Thinking about… City Parks

By Denis Gullickson

And who, pray tell, does that? Thinks about city parks?

Parks are for play, swinging on a swing so high you’ll touch the sky, and relaxation, chilling with your iPod on a sprawled blanket, and fun. Frisbee on a carefree afternoon.

Sure, there might be some thinking … a lotus position while channeling the chi of the universal hum or something like that.

But actually thinking about urban parks? Well, that just isn’t done. Is it?

The Start of Parks

A recent foray in New York City incited a few revelations for this writer: a profound reminder of the absolute marvel of Central Park, a jogged awareness of the democracy of public parks and the surprising significance of the position of park commissioner in affecting that democracy.

Toss into the mix the yin yang between the wealthy and the masses and you’ve got a much more interesting study than first meets the eye.

Public parks find their origins as “deer parks” set aside for hunting by the hoity-toity of the Middle Ages. Typically, they were surrounded by walls or hedges to keep the game in and the commoners out; enforcement of strict rules regarding access was typical. (One might conjure the ongoing battle between Mr. Robin Hood and his Merry Men and the Sheriff of Nottingham over that precious Sherwood Forest.)

Somewhere around the sixteenth century these deer parks expanded into landscaped expanses surrounding the mansions and country homes of the well-heeled. Indeed, this development gave rise to early landscape architects who — much like other artists patronized by the aristocracy — pushed the limits of what one could accomplished in their “field” combining natural features with those they designed.

Some of the earliest parks include Seville’s Alameda de Hércules, built in 1574 and Budapest’s City Park, which was private but later made public.

The first actual public park of record was Princes Park in the Liverpool suburb of Toxteth, designed by Joseph Paxton and opened in 1843. Princes Park carried forward the concept of designing landscape pioneered by John Nash at Regent’s Park and St. James’s Park as early as 1827. Another early British park was Peel Park, which opened in 1846.


The promenade became chic as London’s mercantile class strolled the ornamental grounds enjoying their leisure time while strutting their stuffy stuff.


Paxton then utilized ornamental grounds built around an informal lake within the framework of a winding carriageway at Birkenhead Park, which was begun in 1843 with public financing. In 1850, Frederick Law Olmstead visited Birkenhead and was enamored by its design elements.


By 1857 Olmstead had joined Calvert Vaux in laying out NYC’s Central Park and, a decade later, Brooklyn’s Prospect Park.


There are those who suggest that Olmstead and Vaux hadn’t had to look much further than Boston and its Commons, set aside in 1634, to find the world’s first public park. By 1830, it had achieved designated “park” status when grazing cattle was banned.


Pressures from population and industrialization opened up estates to the point where — by the early-19th Century — public parks were considered essential to the psyche of a bustling urban society. Greenswards amidst the busiest of cities hosted everything from leisurely strolls to the nascent game of baseball; ponds were dotted with rented rowboats.

By then, all hell had broken loose as the middle and lower classes pitched themselves into hard work and precious free time. Along with death, perhaps, the public park became the great equalizer as people of all walks of life partook in its offerings on nearly-even footing.

Representing early stirrings of environmental thought, urban open spaces like parks were also considered a way to stave off or define rapidly expanding cities during the Industrial Revolution. New York, for instance, nearly quadrupled in size between 1821 and 1855 and people were drawn to the disappearing open spaces — including cemeteries, even — for some respite from the noise and filth.

Both Olmstead and Vaux saw parks as equal parts works of art and essential aspects of urban life. Olmstead would come to be hailed as the “Father of Landscape Architecture.”

According to one website, “[Olmstead] believed that the perfect antidote to the stress and artificialness of urban life was a nice stroll through a pastoral park. He foresaw places with graceful undulating greensward and scattered growths of trees. He believed and promoted the idea that such an environment would promote a sense of tranquility. Olmsted’s vision was that the sense of calmness that would come from the park by his separation of the different landscape themes and conflicting uses.”

Olmstead’s impact would be far ranging — intellectually, aesthetically and geographically. His designs reached from Quebec to Niagara Falls to Boston to New York City to the U.S. Capitol Grounds to Riverside, IL to Atlanta, GA and beyond. His death, in 1903, would overlap the vigorous environmental efforts of Teddy Roosevelt.

Today’s Central Park “Problem”

It’s no shocker that Central Park is the most-visited city park in the U.S. It’s impossible to take in all that the park has to offer in a day; a week being more appropriate. Some suggest a lifetime is required.

An amazingly lush 843-acres in the approximate middle of Manhattan, “CP” is a wonder. It is also rolling in the dough — as is its sister park, Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. Both parks have lush ancillary organizations that raise most of each park’s annual budget and oversee the day-to-day maintenance and operations of their respective parks assuring that both parks will remain pristine public open spaces forever.

In the case of CP, the conservancy raises 75% of the parks annual budget. It has invested more than $600 million toward the park’s restoration and enhancement. Its revenue is listed at $352 million, with expenses at $58.3 million and an endowment of %690 million. Appropriately, its motto is “Central to the Park.”

Over in Brooklyn, things are more modest. There, the “Prospect Park Alliance” showed a total endowment of $4.69 million in an FY2013 audit.

Meanwhile, others of  NYC’s 1,900 parks are — at least relatively speaking— suffering. A look around tells a visitor that CP is surrounded by the rich and famous living in exclusive penthouse apartments. The park itself has become something of a mascot to many. A single, recent $1 million private donation to the park is proof enough.

One can imagine the watershed, then, when NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio and his recently named Parks Commissioner, Mitchell Silver, touted the idea of requiring wealthy park conservancies to share the goods with NYC’s poorer parks. “Call him Mayor Robin Hood,” went the lead in one story.

In fact, de Blasio and Silver are not alone. NY State Senator Daniel Squadron has proposed controversial legislation that would make it mandatory for well-off conservancies to fork over  twenty percent of their contributions to a “Neighborhood Parks Alliance.”

This writer caught de Blasio’s press conference where he introduced Silver as NYC’s newest parks commissioner, stating “I think it is an important and promising idea. I’ve said all along, we have to recognize inequalities in our parks, like so many other parts of life in New York City and we have to address them. I can tell you what I don’t like: I don’t like the status quo. I don’t like the notion there’s a lot of parks in our city in less advantaged neighborhoods that aren’t doing well; the parks aren’t those clean, safe spaces we want them to be. And we have to find way to address that.”

Opponents were quick to fire back. Adrian Benepe, Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s former parks commissioner, said, “stealing money from nonprofit organizations” was bad public policy. “The idea that a politician would tell a citizen who to donate their private donations to and how that money should be used flies in the face of American democracy. It’s crazy.”

Obviously the fight is a complicated one — raising many of the questions of the most-basic questions about parks, their roles in society, who is responsible for them and who they belong to.

GB’s Oldest Parks

While the story of GB’s parks isn’t nearly so glamorous, famous or contentious — at its root, it is the same as that of NYC and most other U.S. cities for that matter. Indeed, GB’s first parks were gifts from the frontier town’s go-getters to the rest of us. And, even today, one finds their names represented in the names of some of Titletown’s open urban spaces.

Daniel Whitney platted the village of Navarino in 1829. A bit later, Ramsey Crooks and Robert Stuart, agents of John Jacob Astor, laid out the village of Astor. In 1835, it was platted by James Doty. Basically, these two villages became the north and south sides of downtown Green Bay when they were joined in 1838.

The first listing of parks in Wright’s Green Bay City Directory appeared in 1884 under “Public Buildings, Halls, Blocks, Parks, Etc.” Delineated were Astor, Baird, Green Bay, Newberry, and Whitney Parks as well as Calhoun, Jackson, St. James and Webster Squares. Also listed, curiously, was “Smith’s Garden, east end Main.”

An aged document stamped “Kellogg Public Library” — probably from sometime in the 1930s — lists these parks and their dates of acquisition by the city during the 19th Century: Whitney Park, 1829; Jackson Square, St. John’s Park (formerly Calhoun Square), St. James Park (formerly Webster Square) and Astor Place, all 1835; Baird and Astor Parks, 1869; and Otto Tank Park, 1880.

Parks joining those in the 20th Century included: Joannes, 1919; Bay Beach, 1920; Fisk, 1922; Murphy, 1931; and Seymour (often called the “Slough”), 1931. The number of parks has grown since then to the point where a Google search will produce around 100 parks in the Green Bay area.

In early documentation, Whitney is credited with setting aside three open public spaces as “commons” in 1829. However, Whitney Park seems to be the only park to have emerged from those open public spaces.

As the city’s oldest park, it has seen its share of local color. It was the site of a football game starring an eighth grader named Curly Lambeau who led his middle-school mates to victory over an East High School frosh squad in 1912. It was also the site of a KKK meeting in 1924 with the park commission’s alleged blessing. It had a large bandstand that hosted weekly summer concerts until it was razed in 1942.

Green Bay Historian Jack Rudolph seemed to chortle at the notion that Whitney was generous in the space he reserved for his neighbors’ leisure. “While Whitney had reserved only what is not Whitney Park as a public square, Doty set aside five such blocks, now known as Jackson Square, Astor, Baird, St. James and St. John’s parks.”

On the Fox River’s west side, the austere presence of Fort Howard inhibited settlement somewhat. Eventually, however, the area along Broadway south of Dousman became a hot bed of merchants and manufacturing, producing well-heeled families on that side of the river as well. And — like their friends and foes along the opposite bank — they thought tracts of land designated as parks for public use were a good idea, too: Tank, Fisk, Seymour Parks represented just a few of those.

Newberry Park

Never heard of a “Newberry” Park? That’s surprising, really, since — outside of Bay Beach —  Newberry Park represents the greatest amount of historic oomph this city has ever seen.

You name it: baseball of every stripe, horseracing, football — including high school, college and NFL football, bowling, fistfights, concerts, picnics, summer strolls, skateboarding… Newberry Park has seen them all. Maybe you’re more familiar with Newberry Park in one of its later renditions — say, as Washington, Hagemeister or Joannes Park.

That’s right. Newberry Park was the original name of that expansive area located at the far-eastern end of Walnut Street — about a mile and a half from the Fox River. It was donated to the city by one Oliver H. Newberry of Detroit who owned lots of acreage in Green Bay.

By 1895, the area was being called Washington Park and it was there, on Saturday, September 21 of that year, that Titltetown witnessed its first-ever organized football game.

Baseball had been played there for years before that and the predominate feature of the park was the huge race track that hosted harness racing as well as the occasional flat race. In a few short years, Washington Park was divided up — houses appearing at the far southern end.

For years, the Wisconsin-Illinois baseball park sat in the area near the current-day ball grounds while the northern-most area — today’s site of East High School and City Stadium — would become Hagemeister Park and see some of the city’s first town team football as well as the first NFL Packers games.

In 1919, the Joannes Brothers donated what had been the approximate center of old Newberry-Washington Park to the city, it becoming the Joannes Park of today.

Bay Beach, Others

It’s Titletown’s “municipal amusement park.” There are those who suggest it’s the crown jewel of GB’s parks — putting it in some regal company.

At 700 acres, it might be smaller than Central Park. However — given the menagerie of rides and bay shore as well as its wildlife sanctuary, ponds and walkways — it is nearly as diverse. All it’s lacking is millions of dollars of endowment funds, though it does seem to be the focus of a large percentage of resources by the city’s park commission.

Indeed, the story of Bay Beach is an evolving one — even today as the Zippin Pippin rollercoaster evokes oohs and ahs and is joined by other rides like a Ferris wheel, the Scat, the Scrambler, train and boat rides, and the like. Two additional rides are projected in future years.

East Side Parks to check out:

Astor. Original plans had a “Manual Labor School” being built on the site. Proximity to two area hospitals and some of Green Bay’s oldest homes.

Preble. Named for the former burg. Once the site of “a sledding controversy” as kids slid down the hill and onto neighboring streets.

Optimist. Formerly East River Lawe Park now a part of the East River Parkway.

West Side Parks:

Atkinson. Once “Tower Park” for the water tower that stood on the property noted for its odd “silo.”

Colburn. Over 50 acres. Opened in the mid-1950s. Renamed with some contention after years as “Kolbusz Park.” Also famous for verboten sledding and its Olympic-sized swimming pool.

Fisk. Once the site of a large lagoon that split area residents for and against. In the late-50s, it was filled in. The original swimming pool was replaced by the Resch Aquatic Center in 2007.

Perkins. Named for a former president of the parks commission. Status as a park was held up as the city explored the possibility of building a new City Stadium in the vicinity.

This list merely scratches the surface. Readers likely have their own favorites — large, small, out of the way, special.

Why Parks?

The benefits of parks as well as other urban open space comes in several forms: recreation, aesthetics and environment. There is also growing evidence that the availability of open urban space is related to improved physical, spiritual, mental and emotional health.

GB’s parks abound with recreational opportunities — particularly in the summer with baseball, tennis, swimming and lawn games of every stripe, but also into the fall with football and winter with cross-country skiing, hockey and sledding.

The aesthetic value of urban open space is pretty obvious — especially when juxtaposed to the noise, grind and otherwise-dull hue of the city. Research shows that parks promote everything from positive outlooks to social interaction to cultural advancement to opportunities for social retreat to creative reflection and artistic action to civic involvement and support. An Australian study showed a correlation between community cohesion and public open spaces like parks.

British research looked at mortality and morbidity rates among three income levels in relation to their access to green open space. While the study confirmed that wealthier individuals were generally healthier than those with lower incomes, it also made a noteworthy finding: Irrespective of income, every income level showed improved health in proportion to their access to green space. It also showed that the differences in health status between income groups who had equivalent access to green space dissipated.

Parks are also crucial in exposing citified folks — especially kids — to natural processes as well as promoting biodiversity in the midst of the hustle and bustle.

Without putting a name on it, park designers such as Olmstead and Vaux as well as their early predecessors realized the collective impact of parks that were actually a series of nearly-separate ecological zones. As a result, the best of urban parks incorporate fields, woodlands, water features, rock formations and the like — increasing the biodiversity of the flora and fauna within the park and amplifying the experience of the visitor.

Green Bay area parks of note for this include, but are hardly limited to: Bay Beach, Joannes and Pamperin Parks, as well as others.


It’s summer. And after the wreck of a winter that we just went through, folks in Titletown are more anxious than ever to maximize their time out of doors before the onslaught begins anew. If you’re reading this anywhere in the Green Bay area, there’s a park just a few minutes’ walk away.

With live music in full swing and great restaurants nearby, your time enjoying GB’s city parks will be even better and… healthier. ν


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