The Genesis of the Green Infrastructure: the international diffusion of new concepts and design principles for public parks, 1840-1900
Little is known about how new concepts and design principles for public parks were disseminated in the nineteenth century, or how the green infrastructure developed from a planning and aesthetic perspective. The international conference on The Genesis of the Green Infrastructure, which took place between April and September 2022, greatly helped to answer those questions. Organised as part of Birkenhead Park’s 175th anniversary, it gathered speakers from around the world:
Dr. Kristof Fatsar (Kingston University London), Professor Daniel Nadenicek (University of Georgia), Dr. Jan Woudstra (University of Sheffield), Ass. Professor Theo Eisenman (University of Massachusetts-Amherst), Assoc. Professor Heidi Hohmann (Iowa State University), Professor Paul Elliot (University of Derby), Professor Sonja Dümpelmann (University of Pennsylvania), Dr. Ursula Wieser Benedetti (CIVA Foundation, Brussels), Professor Robert Lee (University of Liverpool), Professor John Crompton (Texas A&M University), Professor David Bawden (City University, London), Elizabeth Davey (Wirral).
Each of the four online sessions addressed different aspects of the issue, thus covering a large range of topics – please find more details on each presentation below:
Pioneering ideas of public park design in German-speaking cities, 1800-1875 (0:00)
The idea to create urban green spaces with unrestricted access for all members of society on council-owned land goes back to at least the 18th century, and the first manifestations of these ideals came into being already then. When Christian Cay Lorenz Hirschfeld (1742-1792) codified a set of principles and programming for the municipal public park in 1785, such establishments already existed across the German-speaking realm, although the richness of the facilities and the design concept that Hirschfeld advocated might have still been missing. One of the early landscape professionals whose ambition was to put Hirschfeld’s theories into practice was Heinrich Nebbien (1778-1841). In 1813, he won the public competition to design Városliget Park in what is today Budapest. Municipal efforts to transform a barren and partly marshy land into a real public park had started in the 1790s but the bulk of the transformation happened in the 1810s and 1820s when most of Nebbien’s landscaping programme was executed. The still existing Városliget Park must be seen as a milestone in early municipal efforts of green infrastructure planning in Europe.
Kristof Fatsar is Senior Lecturer and Course Leader in Landscape Architecture Kingston University London.
The Civilizing Vision for American Parks (21:24)
Many in nineteenth-century America firmly believed in the concept of civilization and the hierarchy of peoples associated with it. The concept held that most ethnic groups and classes were capable of refinement, but the process would take longer for some than others. Western indigenous tribes were considered savages and nearly unreachable for social uplift, while hundreds of thousands of European immigrants settling the new communities built along America’s railroads could be civilized through the provision of social institutions and especially the construction of parks. Frederick Billings, President of the Northern Pacific Railroad (NPR), befriended Frederick Law Olmsted in California and later hired the him to design Tacoma, Washington the planned terminus of the NPR. During his railroad years, Billings and his compatriots planned numerous new railroad towns such as Brainard, Minnesota; Fargo, Dakota Territory; and Miles City, Montana Territory, where new parks were considered of at least equal social improvement importance to the provision of schools and churches. That firm belief in the possibility of human refinement, then, influenced the rapid development of a national-scale public parks movement that covered much of the American nation only twenty years after the passage of the first public park legislation in the United States.
Daniel Nadenicek is Dean and Professor Emeritus in the College of Environment and Design at the University of Georgia. His landscape history research has resulted in more than sixty peer-reviewed papers at professional conferences in the United States, France, Italy, China, Turkey, Germany, Canada, the United Kingdom, and Costa Rica and more than fifty peer-reviewed publications in Landscape and Urban Planning, Landscape Journal, the Dumbarton Oaks Colloquium Series, Bulletin of the German Historical Institute and other venues. He is completing a book manuscript under contract with the Library of American Landscape History titled Frederick Billings and the Landscape Architecture Ideal.
Robert Marnock ‘s visions for a London green space network, 1840s-1890 (38:23)
When Robert Marnock arrived in Sheffield in 1834 after winning the design competition for the Botanical Gardens there, this was as an exciting period in its development. The visionary James Silk Buckingham (1786-1855), who was instrumental in setting up the Select Committee for Public Walks, had been the first MP for two years, and inspired a period of civil development that had included the first greenspaces of Botanic Garden and General Cemetery. These were inspired by John C Loudon’s ‘Hints for Breathing Places for the Metropolis’ published in Gardener’s Magazine (1829), and by the developments in Paris, firstly with respect to cemeteries and later with its greenspaces. As Marnock moved into a key position in London’s horticultural elite as the Curator of the Royal Botanical Gardens in Regent’s Park, he became the natural go-to in matters relating to greenspace planning. He collaborated with Joseph Bazalgette (1819-1891) of the Metropolitan Board of Works (1855- 1889) as part of the general transformation of London that included not only a sewage system and underground railway, but also interconnecting avenues of plane trees and parks, as well as a vision of one cemetery to replace all others, to be realized outside the city bounds in Brookwood, near Woking from 1852.
Jan Woudstra is a landscape architect and historian, with a strong interest in the development of the profession. He is currently working on a monograph focussing on Robert Marnock, the ‘most successful landscape gardener of his times.’ He teaches at the University of Sheffield in the Department of Landscape Architecture and has published widely, including several papers on the development of London’s greenspaces.
Olmsted, Green Infrastructure, and the Evolving City (3:55)
In recent years, green infrastructure has emerged as a subject of significant interest in scholarship and practice. This reflects a broader contemporary movement to better integrate natural features and processes – primarily in the form of vegetated spaces – into cities. It also reflects an evolution of the green infrastructure construct itself. Yet, this urban greening practice and associated research is not entirely new. Significant elements can be traced to the work of Frederick Law Olmsted, Sr., in the nineteenth century, and the roots of the landscape architecture and urban planning professions. As evidence, this article assesses three aspects of Olmsted’s work within contemporary green infrastructure theory and practice: ecosystem services and human well-being; environmental restoration; and comprehensive planning. The presentation addresses Olmsted’s philosophy regarding the civilizing influence of urbanism and concludes with a discussion on the role of green infrastructure in the evolution of the twenty-first century city.
Theodore Eisenman, PhD, MLA, is an Associate Professor in the Department of Landscape Architecture and Regional Planning at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. His primary scholarly interest concerns the historical, scientific, cultural, and design bases of urban greening, defined as a social practice of organized or semi-organized efforts to introduce, conserve, or maintain outdoor vegetation in urban areas.
From Paris to the prairie: The transmission of green infrastructure to Minneapolis, 1869-1900 (22:13)
The Minneapolis park system shows the myriad ways ideas of green infrastructure were transformed as they were transmitted from Europe to the United States. H.W.S. Cleveland, the system’s initial designer was especially influenced by the parks and promenades of Paris, though he never visited Europe. Instead, Cleveland gleaned inspiration from texts like William Robinson’s Parks and Promenades of Paris (1869), itself a British interpretation of Hausmann’s Paris. In his book, Landscape Architecture as Applied to the Wants of the West (1873), Cleveland melded Robinson’s ideas with American Transcendental philosophies, urging the preservation of natural scenery and the rejection of monotonous gridiron cities. His theories eventually manifested in a plan for Minneapolis’s park system, which captured the imagination of the city’s elites, many of whom had visited Europe and understood the benefits of Continental-style parks and parkways. However, by 1883, Cleveland was increasingly influenced by Frederick Law Olmsted, who had already translated his own experiences of European parks into the economic, administrative, and design practices that became the American park movement. In adapting Olmsted’s ideas, Cleveland’s simple vision of Parisian boulevards on the prairie was transformed into a city-wide plan, with the park board serving as a de facto planning agency until the 1920s. The resulting green infrastructure continues to make Minneapolis a highly livable city even today.
Heidi Hohmann is Associate Professor of Landscape Architecture at Iowa State University. She is also a professional landscape architect with experience working on historic landscapes, she was worked in both government and private offices.
The Transatlantic Park: Treescapes and Arboriculture in Britain and North America c. 1840-1920 (42:20)
Paul Elliot is a Professor of Modern History at the University of Derby. His research interests are interdisciplinary and collaborative in nature, utilising approaches from history, the social sciences, cultural and historical geography and cultural history.
Frederick Law Olmsted, Race, and the Rural Roots of Landscape Architectural Education (59’20)
This presentation focuses on Frederick Law Olmsted’s role in the establishment of the profession and in early landscape architectural education in the United States. It sheds light on how systemic racism that has governed education in the United States throughout its history has affected the low number of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Colour) students and faculty in today’s landscape architecture programs. It reveals how these low numbers are related to the field’s historic rural roots and ensuing urban bias and to the association of its practice with wealthy clients and conservative social reform. Although landscape gardening and design was an integral component of Black college education following the Hampton-Tuskegee model, i.e. teacher and vocational training in agriculture and industry, it was this same model that hindered African and Native American access to higher college and university education in landscape architecture.
Sonja Dümpelmann is a landscape historian and Professor of Landscape Architecture at the University of Pennsylvania Weitzman School of Design. She is the author of the award-winning Seeing Trees: A History of Street Trees in New York City and Berlin (Yale Univ. Press, 2019). She has also served as Senior Fellow in Garden and Landscape Studies at the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Washington D.C. and as President of the Landscape History Chapter of the Society of Architectural Historians.
International influences contributing to the shaping of the green infrastructure of the Brussels region, 1840-1900 (O:OO)
Located at the heart of Europe, the Brussels region has long been a crossroads of multiple influences that have enabled original and creative landscape architecture to flourish. The last quarter of the 18th century saw the emergence of the first major public park, the Parc de Bruxelles. From then on, that new concept was to be integral to the development of the city, producing an aesthetically impressive and wide-ranging array of parks, squares, gardens, tree-lined boulevards, cemeteries, garden cities, etc. The presentation offers a historical overview of this ‘making’ of the city through green infrastructures, from 1775 until the end of the 19th century. Focusing on international influences, it highlights the circulation of models and transmission modes, shedding light on driving forces leading to the creation of green infrastructures and giving an insight into how the landscape architectural creations of the 19th century were fundamental in structuring the city as we know it today.
Ursula Wieser Benedetti works at the CIVA in Brussels. She is a landscape architect and a Japanologist. She has practiced as a landscape architect in France, Austria and Italy and holds a PhD in Landscape and Garden History. Her research interests focus on Japan, landscape architecture in Belgium, and the question of limits in the landscape.
Olmsted’s misconceptions, but mankind’s gain: Birkenhead Park as a ‘Democratic Institution (24:35)
In 1850 Frederick Law Olmsted (1833- 1903), newly arrived in Liverpool, paid a brief visit to Birkenhead Park. The impact of this visit was inspirational and would play a critical role in determining Olmsted’s design, with Calvert Vaux (1824 – 1895), of Central Park, New York and Prospect Park, Brooklyn and in his developing a framework for urban greenspace that would inspire planners and politicians for years to come. The landscape of Birkenhead Park, which so much influenced Olmsted’s own design philosophy, was based on a plan drawn up by the great landscape architect Sir Joseph Paxton. It included a binary divide between the Upper and Lower Park, separate circulation routes for pedestrians and ‘carriage folk’, two lakes, mounds of various heights and a variety of lodges and bridges. The visitors, as noted by Olmsted, were drawn from different social classes, but included a huge proportion of people of the ‘common ranks’. Calling it this ‘People’s Garden’, he later wrote ‘The poorest British peasant is as free to enjoy it in all its parts as the British Queen’. Though full of admiration for the concept of the Park, Olmsted was mistaken in many of his conclusions. To take just one example, cricket, which he encountered being played by ‘gentlemen’ and ‘boys’, was at the time very much a middle class preserve and facilities only became available to the less privileged as late as 1863. There were other misconception but in essence what he had to say still carried immense weight, even if what he sometimes wrote fell somewhat short of reality.
Robert Lee is an honorary Research Professor in the Department of History at the University of Liverpool. He is an experienced Research Professor with a demonstrated history of working in higher education in Britain, Sweden and Germany. He has an active civic role in Greenspace issues, particularly parks and open spaces, and in promoting regeneration in deprived urban areas. He has been the Chair and then President of the Friends of Birkenhead Park for the past 25 years.
Adaptations of Birkenhead Park’s Financing Model in the Evolution of Urban Parks in the United States: Do meritorious outcomes justify the use of flawed data? (48:45)
Financing Central Park by general taxation was controversial and precedent setting. It was justified by using the rationale from Birkenhead Park and other early English parks with which Olmsted and Downing were aware that increases in real estate property values around the Park would generate sufficient annual revenues to cover all the Park’s capital costs. Accordingly, the Central Park Commissioners provided data as “evidence” to support the success of this vehicle in their annual reports from 1857-1873. This presentation shows these data were flawed. Notwithstanding their egregious inaccuracy, these Central Park data were ubiquitously reiterated in arguments to support urban parks in cities throughout the United States for eighty years from the 1860s until World War II.
John L. Crompton holds the rank of University Distinguished Professor and is both a Regents Professor and a Presidential Professor for Teaching Excellence at Texas A&M University. His primary interests are in the areas of marketing and financing public leisure and tourism services. He is author or co-author of over 20 books and a substantial number of articles which have been published in the recreation, tourism, sport and marketing fields.
Transmitted as never before’: the nineteenth-century communication revolution and the development of public parks and the green
This presentation reviewed developments in information and communications technologies, and associated legislation and infrastructure, during the period 1830-1880, in the context of the development of the green infrastructure, particularly public parks. Focusing on developments in ‘steam-powered knowledge’, including transport by ship and train, publishing and printing, and communication through the telegraph and through national and international postal services, the ways in which these were used by landscape designers and horticulturalists are outlined. It is noted that this group were among the earliest and most enthusiastic adopters of the new information environment. Four main channels are considered: visits; personal correspondence; specialist publications, including books and journals; and general publications including newspapers and magazines. Topics given special attention are: improved technology for illustrations in publications; international, and especially transatlantic, publishing; the importance for the subject at that time of newspapers and illustrated magazines. These are exemplified inter alia by the works of park designers Edward Kemp and Frederick Law Olmsted, the publishers Bradbury and Evans, and the Illustrated London News. Suggestions for further research, by archive study and by social network analysis, are made.
David Bawden is Professor of Information Science at City, University of London. His research interests include information history, specifically of the Victorian communication revolution. He was born in Birkenhead, and walked past Edward Kemp’s house in Birkenhead Park each day on his way to school. without realising that either the park or its first superintendent were important.
The Genesis of Green Infrastructure – the Parks, Promenades and Pleasure Grounds of Wallasey, 1883 – 1913 (38:43)
The parish of Wallasey, which once ‘embraced the townships of Wallasey, Liscard and Poulton cum Seacombe, occupied the north-east corner of Wirral. Fronting both the Mersey and the Irish Sea, it had an extensive coastline and with much of the district still rural, its population, within easy reach of fields, sand dunes and the shore, had for many years little need of other accessible space. This would change as the number of residents grew and housing was built at ever increasing densities. The genesis of the district’s ‘Green Infrastructure’ began in 1883, with the gift to the Parish by James Smith (d.1909), a wealthy businessman, of ‘land to be laid out as a recreation ground’. This was to be ‘drained, levelled and formed’ at the expense of the Local Board and subsequently ‘maintained efficiently, according to the usual regulation of public Parks.’ This was forty years after work started on Birkenhead Park but with the general principles of park design already established, the Board had little need to ‘follow in the footsteps’ of its neighbour. Examples of good practice were everywhere. Smith’s initial donation was followed by his and other acts of philanthropy, while the authorities themselves built up a portfolio of public open space, purchasing land already laid out as private estates, acquiring sites that had been left open following the Enclosure Acts and, with imaginative foresight, creating several miles of Promenade and associated gardens, a broad, traffic-free, walk which ran the length of the Mersey shore. By the start of the 20th century Wallasey’s ‘Parks, public walks and places of public resort or recreation’ covered some 50 hectares and the area would continue to grow over the years.
Elizabeth Davey is a local historian whose interest in Parks began in 2008, prompted by examining the work of the Victorian landscape gardener, Edward Kemp. She has now broadened her research to embrace the development of public open space in Wallasey, Birkenhead’s closest neighbour.