A young couple in Central Park, 1992.
The creation of parks and public squares in American cities dates back to the earliest colonial settlements in Boston and Philadelphia. After the Boston Common opened in 1634, the Massachusetts Great Ponds Ordinance of 1641–1647 established that all ponds of ten acres or more were public. In Philadelphia, William Penn’s initial town plan arranged a rectangular grid with a central park and four small parks in each quadrant. New York’s Bowling Green was opened as a public park in 1733, provided a recreational site for all inhabitants of the city. Later, New York’s grid and plan of 1811 provided for public squares that are the current locations of Tompkins Square Park, Union Square Park, Madison Square Park, and Marcus Garvey Park (originally Mt. Morris Park).



A band playing music at a Latino festival in Flushing
Meadows Park, New York, 1996.
The development of landscaped rural cemeteries in Cambridge (Mt. Auburn, 1831), Philadelphia (Laurel Hill, 1836), and Brooklyn (Green-Wood, 1838) provided popular places for picnicking and promenading. Washington Park in Brooklyn’s Fort Greene (1847) furthered this social practice. Before the Civil War, leading citizens, including merchants, bankers, and editors, led the campaigns to create public landscaped parks to enhance the reputation of their cities. In New York, the Greensward plan of Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux (1858) won the competition to build Central Park. Olmsted’s firm went on to design and construct parks in cities throughout the nation.


Parachute Jump at Steeplechase Park, Coney
Island, 1946
Nineteenth century urban elites advocated creating public parks as places where they could gather to socialize and as antidotes to the congestion of urban life. Over time, parks have changed to meet the needs of new groups of park-goers and new kinds of activity. In dense urban environments, people often have little private space. Ironically, sometimes it is the public park where that private space can be found, as Bruce Davidson’s photo on the right clearly shows.



Band Concert at Belle Isle Isle Park, Detroit, c. 1905.