City Parks | The Canadian Encyclopedia


City Parks

The period of intense park building (1880-1914) was stimulated by an interplay of 4 factors. The first was a belief that the city dweller's increasing separation from nature caused physical, mental and moral distress. Parks were seen as healing antidotes to this urban malaise.
Assiniboine Park
Opened in 1909, Assiniboine Park, Winnipeg, was an example of design influenced by the famous American landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted (courtesy Canadian Tourism Commission).
Parc Mont-Royal
Mount Royal is a small mountain of volcanic origin that dominates the landscape of Montréal. The park was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted (courtesy Canadian Tourism Commission).
High Park, Toronto
The park was bequeathed to the city by architect John Howard (Corel Professional Photos).

Parks, City

  Parks were originally defined (following the British example) as the private grounds of a gentleman's estate. Public parks were not an integral element on the landscapes of the earliest Canadian cities and towns. The city park as we know it actually entered North America during the 1830s through the "rural cemetery" movement. These burial grounds were landscaped, and served as quiet places to stroll or to have family picnics. Mount Pleasant Cemetery, Toronto, which was designed by H.A. Engelhardt in 1874, was one such area.

The period of intense park building (1880-1914) was stimulated by an interplay of 4 factors. The first was a belief that the city dweller's increasing separation from nature caused physical, mental and moral distress. Parks were seen as healing antidotes to this urban malaise. The second factor was the rise of the "CITY BEAUTIFUL MOVEMENT", a loosely integrated philosophy of urban improvement which promoted beautification planning including grand civic centres and aesthetic streetscapes, as well as parks. The third motivation stressed the economic benefits of parks, and was part of the popular promotion of cities and towns called "boosterism." Parks raised the value of adjacent land and were touted in real-estate campaigns as visible proof of a prosperous community, a "wide-awake" community concerned about the welfare of its residents.

 The final factor was the creation in 1874 of Mount Royal Park in Montréal by Frederick Law Olmsted (1822-1903), the pre-eminent landscape architect of North America. Olmsted's philosophy of park design and the purpose of urban green space profoundly affected Canadian park development. He advocated a unified design based on the creation of a pastoral landscape. His approach was heavily influenced by the ideals of the English Landscape Style: rolling hills, long stretches of lawn, vistas of shrub and tree groupings, flower beds set among winding paths - a setting for family picnics, strolls and Sunday afternoon band concerts. Opened to the public in 1909, Assiniboine Park in Winnipeg, designed by the Canadian landscape architect Frederick TODD, is another prime example of this style. Olmsted asserted that this style was the most effective in combatting the ill effects of urban life. He also stressed that parks should be accessible to all social classes. Stimulated by these varied motivations, legislation concerning public parks was passed by BC in 1876, Ontario in 1883 and Manitoba in 1892.

However, the creation of large, planned and designed parks, on the scale of Mount Royal, was not a high priority of city planning in these early years. Rather the main emphasis at the turn of the century was on establishing small urban parks, ornamental squares, or small "breathing spaces" throughout the city. Queen Square, Charlottetown, PEI, was largely landscaped by public-spirited citizens in the 1880s. Many park projects were carried out, not just by professionals, but also by small, amateur groups such as horticultural societies, newly formed improvement associations, and even boards of trade. Park expansion was more intense in smaller cities and villages, where concerned citizens, often without public funding, devoted weekends to planning and planting. Galt, Ont, was cited for its progressive, energetic parks policy - out of 567 ha of city land, 50 ha were devoted to parks and playgrounds.

While many park promoters were concerned with beautification, others wanted to use parks as tools of social reform. These horticultural reformers felt strongly that cities needed space for more vigorous recreation, a place for the landless worker to dissipate dangerous energy that, unchecked, might be channelled into Bolshevism, unionism or intemperance. Tension between the aesthetic and the athletic continued up into the 1920s.

Ultimately, parks evolved into centres of public recreation, and more services were provided for the general public. Beacon Hill Park in Victoria, BC, by the 1930s boasted a cricket field, lawn-bowling green, race track, bandstand, zoo, boating lake, flower gardens and tree-shaded walks.

Parks also functioned as historical "scrapbooks" for a town. For example in 1898, school children planted and labelled trees in the Halifax Public Gardens honouring the war dead of various South African campaigns. In major parks, royalty planted trees commemorating their visits, and societies and associations celebrated anniversaries by planting shrubs and trees. Fountains and statues were donated memorializing local or national events and individuals. Parks were also used as living textbooks by school children as they studied scientifically labelled plant material.

The collapse of the real-estate boom coupled with the onset of World War I left many cities unable to finance civic beautification schemes. Improvement associations disappeared as their members turned to other activities. Park building halted until after the war, when memorials rekindled interest and released some civic money. By the 1920s park creation had become thoroughly bureaucratized and professionalized, with the result that fewer non-professionals were involved in park creation and maintenance.

The Depression again slowed down major park building projects; however, the idea of public space devoted to beauty and recreation did not disappear. The 1960s saw a resurgence in park building, in part stimulated by CENTENNIAL year activities. Today parks no longer need to be justified either as tools of social reform or as "lungs of the city"; rather, they are regarded as expected features in the urban landscape.

External Links