In the beginning …..
The impact of the Industrial Revolution in the early 1800s on both sides of the Atlantic led to increasing urbanisation and a population that began to work indoors, in ‘the dark satanic mills’ of factories, rather than in outdoor active agricultural occupations. It was realised that people needed places to re-create themselves, and so the evolution of parks (and the word ‘recreation’).
When parks were first promoted in the nineteenth century, city officials had a strong belief in the potential health advantages that would result from open space. It was thought that parks would reduce disease, crime and social unrest as well as providing ‘green lungs’ for the city and areas for recreation.
In referring to London in 1829, famous landscape designer J.C. Loudon provided his Hints on Breathing Places for the Metropolis, and for Country Towns and Villages, on Fixed Principles, stating:
We hope that the legislature may not think it unworthy of their attention to take into consideration the subject of breathing places, on some systematic plan, calculated for the benefit of all ranks in all parts of the British metropolis.
Already at that time, it was also believed that exposure to nature fostered psychological well-being, reduced the stresses associated with urban working and living, and promoted physical health. These assumptions were used as justification for providing parks in cities, and preserving wilderness areas outside of cities for public use in the UK, Europe and USA.
In both England and the USA the focus was on the ability of non-work activity to improve the health, education, social adjustment and life chances of poor people, children, the elderly, handicapped and others who had few resources to replace the outdoor physical activity of agriculture-based peasant life. A less charitable interpretation is that nature-based recreation would shape their mental outlook and improve their character, making them more malleable in their new roles as industrial workers. And so open space was dedicated to provide these opportunities. The human relationship with nature was being recognised as deeply intertwined with both the human conscious and subconscious mind.
Poets and writers captured this (common) sense, like Wordsworth in his 1802 “Daffodils” which concludes with:
I gazed—and gazed—but little thought,
What wealth the show to me had brought:
For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.”
Irish writer and poet Oscar Wilde’s 1897 quotation, inscribed on his memorial statue in Merrion Square, Dublin, Ireland reads: “It seems to me we all look at nature too much and live with her too little.”
The various movements to establish parks centred on shaping urban development, preserving nature and creating opportunities for wholesome recreation, and on using recreation and exposure to nature to promote physical activity, character development, socialisation skills and education. In the UK the Registrar of Births Deaths and Marriages said in his annual report of 1845: “a Park in the East End of London would probably diminish the annual deaths by several thousands …. and add several years to the lives of the entire population”.
In the mid-1850s Frederick Olmsted championed the cause of city beautification in the USA, including a reference to Central Park in New York as “a healthy refuge from the over-crowded living sections in southern Manhattan”. A colleague referred to Olmsted as “An artist, he paints with lakes and wooded slopes; with lawns and banks.”
In his 1865 The Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Big Tree: A Preliminary Report Olmsted stated:
If we analyze the operations of scenes of beauty upon the mind, and consider the intimate relation of the mind upon the nervous system and the whole physical economy, the action and reaction which constantly occur between bodily and mental conditions, the reinvigoration which results from such scenes is readily comprehended. . . . The enjoyment of scenery employs the mind without fatigue and yet exercises it; tranquilizes it and yet enlivens it; and thus, through the influence of the mind over the body gives the effect of refreshing rest and reinvigoration to the whole system.
The promoters and champions of the first public parks also saw them as a means to boost the local economy and civic pride by making towns and cities attractive places to work and live. These parks were conceived as special places where all sections of society could enter free of charge and mix freely.
The City of London’s commitment to open spaces dates back to the 1870s when, in response to the rapid disappearance of many public open areas to make way for the building of new suburban homes and other developments (sounds familiar?), it embarked on an ambitious project to safeguard some of what remained. Two Acts of Parliament passed in 1878 granted the City of London the right to acquire and protect both Epping Forest and land within 25 miles of the City for the recreation and enjoyment of the public. This far-sighted policy was the inspiration behind the later Green Belt movement, designed to protect the countryside around other British cities from urban sprawl.
Meanwhile the natural landscapes further afield were similarly being valued. American geologist Ferdinand V. Hayden, while not the only person to have thought of creating a park in the Yellowstone region, was the park’s first and most enthusiastic advocate. He believed in “setting aside the area as a pleasure ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people”.
John Muir the respected Scottish-American naturalist, today referred to as the ‘Father of the National Parks’, said in 1898: “Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity; and that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life.”
Even in 1938 UK Professor G.M. Trevelyan wrote in the foreword to the Case for National Parks:
… it is no less essential for any national health scheme to preserve for the nation walking grounds and regions where young and old can enjoy the sight of unspoiled nature. And it is not a question of physical exercise only it is also a question of spiritual exercise and enjoyment. It is a question of spiritual values. Without sight of the beauty of nature the spiritual power of the British people will be atrophied!
Somewhere during the twentieth century, especially as the pace of lifestyle in industrialised Western society increased, that early rationale slowly became forgotten and, although parks have not entirely lost their connection with health, the modern emphasis has been mainly on their use as a venue for physical activity, particularly sport, or as tourism destinations. With increasing urbanisation the vital role that parks, green space and their associated biodiversity (especially in ‘convenient’ urban parks) play in offering health and well-being benefits and enhancing human appreciation becomes even more relevant, just as conserving this precious biodiversity becomes more important.
Meanwhile, in other parts of the world, especially in Asia, the concept of the value of contact with nature for medicinal, cultural and spiritual reasons has been far more ingrained than in Western society. Mystic natural places like mountains are revered for their spiritual powers. Traditional outdoor exercises have been practised for at least 2000 years. Walk through any park in Japan, China, Korea and Thailand and similar countries in the morning and you’ll see people right up to age 80s doing their daily workout of stretching and strengthening together with breathing exercises and acupressure and self-massage techniques of tai chi and yoga. It is in these countries where the benefits of shinrin-yoku (forest bathing) emerged.