Globally, a dramatic demographic shift towards urbanisation is occurring. According to UN figures, 54 percent of the world’s population lives in urban areas, a proportion that is expected to increase to 66 percent by 2050. This rapid urbanisation poses immense problems through effects such an environmental pollution, medical issues, heat island effects, and climate change.
Over the past few decades, the urban park, in all its forms, has emerged as a critical tool in revitalising cities and solving a variety of urban issues, including: regenerating economically deprived areas; bringing nature into the city; rejuvenating neighbourhoods; creating a space for physical interaction in our increasingly digital world; and improving city sustainability.
Until the mid 1600s urban parks were private; the exclusive domain of wealthy families and royalty. By the mid 1800s urban parks were starting to be seen as a way to serve the public and later as a remedy for social ills caused by the Industrial Revolution and overcrowding in lower income neighbourhoods. Parks in the Romantic Period (1850 – 1890) were typically large green spaces located at the edge of a city that offered the ideal of the pastoral landscape. These “Pleasure Grounds” allowed for both active and passive – or contemplative—recreation and became playgrounds of the rich given they were too far away for the working class.
Today urban parks are increasingly being created from reclaimed lands in and around cities. Viewed as essential to the well-being of residents and as an effective way to promote economic development, they represent a new imaginative era of experimentation.
This photographic narrative offers a timeline of urban parks beginning in 1660, when St. James’s Park in London was made available to the public, up to the present day. It illustrates the evolving nature of urban parks over time and the philosophies behind them, reflecting the cultural history and social values of their origin.
The project was initiated as a commission for National Geographic Magazine in 2015 and was published in the April 2016 issue, viewable online here. A book of the work was published by Editions Bessard in 2018.