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Something About Public Parks

Contact with and contemplation of natural scenery, especially of pastoral scenery, bring positive refreshment to the mind. Green pastures and still waters now, as in the days of the Hebrew poet, restore the soul. This is a fundamental truth, and, therefore, it has profound practical importance.

— W. A. Stiles.

It is a mistake to suppose that the value of charming natural scenery lies wholly in the inducement which it presents to a change of mental occupations, exercise and air-taking. Besides and above this, it acts in a strictly remedial way to enable men to resist the harmful influences of ordinary town life... It is thus a sanative agent of vital importance.

— F. L. Olmsted.

There seems to be a very considerable misapprehension and inappreciation of the uses of a public park. In fact, a majority of people would probably say, if pressed to express their true feelings, that, personally, they could do very well without the parks. Parks and public gardens are generally felt to be a luxury, and suitable for the edification chiefly of people of leisure. On second thought, however, anyone must see the mistakenness of such views, though it is still very difficult to demonstrate the practical utility of public parks to the skeptic.

First of all, city parks have been likened to lungs, which help to purify the air and so make breathing less hazardous. Those who know how difficult it is in the city to get pure water or pure air will know how real such a benefit is. Perhaps the country visitor, who is used to clean air with plenty of oxygen in it, is most oppressed by the snuffy, dusty, filthy stuff he has to breathe when occasionally he comes to town. But such air is doubtless quite as harmful to those who are accustomed to it as to those who notice it more. It must be regarded as a prolific source of disease. Such air, however, when it has room to circulate, purifies itself with comparative rapidity; and the usefulness of even a small open space may extend to a considerable circumference.

The public park offers the only outdoor recreation room for very large numbers of city dwellers. This is not the place, nor is it necessary here, to argue that the hurried, worried city population stands in great need of such rest and recreation. It may be regarded as self-evident. One who looks about in any city park on any reasonably fair day will find how large a number of people have felt such a need; and he is much more likely to conclude that hundreds of others should have come to the park, than to think that those whom he sees have no business there. If one thinks about such things while he is in the park and sees the mothers with their babies, the girls and boys picnicking, the young people on their bicycles, the families in carriages, and the hundreds of others of every age and estate relaxing from the stress of ordinary care, he must conclude that these people get some good out of it, which, in the sum total, makes a rich interest on the park investment.

By far the most important purpose which the park serves, however, is that of mental sanitation. The merest novice in city living knows how wearing upon the mind, and upon the nerve centers generally, are the din and hurry and unrest from which no one has immunity. When continually exposed to such conditions," the mind and the senses become dulled and dimmed by the multitude of offensive impressions which they are obliged to bear. The senses need rest and the mind needs renovation. The man who does not bathe his body once a week is not thought respectable; yet no one blames him for letting his intellect go uncleansed for the space of a year. But as the mind responds much more quickly than the body to its environment, it demands the more frequent and thorough restoration. Many minds need thorough ablution,—disinfection. Every mind needs frequent rest and clarification. For these purposes nothing is better than rural scenery, quiet, and clean air. The quiet woodland shade, the cool greensward, the budding and blossoming flowers, have a powerfully refreshing influence which is felt by everyone, but underestimated by most of us. The problem of modern city life seems to be less the development of bodily perfections, than keeping the mind keyed up to the highest point of efficiency; and in the solution of that problem the open park ground must always prove a very important quantity.

If, now, we inquire how the best artistic effect is to be realized in the development of municipal parks, we have opened a most difficult and important question. Under the usual democratic method of management, an artistic success is in the highest degree improbable. We have already familiarized ourselves, in a previous chapter, with the primacy of the demand for unity in landscape composition. We have seen how necessary it is that one mind, disembarrassed of all extraneous influences, shall create one coherent plan which shall ever after be strictly followed. And yet the ordinary way is to do these things by legislation! Even after a park is fully established in some fair degree of completeness it must still suffer alterations with each change in the board of aldermen.

All this is not meant as an argument against democratic city government, but to point out clearly the tremendous difficulty of securing good landscape gardening in public parks, and to show how imperative it is that every means be taken to secure continuity and stability of park management. There is, of course, no argument to be brought against the demands of "practical politics;" but in those cases, not unknown, where common sense still has a hearing, there is yet hope for an intelligent treatment of this important question. There are places in this country where park superintendents have a fairly satisfactory tenure of office, and where they are allowed to manage, more or less, the development of park plans. There is an increasing tendency to employ competent landscape gardeners in the formation of parks, and other cheering signs combine to color our hope for a steady improvement of park management along with the improvement of public taste.

When we consider the purposes of a public park as set forth above, we will see at once why the natural method of gardening best subserves them, and why they are the better fulfilled the more natural and pronouncedly rural the treatment is. Quietness, restfulness, simplicity, are the most desirable qualities. And this emphasizes the inappropriate-ness of pattern bedding, of loud color designs, and of all the tricks, intricacies, extravagancies and artificialities which eat up the gardener's time and the city's money, and which, by so much, render the park unfit for its best service. It is said, with considerable truth, by gardeners and others, that the public demand the artificial color patterns. Many people feel obliged to cater to this taste, even though they regard it as childish. But it should be said that the disproportionate notice which such objects attract in a public park is not a safe measure of the satisfaction they give. Many visitors are benefited by the fresh grass and the cooling shade who do not notice the lawn and the trees; while those who exclaim most loudly over the wonderful Chinese puzzles in coleus are not helped by them in the smallest degree. Such vociferous features of park ornamentation may be very fairly compared with the crying evil of advertising displays. When once begun, there is no excess to which either one may not be compelled to go.


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