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The Park as Evolutionary Art

Posted On December 06, 2019 | 10:17 am | by ostmannj01 | Permalink
Heidi Hohmann charts 150 years of parkways, playground instructors, and change in Minneapolis

Heidi Hohmann, associate professor of landscape architecture at Iowa State University, was a fellow in Garden and Landscape Studies in spring 2019. Her research report, “Civic Ecology: The Evolution of the Minneapolis Park System,” pointed to evidence that park systems lend cities both flexibility and permanence.


Q&A with Heidi Hohmann

Where did the idea of a public park or a park system originate?

The earliest parks were royal hunting parks in Europe. By the early nineteenth century, royal parks were becoming public—access was gifted to citizens—and then, beginning with Birkenhead Park in England, became environments planned for cities. The idea of the public park was translated to the United States through A. J. Downing in the 1840s as he started lobbying for a park in New York. These efforts led to Central Park, designed by Calvert Vaux and Frederick Law Olmsted. Olmsted is generally considered the leader of the American park movement.

Of course, public open spaces already existed in other cities—Boston Common and the garden spaces of Savannah, Georgia, are examples. However, Olmsted’s major idea was that being in nature has a positive psychological impact on people. Central Park was one of the first parks constructed with an intent to affect individual and social well-being.

The park movement aimed to improve the urban environment; it was about social reform. A logical expansion—also pioneered by Olmsted—was to create park systems impacting the entire city. Basically, a park system is a network of roads, parks, playgrounds, and other landscapes threading through the city, sited according to regional ecology. A park system also represents a long-term vision, not something that will be built in a day or a year but in 100 or 150 years—at the timescale of the growth of trees! Finally, a park system has a social or political system to implement it, something Olmsted defined as a park commission. Today these systems are more varied and include things like public-private partnerships and friends groups.


What makes a park system evolutionary?

A park system evolves to meet the changing concerns of the city: what was important in 1890 isn’t always important today. And that’s really different from other works of art. We curate a park system differently than we do, say, a painting, which is preserved carefully to prevent change. A park system is different. It’s a growing, living, changing work of art. Looking at the history of a park, seeing it as something that’s living and breathing—that affects how we use and steward it.

Consider the Minneapolis park system. Nineteenth-century landscape architect H. W. S. Cleveland looked to a Parisian model and designed the system as a rectangular parkway system linking key natural features. But his plan couldn’t be implemented immediately, so his design isn’t what exists today. Instead, the system evolved based on economics and ease of land acquisition, among other things. It was a much more organic process. 

The natural features of the park system—its hydrology, topography, vegetation—also provide the city an evolutionary character. Although urban systems change quickly, natural systems change slowly. This slow change provides a kind of resiliency. Things get put into the city, things get taken out, but the underlying natural landscape of the park system remains. For example, Minneapolis is known as the city of lakes—an epithet stemming in part from the design of its park system. The lakes were originally really swampy. The park commissioners could have drained or filled them. But instead they dredged and made them bigger. You construct or enhance a natural identity, and then the city develops around it.


What is the Minneapolis park system like today?

It’s about 26 miles of parkways and approximately 3,500 acres of water, parks, and playgrounds. The Trust for Public Land has ranked the Minneapolis park system number 1 or very high in the United States for the several years. Parks are easily accessible and well-distributed.

The system’s past and present are really connected. Minneapolis is a good example of how Olmsted’s ideas progressed into the twentieth century. Cleveland and the park commission were thinking about the future, children, and creating a better kind of city. Was that paternalistic? Sure. There was a moralistic, educational overtone: they had playground instructors, for example. When’s the last time you saw a playground instructor? I don’t want to necessarily aggrandize their motives.

That’s not to say we can’t do better today. The ideas that built the Minneapolis park system were not static. They changed with the times. Today, one of the big issues confronting the park system is making sure that diverse populations have even greater access and know that it’s their park system—that they have representation on the park commission, for instance. That’s one of the things all park commissions around the country are working on now.


Julia Ostmann is postgraduate writing and reporting fellow at Dumbarton Oaks. Photo by Elizabeth Muñoz Huber, postgraduate digital media fellow.