How Parks Connect Us
… and Why It Matters

A Pic­ture Book Excur­sion through City Park History

A Park Connects UsSpring is in the air, and we’re pulled out­doors to wan­der in our favorite city parks. Ducks are dab­bling; frogs are trilling; the apple trees are burst­ing into bloom. Every­where, it seems, chil­dren frol­ic and neigh­bors wave. It’s been a long win­ter, but our cities are alive. Now is the per­fect time for a pic­ture book excur­sion through city park his­to­ry. It’s a fas­ci­nat­ing jour­ney — thanks for com­ing along!

For many of us liv­ing in a city or town, it’s hard to imag­ine life with­out parks. Our parks give us relief from the work- and school-day chores, the noise and hur­ry of the city, and the iso­la­tion of our mod­ern lives. Parks bring us togeth­er. They help our neigh­bor­hoods feel like homes. They give us places to unwind, exer­cise, fly kites, cel­e­brate, med­i­tate… From baby­hood to old age, we are wel­come in the parks — who­ev­er we are. What a rare and impor­tant tra­di­tion. Our parks deserve cel­e­brat­ing. It’s why I wrote A Park Con­nects Us.

A Park Connects Us
illus­tra­tion © Ellen Rooney from A Park Con­nects Us | writ­ten by Sarah Nel­son | Owlkids Books, 2022

We need these shared, green spaces more than ever right now. After all the divi­sive­ness of the last sev­er­al years and the heartache and sep­a­ra­tion of the pan­dem­ic, we need safe, kind places to be togeth­er. We need places where we can step out­side of our bub­bles into our real towns and cities — the ones with birds and sun­shine, the ones we share with peo­ple who don’t nec­es­sar­i­ly look or talk or think or pray like us, but where nev­er­the­less chil­dren call out, “You wan­na play?!” and grown-ups smile and say, “Good day.” In the parks, it doesn’t mat­ter who we are or where we come from or how much mon­ey is in our pock­ets. We all belong. We’re all connected.

A Park Connects Us
illus­tra­tion © Ellen Rooney from A Park Con­nects Us | writ­ten by Sarah Nel­son | Owlkids Books, 2022

Once upon a time, how­ev­er, not so very long ago, most North Amer­i­can cities had no parks. Dirt and con­crete stretched for miles. Hard­ly any trees grew. Fac­to­ry soot, coal ash, and wood smoke fouled the air. Only the very rich­est peo­ple had access to nature — on their seclud­ed, pri­vate estates, gat­ed away from the dense­ly crowd­ed cities. Mean­while, mil­lions of mid­dle- and work­ing class res­i­dents were squeezed into land­scapes of build­ings and indus­try. Some­times fam­i­lies found refuge in ceme­ter­ies, which were often the only green spaces to stroll, and chil­dren played in the dusty streets. Thank­ful­ly, vision­ary city peo­ple in the lat­ter half of the 1800s joined togeth­er and worked to change this.

The Man Who Made ParksThe urban parks move­ment began in earnest with the cre­ation of New York City’s Cen­tral Park, and, sev­er­al years lat­er, Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. America’s first land­scape archi­tects, Fred­er­ick Law Olm­st­ed and Calvert Vaux, were hired to design these parks. They aimed to grow them into glo­ri­ous expans­es that would feel wild and green and offer city peo­ple of all walks chances to con­nect with nature and each other.

A Green Place to BeIn actu­al­i­ty, Cen­tral Park and Prospect Park (like many parks that came lat­er) were engi­neered land­scapes, with rolling hills shaped out of rub­ble, bab­bling brooks arti­fi­cial­ly pumped and chan­neled, and trees root­ed and grass­es sown into chore­o­graphed wood­lands and pas­tures. (Both parks even had flocks of graz­ing sheep in the ear­ly years!) These projects required thou­sands of work­ers and took sev­er­al years to com­plete, but when they were fin­ished, they were works of art.

As inspir­ing as these ear­ly park projects were in many ways, the his­to­ry of Cen­tral Park, in par­tic­u­lar, is not with­out con­tro­ver­sy. Before the park was made, most of the miles-long rec­tan­gle of land was rocky, swampy, and tree­less. The land housed pig farms, slaugh­ter­hous­es, and glue-mak­ing fac­to­ries. How­ev­er, there were also peo­ple (most­ly with lit­tle polit­i­cal pow­er) liv­ing on var­i­ous parts of the land in scat­tered homes and a few small vil­lages. Notably, sev­er­al acres of what became Cen­tral Park belonged to one of the first vil­lages of free Black Amer­i­cans, Seneca Vil­lage. By the 1850s, Seneca Vil­lage was a mixed-race com­mu­ni­ty com­posed most­ly of Black res­i­dents, but also Irish and Ger­man immi­grants. In 1857, their well-loved neigh­bor­hoods were claimed by the city in the first use of emi­nent domain in U.S. his­to­ry. Res­i­dents were forced to move, so that the park could be built. (Cen­tral Park may have been one of the first places in the U.S. where park­land was acquired par­tial­ly at the cost of vul­ner­a­ble mem­bers of the pop­u­la­tion; unfor­tu­nate­ly, it also wasn’t the last.)

Ulti­mate­ly, after open­ing, Cen­tral Park and Prospect Park became increas­ing­ly (and enor­mous­ly) pop­u­lar. In the 1860s and ear­ly 1870s, mil­lions of city peo­ple of all class­es and back­grounds flocked to the parks to mean­der, pic­nic, and play. These vast, nature-filled parks gave New York­ers relief from the noise, hur­ry, and pol­lu­tion of the indus­tri­al city, and they sparked a movement.

Parks for the PeopleFrom there, a decades-long era of park cre­ation rip­pled across the U.S. and Cana­da. Dur­ing this time, cities of all sizes planned and built expan­sive parks of their own. Fred­er­ick Law Olm­st­ed designed hun­dreds of these parks and cham­pi­oned a demo­c­ra­t­ic vision for shared pub­lic space (and for cities planned around shared space) that shaped the parks’ move­ment and ben­e­fits us still today.

Through­out these years, trees were plant­ed by the mil­lions. Park mak­ers and city lead­ers hoped that tree-filled parks and tree-lined streets would become “the lungs” of cities, fil­ter­ing pol­lut­ed skies and giv­ing city peo­ple fresh­er air to breathe. Mean­while, more and more parks were strate­gi­cal­ly built along lakes and water­ways, help­ing to pro­tect drink­ing water, while also pre­serv­ing shared beauty.

While the vast his­toric parks built dur­ing the late 1800s served many, not every­one lived near enough to make reg­u­lar use of the parks. Thus, a move­ment for small­er, more acces­si­ble parks began in the ear­ly 1900s. Neigh­bor­hood parks were first embraced by the peo­ple of Chica­go. Their aim was to give every­one — espe­cial­ly the work­ing class­es — in all parts of the city, con­ve­nient green spaces to gath­er, rest, and play. These new parks were filled with pur­pose-built things for chil­dren and fam­i­lies to enjoy, like play­grounds (a new inven­tion!), ball fields, swim­ming pools, and bas­ket­ball courts. New park build­ings offered com­mu­ni­ty games and class­es, run­ning water for show­ers, and some­times even hot meals and med­ical ser­vices. Neigh­bor­hood parks were so suc­cess­ful in Chica­go, they inspired anoth­er wave of park cre­ation in cities and towns across the U.S. and Canada.

A Park Connects Us
illus­tra­tion © Ellen Rooney from A Park Con­nects Us | writ­ten by Sarah Nel­son | Owlkids Books, 2022

Like most every Amer­i­can sto­ry, the park sto­ry is an imper­fect one, filled with both tri­umphs and mis­takes. It’s worth remem­ber­ing that the park­land on which we stroll and play is the tra­di­tion­al land of myr­i­ad Indige­nous Peo­ples, and that there is still more work to do to make access to parks equi­table. Today, how­ev­er, parks remain some of our most valu­able insti­tu­tions. They’re the con­nec­tive tis­sue of healthy com­mu­ni­ties — impor­tant for our per­son­al well­be­ing, but also our shared joy. One hun­dred and fifty years after the urban parks’ move­ment began, we have tens of thou­sands of pub­lic parks in North Amer­i­ca, beau­ti­fy­ing and bring­ing togeth­er our cities and towns. And they belong to all of us.

So appre­ci­ate, use, and cel­e­brate the parks. Teach the chil­dren to love and share them. We are ever so lucky to have our parks and must car­ry on cre­at­ing and car­ing for these havens, so that who­ev­er and wher­ev­er we are, we will always have green places to gath­er, rest, and play.

Con­tin­ue the excur­sion through city park his­to­ry with these beau­ti­ful pic­ture books:

A Park Con­nects Us
By Sarah Nel­son; illus­trat­ed by Ellen Rooney | Owlkids Books, 2022

This love let­ter to city parks cel­e­brates the many ways parks con­nect us to neigh­bors and nature. Back mat­ter shares more moments of park his­to­ry and high­lights parks suc­cess­es around the world.

The Man Who Made Parks
By Frie­da Wishin­sky; illus­trat­ed by Song Nan Zhang | Tun­dra Books, 2009 

A beau­ti­ful­ly illus­trat­ed biog­ra­phy of Fred­er­ick Law Olm­st­ed tells the life sto­ry of the man who designed hun­dreds of our most beloved city parks and pub­lic spaces.

A Green Place to Be: The Cre­ation of Cen­tral Park
By Ash­ley Ben­ham Yaz­dani | Can­dlewick Press, 2019

Learn the sto­ry of the cre­ation of New York City’s Cen­tral Park in greater depth through live­ly text and pic­tures that that will help chil­dren con­nect with this park’s history.

Parks for the Peo­ple: How Fred­er­ick Law Olm­st­ed Designed Amer­i­ca
By Eliz­a­beth Par­tridge; illus­trat­ed by Bec­ca Stadt­lander | Viking Books for Young Read­ers, 2022

A biog­ra­phy of Fred­er­ick Law Olm­st­ed, high­light­ing the work Olm­st­ed did on three icon­ic Amer­i­can land­scapes: Cen­tral Park, Yosemite Nation­al Park, and the U.S. Capi­tol Grounds.

The Tree Lady
By H. Joseph Hop­kins; illus­trat­ed by Jill McEl­mur­ry | Beach Lane Books, 2013

Enjoy the heart­en­ing sto­ry of park mak­er Kate Ses­sions, the Moth­er of San Diego’s Bal­boa Park, who in the ear­ly 1900s trans­formed the city’s bar­ren park into a tree-filled sanctuary.

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2 years ago

Excel­lent! Thank you so much. So sad about the immoral use of emmi­nent domain. Ah, that we could find a bal­ance in shar­ing spaces and respect­ing pri­vate places.