can be used together to solve environmental problems. 


The bicycle arch at Overton Park. Photo from smartcitymemphis.com

The bicycle arch at Overton Park. Photo from smartcitymemphis.com

Established in 1906, Overton Park is a natural arborteum and old growth forest that takes up 342 acres in Memphis and contains many of the city's attractions, including the Memphis Zoo, the Memphis College of Art and Rainbow Lake. 

Why It Matters: In the 1960s and 1970s, the park became the center of controversy when the highway planners sought to demolish the park in favor of Interstate Highway 40, which would make it easier for commuters to get to downtown. Residents challenged the plan in court. In 1971, the United States Supreme Court which  ruled in their favor in Citizens to Preserve Overton Park v. Volpe. The residents' response to the highway plan and grassroots efforts to save the park showed that public park spaces were truly valued, and the Supreme Court ruling has helped preserve green spaces across the country.


Gas Works Park. Photo from theworldisfun.org. 

Gas Works Park. Photo from theworldisfun.org. 

Gas Works Park in Seattle is a 19.1 acre park that features a play barn, a large gathering pace and picnic tables. Activities there include live role playing, parkour, ultimate frisbee, photography and ice blocking. It is situated in the location of an abandoned crude oil plant made obsolete by the rise of natural gas in the 1950s. The area was a toxic wasteland and the source of immense soil, water and air pollution. 

Why It Matters: Gas Works Park was one of the first postindustrial waste sites to be transformed into a public gathering place, and the project helped change the way cities deal with pollution. Instead of removing the toxic soil and placing it in a poor or rural area, the city took responsibility and dealt with the problems on-site. The transformative effort took nearly 20 years. The park includes 1,900 feet of shoreline, though visitors can't swim thanks to the water's toxicity. Instead of focusing on the toxic natural area, landscape architect Richard Haag transformed the unique gas plant structure into a maze of brightly painted machinery to capture children's imaginations.


Freeway Park. Photo from Seattle.gov.

Freeway Park. Photo from Seattle.gov.

Created in 1976, Freeway Park is a 5.2-acre park that overlooks Interstate 5 in Seattle, designed to reduce the impact of the highway and reconnect parts of the city to pedestrians. It was redesigned in 2005 after a series of crimes, including a murder in 2002, gave the park a reputation for violence. 

Why It Matters: Freeway Park was one of the first modern parks to connect modern infrastructure with gardens and ecology; the park created used urban infrastructure to create a new kind of public realm and opened up a new way of thinking about infrastructure, according to Thaisa Way, ASAL, an associate professor of landscape architecture athe University of Washington and an expert advisor for the PBS show. The park's problems — poor maintenance, erosion, small budgets and crime — as well as the city's efforts to revitalize the area highlight the need to continously invest in public parks. 


The High Line aerial greenway at 20th Street in New York City. Photo from Wikipedia by Beyond My Ken.

The High Line aerial greenway at 20th Street in New York City. Photo from Wikipedia by Beyond My Ken.

The elevated 1.45-mile-long park in Manhattan's Lower West Side first opened to the public in 2009. It features lounge areas with river views, meadows, birch trees and cultural attractions. More than 5 million people a year visit the park.

Why It Matters: In the 1930s, New York created the High Line to run trains from 34th Street to Spring Street to carry goods to Manhattan's industrial district. But the growth of the trucking industry led the track to close in 1980. The tracks sat vacant for more than two decades, until planning for its framework and reuse began in earnest in 2002. It is another example of how outdated infrastructure can be repurposed, recycled and revitalized as a natural area to help an area's economic and cultural growth.