History of Landscape Design – Week 5: 19th Century Gardens & the Birth of the Public Park

Greenway garden

The 19th century saw the emergence of the profession we would consider “landscape architecture” today. One of the first was Humphry Repton, an Englishman who not only started the phenomenon of actually using flowers as design elements  (more on that at the end), but also perfected the art of PR through illustrated business cards and his famous “Red Books.”

Repton - before

Repton - after

The illustrated books showed potential clients their property as is, and how it could be, if they hired him. Not only was this an amazing feat of advertisement, but construction as well, since the “after” landscape was revealed when built in flaps on the book were removed. And when Repton had free time, he added non commissioned ideas to a general collection called Sketches and Hints on Landscape Gardening that was eventually published

Coincidentally, it was around that time that actual literature on gardening and landscaping began to crop up everywhere. This was telling of the garden’s dissemination into popular culture as not just a thing for the rich, but for the people. It’s also around then that editor of The Brooklyn Eagle, Walt Whitman proclaimed “We need parks!” (Or something along those lines…) A major reason for this growing public outcry was because it was becoming increasingly considered “unclean” for people to picnic in cemeteries, which is what they had been doing when needing a bit of picturesque green.

Map of Birkenhead

The first deliberately designed public park (as opposed to a redesign of a formerly rich-only hunting park a la Tiergarten in Berlin) was Birkenhead in Liverpool, by Sir Joseph Paxton (who also designed a little building known as the Crystal Palace, which influenced the invention of greenhouses everywhere). His winding paths through various terrain were different based on whether he envisioned someone traveling on foot or by carriage. These ‘lawns for the city” were enthusiastically embraced by an ever-growing working class population in need of relaxation.

Springside Gardeners Cottage

An important designer in the pro-park movement was Hudson Valley based Andrew Jackson Downing, the son of a horticulturist who grew up with an intense appreciation for nature and the beliefs that everyone should be equally educated about botany, gardening, etc. Not only did he design the landscaping for the DC Smithsonian and the White House lawn, but, if he hadn’t died prematurely in a freak steamer accident, his loose proposal for a New York City park would have surely evolved into the official design for Central Park.

As most (NYC) people know, the designer for that patch of green ended up being Frederick Law Olmsted, who entered his idea, entitled “Greensward” into the Central Park public call for entries. The rules were that the designs had to include 2 resevoirs and 4 transverse roads.


The idea for sunken roads is what won it for Olmsted – apparently the judges agreed that nature should be as uninterrupted as possible. Although Olmsted took that idea even farther by disapproving of most proposed statues and structures for the park, including the Met. He obviously lost the battle on that one, so when he got around to designing Prospect Park (around the pesky delays of the Civil War), he set aside space for the Brooklyn Museum so it wouldn’t impose on his designs.

Prospect Park

For numerous reasons, Olmsted considered Prospect to be the more successful of the two commissions. And I agree!

With the emergence of public parks designed by professionals came housing developments designed by city planners. The Garden City Movement was the taking of those meandering paths of the park, and turning them into the roads of suburbia, with the interconnected lawns representing a park…that you live in. Early developments are best represented through Riverside, outside of Chicago, which was designed by (surprise!) Olmsted,  and Forest Hills, in Queens, designed by (again!) Olmsted Jr.

Garden City Overview

Garden City Detail

One influence for these housing developments was the theorist Ebenezer Howard, who wrote Garden Cities of Tomorrow. He wanted the ideas of landscaping applied to developments for the working class, who he felt needed the respite more than the rich. His sketches showed towns built in circle type grids – starting with a “central park” with houses and streets radiating from it. He also suggested that once a town’s population hit roughly 30,000 planners should leave it as is and start anew with the next development. This was more of a political concept than something meant to be constructed to plan, but the his understanding of the relationship between town and country (and the people in both) still seems relevant.

Hidcote Manor

Hidcote Manor courtyard

Hidcote Manor hedge

Just a reminder that there were still private gardens that were being designed at this time, in what was known then as the Arts and Crafts style (more likely referred to as “Cottage Style now). The conscious design of this was probably first exhibited by Downing, as an homage to Louden’s “Gardenesque” style. It was a reaction to industrialization, with a clear focus on the immediate, emotional response of the viewer, mainly acheived through explosive bursts of color and texture. Hidcote Manor (pictured above) was an extravagant example, due to its designer, Lawrence Johnston, being a bit of an eccentric.



My favorite by far is Munstead Wood, in England, mostly because of it’s owner/designer, the prolific garden writer, Gertrude Jekyll. This post has gone on long enough, so I think my next “Spotlight On” subject will be Munstead/Jekyll, so stay tuned…

In closing, a few more random Arts and Crafts/Cottage gardens for your enjoyment:

Cottage 1

Cottage Garden

Cottage 2

Cottage Garden 2

Cottage 3


12 thoughts on “History of Landscape Design – Week 5: 19th Century Gardens & the Birth of the Public Park

  1. There is so much info on this blog, I’m having trouble keeping up! Are you the designer of the “better farms” logo? The cafepress.com website is going to get some business from me. The pictures that accompany your writings are fantastic. I am looking forward to seeing BBG at Prospect Park.
    See you soon!

  2. Yes, I did design the Better Farms logos! I’m so glad you’re going to buy some stuff from the cafe press store – every little bit helps. The photos I’ve been using to accompany my History of Landscape Design recaps have been “borrowed” from various talented Flickr photographers….haven’t been doing any crediting….probably should have been. :/

    I would love to take you guys to the BBG – hopefully we’ll have time when you visit…maybe on Sunday?

  3. Well, Isaac, I don’t know what Jesus has to do with it (weeping or not), and I don’t know what this comment even has to do with my post on the History of Public Parks…or with this blog in general. But I find crazy fascinating, so I’ll respond.

    It is actually NOT the best solution for every “yank” to just move to the country (all caps), because all that will really do is increase sprawl across the small bit of natural landscape we have left. I personally am moving back to the country, but to an existing house – I would never do it if it meant building on untouched land.

    The idea of people in overpopulated cities “complaining” is a good thing. These are the areas that need the most help, and if people there are realizing there’s a problem, then staying where they are and addressing it is the best solution I can think of.

    So next time you want to negatively post on my blog, at least have some thought behind what you’re saying. Be better!

  4. Pingback: Spotlight On: Gertrude Jekyll and Munstead Wood « F that S

  5. is that in central park?if it is thats where im going im going to new york in 6 days and im so excited!!!!!!those houses are so beautiful i wish i had a house like the 3 one and a garden like the one that has those steps dang i wish i had a house like that!!!!:)

  6. Hi Mariana –

    Unfortunately those the houses in this post are not in Central Park…since we’re talking about History of Landscape Design, I was mentioning simultaneous methods, which in this case, was English Cottage Style. But regardless enjoy your time in NYC – I’m sure you’ll have a blast!

    – Corinne

  7. Pingback: Garden Hunting « F that S

  8. Pingback: Inspiration Station: Formal Gardens of Wales « F that S

  9. Pingback: Get Out(side): Picnicking with the Dead | A Green(ish) Life

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