10 Parks That Have Shaped American Cities

Central Park: An obvious but vastly influential urban green space featured on PBS' '10 Parks That Changed America.'. (Photo: Jimmy Baikovicius/flickr)

Although National Park Week just recently wrapped up, there’s no reason to halt the springtime celebration of America’s most beloved open spaces ...

Between “10 Homes That Changed America," “10 Towns That Changed America” and “10 Buildings That Changed America,” PBS Chicago affiliate WTTW leaves no proverbial stone unturned when paying respects to America’s most influential man-made marvels. The third episode in the “10 That Changed” series is dedicated to parks, particularly urban parks that have played a vital role in the development of our cities; parks not so much noted for their natural wonders but for shaping how we interact with where we live ... and with each other.

Originally airing on April 12 and now available to watch online or on-demand, the Geoffrey Baer-hosted “10 Parks That Changed America” packs a dizzying amount of history into a single hour. Spanning from colonial Georgia to 21st century Manhattan, diversity, like the other episodes in the series, is key. While each park featured is superlative in its own right, the selections aren’t always obvious ones. That is, not all of the parks featured are highly trafficked tourist magnets or historic landmarks. Some you may have never even heard of, let alone visited.

Yet, as WTTW explains, “beyond providing relief from the gritty city or as a place to connect with nature and each other, these parks also can tell us a good deal about our evolving civic tastes and priorities; about key moments in the history of urban planning; and about who we were, and are, as a society.”

Like with the other “10 That Changed” episodes, “10 Parks That Changed America” is accompanied by an info-packed interactive website that delves into the history of each pioneering urban green space. Users are also encouraged to submit their own two cents and suggest their favorite parks. And given that 10 is such a restrictive number, a shortlist of 10 more influential parks has also been included.

Now let’s visit those bold, beautiful, history-changing parks, shall we?

The public squares of Savannah, Georgia

A public square in Savannah, Georgia
Savannah's 22 historic public squares are great places to take a breather after eating your weight in fried chicken and candied yams. (Photo: Daniel X. O'Neil /flickr)

Say what you will about Savannah — the weather’s too swampy, it smells like rotten eggs, it’s overridden with ghosts — but there’s absolutely no denying that this stunningly preserved Southern seaport is dripping with atmosphere.

Savannah’s atmospheric charm is largely a result of the city's distinctive colonial layout. As America’s first planned city, Savannah’s original urban grid revolved around 24 petite public parks, the Savannah Squares, that grew from an original quartet of squares (Johnson, Wright, Telfair and Ellis) devised by General James Oglethorpe in 1733 as the city expanded outwards in an orderly fashion over 18th and 19th centuries. Each oak-studded square served as the well-shaded social centerpiece of a ward, which consists of four residential blocks and four blocks dedicated to civic-minded enterprises such as churches and museums. Today, all but two of the original Savannah Squares have been preserved. If anything, Savannah’s tidy, park-centric grid makes the city’s historic downtown core easier to navigate for out-of-towners who have been rendered delirious by the heat and one-too-many servings of Chatham Artillery Punch.

Fairmount Park, Philadelphia

Boathouse Row, Fairmount Park, Philadelphia
Fairmount Park and its exceptionally picturesque Boathouse Row were created to protect Philadelphia's water supply from industrial development. (Photo: b k /flickr)

As detailed by “10 That Changed,” Fairmount Park, a name used to refer to both Philadelphia’s expansive 63 property-strong park system and the system’s flagship park established in 1855, wasn’t necessarily borne out of the desire to provide 19th century Philadelphians with a stunning new park along the banks of the Schuylkill River. In fact, providing the green space-starved masses with a place to unwind, escape and congregate was more of a secondary concern.

The first? Protecting the water supply. You see, early Philadelphia long struggled with issues of clean drinking water. In 1793, an outbreak of yellow fever wiped out a sizable number of the city’s population and prompted hundreds more to flee and never return. City leaders needed to drastically overhaul its water infrastructure — and fast. In the early 19th century, a new waterworks on a hilltop above the Schuylkill was established, giving way to the safer distribution of water throughout the city. But given the era, the land around the waterworks was also ripe for industrial development, development that could threaten the water supply. By establishing a string of public parks along the river, the city thwarted further development, industrial and otherwise, while also acquiring magnificent residential estates. Borne out of dire urgency, Fairmount Park continues to benefit the City of Brotherly Love in more ways than one to this day.

Mount Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge/Watertown, Massachusetts

Mount Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge, Massachusetts
Thanks to Mount Auburn Cemetery, park-like graveyards were the place to hang out prior to the creation of large urban public parks like Central Park. (Photo: Friends of Mount Auburn/flickr)

True, you won’t find BBQ grills, baseball diamonds or sunbathing girls in bikinis at this iconic Boston-area green space. But if you’re in the mood for tranquil woodland gardens and poetic epitaphs, Mount Auburn Cemetery is the place to be. And you needn’t necessarily know an eternal resident to enjoy its many splendors.

When established in 1831 as America’s first rural cemetery, the nondenominational Mount Auburn Cemetery stood as a radical departure from cramped churchyards and urban burial grounds. While there’s no mistaking the lushly manicured 175-acre property’s primary function, Mount Auburn, for all intents and purposes, is a park. It was treated as such in the 19th century and, to this day, remains a popular escape from the hustle and the bustle of the city, particularly for birding enthusiasts and those who enjoy long, scenic and stunningly quiet walks.

Central Park, New York City

Cherry Blossoms, Central Park, NYC
Cherry blossom season in Central Park. That's Central Park West's famed San Remo apartment building in the background. (Photo: Shinya Suzuki/flickr)

Central Park is a park that needs little to no explanation.

Even those who have never set foot in Central Park — that is, those who never enjoyed a leisurely lap around the Onassis Reservoir, picnicked/people-watched in the Sheep Meadow or reenacted the opening from “Godspell” at Bethesda Fountain — know Central Park. Established in 1859 as a sort of de facto communal backyard for green space-starved 19th Manhattanites of all classes, the 843-acre urban oasis transformed landscape architects Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux into bona fide celebrities. As “10 That Changed” points out, Central Park, no matter how well you think you might know it, is remarkably deceptive by design. While the park’s famed natural geographic features such as the Pond and the Ramble might seem, well, natural, nearly every single square inch of Central Park was carefully constructed to give the illusion of a natural landscape that had existed for eons.

The neighborhood parks of Chicago

Davis Square Park, Chicago
Although not on the radar of most tourists, Chicago is home to numerous modest parks that played a vital role in the lives of the cities' early immigrant populations. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Jackson Park. Lincoln Park. Garfield Park. Millennium Park. Chicago is home to more than a few preeminent parks, both historic and contemporary. Each is visit-worthy in its own right. However the good folks at WTTW opted to eschew a single Chicago park and instead pay tribute to dozens of smaller, lesser-known urban green spaces scattered across the Windy City.

While these parks may not have the tourist-luring abilities of their larger contemporaries, the role they played in the growth of the city, particularly in the lives of working-class and immigrant residents, is invaluable. Under the progressive vision of South Park System superintendent J. Frank Foster, dozens of modest parks, most designed by Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. and John Charles Olmsted, sprouted up throughout underserved areas of the city during the late 19th and early 20 centuries. Explains “10 That Changed:” “For these working poor, the idea of a lovely Sunday stroll by a landscaped lagoon was a luxury — perhaps even folly — when necessities such as health care, education, and basic hygiene were not addressed.” With a keen eye toward social services, these parks not only provided fresh air but also a variety of other amenities like public swimming pools, libraries, gyms ball fields, and multi-faceted field houses, now-ubiquitous facilities that served as proto-community rec centers. The small neighborhood parks also featured a newfangled concept not found in Chicago's large lakeside parks: the playground.

The San Antonio River Walk

San Antonio Riverwalk
Although not established until 1941, it didn't take long for San Antonio's Paseo del Rio to become a top Texas tourist attraction. (Photo: Rach/flickr)

San Antonio’s top tourist attraction, save for the Alamo, is a curious, disorienting place: a meandering, shop and restaurant-lined riverside promenade seemingly plucked straight from Venice and imported to the Lone Star State’s second largest city — gondolas and quaint footbridges included.

Enchanting, romantic and filled with top-notch opportunities of the taco eating variety, the San Antonio River Walk — Paseo del Rio, if you’re a local — is another example of park-building as a means of preventing future disasters. In 1921, the San Antonio River experienced catastrophic flooding, claiming dozens of lives. City leaders sprung into action with ideas on how to tame the wild river and prevent future calamities. In lieu of paving over the river with concrete as was initially planned, San Antonio-born architect Robert Hugman had a better idea: a below-grade riverside park that married flood protection with urban beautification. Although Hugman’s initial vision for the so-called “Shops of Aragon and Romula” took years to become reality and was initially met with skepticism, this Texas landmark remains a bucket-list destination for Tex-Mex-scarfing tourists and urban renewal enthusiasts alike.

Overton Park, Memphis

Overton Park, Memphis
A swath of Overton Park's old growth forests were nearly destroyed by the expansion of a freeway. A grassroots organization made sure that didn't happen. (Photo: Memphis CVB/flickr)

There’s a lot of goodness packed into Overton Park’s 342 acres: a world-class zoo, a fine arts museum, a golf course, formal gardens, a historic open-air amphitheater with the requisite Elvis associations and 172-acre arboretum which stands as one of the few old growth forests remaining in all of Tennessee.

However, Overton Park’s inclusion on this list has little to do with its actual features. What’s most notable about this beloved Bluff City green space, first established in 1906, is the years-long preservation battle that saved it. During the 1960s and 1970s, a local grassroots advocacy group known as the Citizens to Preserve Overton Park fought like hell, and rightfully so, to block the state of Tennessee from demolishing a 26-acre swath of the park to make way for an extension of Interstate 40. In 1971, the battle went out all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court with Citizens to Preserve Overton Park vs. Volpe (Volpe being James A. Volpe, Secretary of Transportation at the time), a landmark conservation case in which the “little guys” — or in this case, “little old ladies in tennis shoes” — prevailed over government action.

Freeway Park, Seattle

Freeway Park, Seattle
A maze-like complex of concrete and greenery, Seattle's Freeway Park, as its name implies, is built directly over a major freeway as a 'lid.'. (Photo: magnoid/flickr)

When I was a kid, Freeway Park ruled — a thrilling, maze-like expanse of Brutalist fountains, massive concrete planters and winding ramps with weirdos around every corner. Even better, this game-changing urban green space served as a sort of de facto backyard for my grandmother, who still lives directly above the 5-acre park in Seattle’s First Hill neighborhood.

As a kid, the significance of Freeway Park was largely lost on me. I was too preoccupied with the crazy water features to realize that covering a major, neighborhood-severing freeway — Interstate 5, in this case — with a park-cum-lid was a huge deal. I just figured all downtowns had parks built atop freeways. But when completed in 1976, there was nothing else quite like landscape architect Lawrence Halprin’s audacious modernist design, a design meant to “heal the scar” left behind by the construction of I-5. Today, several other cities including Dallas have taken a similar approach by topping unsightly freeway projects with public parks.

Gasworks Park, Seattle

Gasworks Park, Seattle
As Seattle's spectacular Gas Works Park proves, even polluted old industrial sites can learn new tricks. (Photo: Wonderlane/flickr)

As the previous entry on this list, Freeway Park, goes to show, Seattle has proven itself to be a city adept at making parks work in somewhat unexpected places — and work exceptionally well.

There’s perhaps no better example of Seattle’s oddball/beautiful park-realizing prowess than Gas Works Park. Centered around the rusting ruins of an old coal gasification plant seemingly transported straight from some post-apocalyptic nightmare-scape, Gas Works Park is a park where the imagination is allowed to run free. (Just be careful where you step, as the park’s grassy expanses are positively covered with goose poop.) Opened in 1975, nearly 20 years after the facility itself was mothballed and subsequently became a hulking eyesore taking up a prime piece of Lake Union real estate, this brownfield site-turned-park is a much-lauded masterwork of adaptive reuse. It demonstrates that even the most unsightly, contaminated plots of industrial land can be reclaimed and transformed via landscape design wizardry (courtesy the great Richard Haag) and extensive bioremediation into something wondrous, evocative and not entirely new. As “10 That Changed” puts it: “Gas Works Park showed that sometimes a clean slate isn't as interesting as a dirty one and that history can be fun to climb on.”

The High Line, New York City

The High Line, New York City
Designed by James Corner Field Operations and Diller Scofidio + Renfro, Manhattan's High Line sparked the ariel greenway trend. (Photo: U.S. Department of Agriculture /flickr)

In a similar fashion to Gas Works Park, the team behind New York’s High Line tapped into the almighty power of reclamation and reuse to realize a spectacular, one-of-a-kind urban oasis.

Whereas Gas Works Park transformed a polluted industrial site into a singular swath of lakefront parkland, the High Line breathes new life into obsolete infrastructure in the form of an old elevated railway running nearly 1.5 miles along the Hudson River on Manhattan’s West Side. Since the first phase of the High Line opened to the public in 2009, this aerial parkway-cum-vegetated tourist magnet has prompted countless other cities — Chicago, Philadelphia and Miami, to name a couple — to embark on linear park projects built atop, under and around disused railways and other works of infrastructure. While the High Line does have its issues including overcrowding (I’ve previously called it “New York City’s most beautifully planted conveyor belt”) and the rapid gentrification of the formerly sleepy — and a bit seedy, but charmingly so — neighborhoods that it winds though, there’s simply no ignoring the many splendors of this $187 million park in the sky. Along with Central Park, the High Line begs to be visited ... just go super early in the morning or on a rainy day to avoid the madding crowds.

10 more parks that changed America

Boston Common; Grant Park, Chicago; Bryant Park, New York City; Prospect Park, Brooklyn, New York; Golden Gate Park, San Francisco; Chain of Lakes Regional Park, Minneapolis; Paley Park, New York City; Burke-Gilman Trail, Seattle; Yerba Buena Gardens, San Francisco; Millennium Park, Chicago.