Skip to content

Improvement and Care of Public Grounds

The Improvement and Care of Public Grounds, Conserving and Developing Natural Beauty

A paper delivered by William McMillan before the Horticultural Auxiliary of the “World’s Fair” Congress at Chicago, Illinois, on August 22, 1893.

That we may occupy a common stand-point, a clear idea of what is meant by the term “Natural Beauty” is necessary. But an exact definition on which we can all agree in theory, and apply alike in practice, cannot be given. The essence of beauty is such a subtle quality that no two persons are equally sensitive to its presence or susceptible to its charm. Beauty is the quality that excites in our minds pleasurable emotions through our sense of sight. But our sensibility to it depends on insight as well as eyesight. Thus it affects us in widely different degrees, according to our differences in individual taste, training, temperament, sentiment, feeling, fancy, imagination and other personal traits. The differences thus arising as to what is or is not beautiful are often so extreme that the assertation is sometimes made that “beauty exists in the eyes that sees, and not in the thing seen.”

These diverse views on the nature of beauty in the abstract warn us not to expect general agreement in regard to any concrete embodiment of it. Yet with reference to any feature of park improvement we can readily recognize what is or is not “natural” when presented to us, and the difference of opinion will simply be as to whether or not it is preferable to other forms of beauty in which the natural does not predominate. So after all a common standpoint may perhaps be found from which we may all see things in nearly the same light, and receive the same general impression of what is “pleasant to the eye.”

A suburban park is mainly designed for rural recreation, and natural beauty is most consistently expressed in its landscape scenery. Every natural feature that is pleasant to look upon has a special charm to people “cabined, cribbed, confined” most of their time by brick walls and stone pavements. Fevered by the excitement of an intensely artificial mode of life, or depressed by its exactions, they find relaxation and refreshment in the quiet serenity of Nature in wood and field, fresh air and open sky. Pleasing rural scenery is the fundamental element of every large park, and its enjoyment is the chief reason why such public grounds are made and maintained.

An important element of natural beauty in rural scenery is landscape perspective. To obtain this a park must have sufficient size to give space or scope for breadth of view, length of vista, atmospheric tone, half hidden reaches of clear water or rich green sward, open glades or winding dells bordered by bodies of foliage of irregular outline – the color and form of each component part blending in the distance; variety and intricacy of foreground, mystery of background and of boundary. These perspective effects are enhanced be pleasing inorganic feature of the place, the lay of the land and its surface characteristics, as well as the vegetation with which it may be clothed. The scene constantly varies as we change our point of view, or from day to day by fresh atmospheric conditions, and the changes incident to the progress of the seasons. In winter the general aspect may be totally different, but still impressive and pleasing, in character with place and time.

Viewing the grounds at closer range we may note the natural elements of beauty in detail, looking at the variations in surface contour, the conditions of soil, situation, moisture, fertility, rock substratum or outcrop, presence of water in stream or pond, the flowers, foliage and forms of woody plants and herbs, and the lowly grasses that clothe the open fields. These in their natural condition, more or less modified by human occupation, may be bald, rugged, sterile, stunted, defaced and unsightly in many respects. But the native capability and adaptability of the ground must furnish the basis for all improvement in order that the development may have the fitness, consistency and harmony with the original elements. The work of improvement will be in line with the most prominent and attractive natural features still dominant on the grounds, and will largely consist in repairing damages, softening what is harsh, cutting out what is unsightly, and filling in gaps caused by former adverse conditions.

The work may be guided by examples of natural beauty under similar conditions of soil, exposure and general situation, but where the local environment has been favorable to a finer development. Advancing further we may imagine an ideal picture in which every element of landscape beauty adapted to the place and the circumstances of its occupation are combined in just proportion and relationship. This excludes whatever is uncouth or incongruous in aspect, but admits of all improvement in keeping with the purpose of rural recreation and in harmony with the local “genius of the place.”

In developing natural beauty we must always have supreme regard to this question of “fitness of place.” It governs every detail of park construction as well as the finishing touches of ornamental embellishment. It rules the location and character of buildings, bridges, drives, rides, walks, plantation masses; in groves, groups, or beds, open greens, glades, lawns, floral displays, and every special decorative feature. As far as practicable, all should seem placed for general harmony and natural beauty, either singly or in combination, and nothing for mere show be itself regardless of its setting and the surrounding conditions. Hence trees, shrubs and flowering herbs should be naturally disposed and not seem forced together in uncongenial companionship, as if to attract attention by the oddity of the grouping, on the same principle of selection by which the menagerie showman collects the inmates of his “happy family.”

In the plantations the utmost richness and variety of material may be exhibited without any unnatural combinations. Where exotic plants are used requiring special culture, care and protection, they will be displayed mainly by themselves in a detached or distinctive section of the ground, where there can be appropriate elaboration of design and decorative detail in character with the special display of fine flowers, fancy foliage, or rare plants. Where the planting is intended to produce simple rural scenery, garden finery is an intrusion. But on a site adapted to decorative gardening it may be introduced to any extent consistent with the controlling conditions of artistic design and appropriate maintenance.

In a strictly urban ground of comparatively small area on a site relatively flat and bare, few of the local natural features may have sufficient prominence or distinction to invite their conservation or development. If the adjacent population be dense, the structural features required for public convenience in the use of the grounds will occupy so much space that the planting may be subordinate, and it must be based largely on formal architectural lines. This compels a certain regularity of plan, and a corresponding prominence of artificial detail at every point. A high order of beauty may be thus developed, the general arrangement may be the best for the purpose of the grounds, and therefore the artificiality will not be offensive, as it would be on a larger ground with more varied topography, and adapted to the free, varied, irregular treatment more in accordance with natural methods.

In the sylvan embellishment of public grounds of a rural character the wealth of materials afforded by our native flora of woody plants is, as a general rule, not fully appreciated. The native wood and underbrush may be carefully conserved, but the woody plants indigenous to the locality or vicinity will be sparingly represented in the younger plantations. This is unfortunate, because our native species of trees and shrubs are so numerous, varied and valuable for landscape embellishment. A large proportion have distinctive elements of beauty in flower, foliage, form or habit, surpassed by few foreign species. The numerous species of nut-bearing trees and of oaks have all distinctive and attractive traits in foliage and habit of growth. The rarity of their use for landscape effect may be due partly to the fact that being so common their distinctive character and value are overlooked, and partly because the seedlings are taprooted or scantily furnished with fibres, and therefore have to be transplanted at two or three years of age, or else be handled with special care and skill when set out.

The fine qualities of many of out native shrubs are also largely ignored in selecting plants for ornamental shrubberies. For many kinds there is so little demand that nurserymen do not propagate them, and those they do handle may be imported plants raised abroad from exported seed. This may be partly due to adverse conditions here of climate and cost of labor, but it also shows public indifference to a remarkable extent. The brilliant autumn foliage of many kinds of our shrubs, and trees as well, should also tell in their favor. The gorgeous coloring they exhibit in October excites the admiration of foreign traveler. Planting for autumn effect is worthy of experiment, but it is rarely considered. Of course, to give richness and variety, all kinds of woody plants, native and foreign, may be used that are fully adapted to the local conditions of soil, sub-soil, root-moisture, sun, wind and general exposure.

The elements of natural beauty in the form and foliage of tree and shrub receive scant attention in general. The differences in form and habit and in the shades of green are infinite, and the manner in which they mingle and blend in combination is natural beauty of the highest order. This may be emphasized by skillful selection in planting, giving prominence to the more attractive qualities, with due regard to place and proportion. The field for development is boundless if we copy nature’s example, “Age cannot wither nor custom stale her infinite variety.” In this connection the cone bearing evergreens should have their appointed place, both because of their distinctive characteristics of growth and their effect in winter scenery. Broad-leaved evergreen shrubs are also a distinctive class of great beauty when their native qualities can be fully displayed by thrifty, vigorous growth. Their bright foliage is especially valuable in winter if it be able to brave a zero temperature, but very few plants of this class can hold their gloss and verdure against the heat, drought and cold of our climate.

In the selection of the kinds of trees and shrubs to be used in the improvement of the grounds, hardiness and healthy growth under ordinary care and possible neglect are important conditions. Every plant is beautiful or nor in proportion of the degree in which it shows the fresh bloom of perfect health. Certain trees and shrubs may have little distinctive beauty of foliage, flower, fruit or form, but thrifty growth, in spite of heat, drought, frost, sterility of soil and all insect and fungus plagues, reveals natural beauty in high relief. Others of surpassing beauty, in countries where the conditions of earth, air and water are favorable, become unsightly here with the first symptoms of constitutional weakness. Our climate is so inhospitable to plants from milder or moister countries that the culture of many desirable kinds of doubtful constitution requires a degree of skill and care that can rarely be given in public grounds. Many fine plants of this class can be more successfully grown in private estates where they are exempt from many casualties that are the constant accompaniment of public occupation. All shrubs that are especially conspicuous when in flower, as well as those comparatively rare and delicate, are sure to be more or less despoiled by vandals in spite of the most watchful protection.

In all planting for landscape effect the future development, both near and far, must be taken into account. Usually trees and shrubs are set out too near each other, partly for immediate effect, partly to exhibit the beauty of blended form and color when closely grouped or massed, and partly to shelter plants delicate while young. Such work must be closely watched to prevent serious damage to trees intended to stand a century or more. For the fact must not be overlooked that trees yearly increase in the expression of their natural beauty, and that even old age as well as full size have inestimable value in all sylvan embellishment. The methods of conserving and developing to the full the best typical characteristics of the species, each after its kind, are of the utmost importance in every public ground.

In grounds of liberal extent certain portions will probably be found where natural beauty may be developed be introducing a good collection of the finer herbaceous plants of hardy constitution, both native and foreign. Dealers who make a specialty of their propagation publish long catalogues. A wide choice can be made to fit in harmoniously with any ordinary conditions of soil, moisture, exposure and relationship. For effect in mass, distant nooks and bays, readily seen from the lines of travel, may be filled in with advantage to the woody plantations adjacent. In spite of the weedy character of many plants in this class the fence borders of neglected fields often surprise us with beautiful wild flowers. Late in autumn when exotic bedding plants are frost bitten, masses of asters and golden rods show a freshness of leaf and a profusion of bloom worthy of any garden in midsummer. To attain a similar effect in cultivated grounds without violent contrast is difficult, but in certain sections a large degree of wildness may be suitable. Showy herbaceous plants may be largely used, however, without suggesting neglect or slovenliness. Many of these hardy plants are fit inmates of any garden, and may be treated with more or less garden-like trimness and formality. Many hardy biennials and perennials are among our finest garden flowers.

A prominent floral display of exotic plants is not in character with the general tone of a rural landscape. The contrast is usually too strong to be agreeable, but in small grounds of a formal type, or in sections of a larger ground, where artificial constructions are prominent, the luxury of a flower garden will be more fitly enjoyed. The plan and the planting will probably reflect the popular taste of the time and place. At present, high color of either flower or leaf, novel and elaborate design, conventional symbols or emblematic figures, execution triumphant over difficult construction, are more valued than the intrinsic merits of the plants. But during the noonday height of each popular favorite, the care and skill bestowed in its cultivation bring out its special traits to the fullest ideal of perfection. In some grounds of large extent, the bedding plants are made the chief feature of interest, and all other features are more or less overlooked or ignored.

Where there is a conspicuous display of flowers and foliage plants, propagating houses of corresponding extent are requisite. For convenience in use and architectural effect, their place is on the margin of the formal garden. In their construction, solidity and durability are as important as ornament. In some parks large conservatories, palm houses, horticultural halls and winter gardens are introduced in addition to the structures for the propagation of bedding plants. These imply a luxury of taste, a wealth of refinement and a liberality of private patronage or public support which but a few or our municipal corporations can attain, or maintain permanently against fitful changes in popular taste, or demagogic charges of extravagance. Such costly features are especially unfortunate if their creditable maintenance can only be secured at the expense of decent keeping of the grounds at large.

A body of clear water in running stream or placid pond is a beautiful landscape feature. It gives life and expression “as the eye to the human countenance.” Its color complements the green of vegetation, its mobility contrasts with the solid earth, it glistens in sunshine and glooms in storm, and faithfully mirrors the surrounding borders. If the volume be small but constant, a flowing rill in a natural basin will be more interesting than the same quantity in a pool. Its uses for bathing in summer and skating in winter are always popular features. But it is a nuisance if the supply be insufficient to keep it clear and pure.

Small pools in marshy grounds are the natural home of aquatic plants. Many of this class are exceedingly attractive be their special forms and habits as well as by their flowers or foliage. Where they can be fittingly introduced and successfully grown, they add a distinctive feature to the natural beauty of any grounds. At present their cultivation is in the height of the fashion, and costly experiments are made with new kinds, even to the introduction of tepid water for sub-tropical species. Some lily ponds are as artificial in their construction as any greenhouse conservatory, and a conspicuous place may be given them in the centre of a flower garden, beside playing fountains and water-nymph statuary. But the natural beauty of hardy aquatics is more easily and fitly developed along the margin of some meandering brook in its quiet eddies and pools, or in shallow ponds where the low ground seems naturally overflowed.

In every public ground there should be a due proportion of smooth lawn or open green. There is a special beauty in a broad stretch of fresh-hued greensward, made to be looked at and not trod upon. Park visitors, in general think they can “eat their cake and have it too” – enjoy the beauty of a finely kept lawn and yet daily trample the sod. All restrictions are resented, and each green lawn is coveted for games of some sort, to an extent incompatible with its preservation. Where the turf has any shade, it is wanted as a picnic “common” with the same result. Margins of walks are obliterated in like manner, and beaten footways trod out wherever any short cut can be found. There is no feature of a park so popular as a short cross-cut, especially if the practice is known to be a trespass. The license first overlooked because no damage is yet apparent, then openly allowed because the usage is so common, soon spreads to like abuses of the shrubbery and younger trees, with results still more destructive. In all large grounds suitable sections are especially prepared for playgrounds and commons, but it is essential that the spaces reserved for smooth lawn and decorative gardening should not be overrun.

Because, as a rule, the damage done by each trespasser is in itself scarcely perceptible, few realize the great destruction both to greensward and shrubbery which results from the constant repetition day after day of petty trespasses, each in itself insignificant. The worst of it is that as soon as at any point some special line of trespass begins to leave an ugly mark behind it, the evidence of the damage done instead of restraining others seems rather to tempt every other passer-by to repeat the offense.The printed text is “offence”. In proportion as the tasteful and ornamental character of the grounds disappears there seems always, of course, the less reason why regard should be given to any stray habits of the original habit in which it was dressed. Park police are powerless to stop such usages once they get headway, as trespassers know they may be defied with impunity. Only those persons can be checked who can appreciate the necessity of strict regulations. Arrest and trial are useless, as the punishment inflicted, if any, is never sufficient to warn others, or even to prevent a repetition of the same offense.

Thus, instead of the neat and trim aspect which a pleasure ground should exhibit, it assumes a neglected, slovenly appearance, very unsightly to every person who has any regard for the tasteful embellishment of public grounds. Much of the pleasure is lost which would be enjoyed if the grounds were carefully kept and orderly behavior everywhere enforced. The value of the grounds is utterly lost to those visitors who may wish to gratify a refined taste for the beautiful in nature. Apart from loss of character and reputation, the loss involved in the cost of annual repairs, or by permanent destruction of property, is also an important item.

The care, or the satisfactory management and maintenance of public grounds, is a more difficult work than their construction. The general design of the improvement may be already imprinted on the grounds, the controlling motive may be apparent, the beauty beginning to develop be appreciated, and it becomes a popular resort for the recreation it was intended to provide. But many misunderstand its functions, take little interest in the natural beauty of the landscape, look upon drives, rides and walks as more important features than the scenery in which they are set; see in the open greens only an opportunity for athletic games; in the woods, only a resort for the usual picnic sports, and in the waters, only facilities for rowing, sailing or skating, according to the season. So demands are soon made that permission be given to each class to indulge in the out-door pastimes in which each is especially interested for the time being. Owners of fast horses want a speed-way for racing sports, equestrians want the open stretches of turf for galloping on, hurdles to be set up for them to jump over, and a special section reserved for polo playing; bicycle {Printed text reads “bycicle”.} riders want special tracks for distinctive display or for competitions of speed, and visitors on foot want the license of going anywhere at a will and doing as they please. This license encourages the worst vandals in the community to indulge their evil propensities to the utmost. Thus the sufferance of the lawless becomes the rule by which the standard of maintenance is governed.

Others spy out a chance to advance some personal scheme of private advantage under the cloak of concern for the public good. Space is wanted for a merry-go-round “for the amusement of the children.” Some sharp slope is just the right pitch for a toboggan slide or a coasting chute; an amphitheater-like sweep of bank is coveted for spectacular exhibitions, circus feats, shooting-matches, etc., with all their paraphernalia of tents and enclosures. The smaller greens must be devoted to tennis and croquet, the larger to baseball and lacrosse, and the largest to military manoeuvres and mass meetings. Thus, at every point, usages creep in which are, in many respects, inconsistent with the conservation of natural beauty, and in the end utterly destructive of its most attractive features.

Similar damages arise from other causes. The owners or occupiers of the land adjacent to the park boundary become dissatisfied with their position at the back of the picture. They think it would be much improved (to them, at least) if the frame were knocked off. The effect to the public at large who can look at it only in front is to them a matter of no consequence. So new gateways are urged wherever any plausible plea can be offered for them; openings in the border screen are wanted opposite this man’s bay window or that man’s vacant lot to improve the private view or to help the sale of the property. These schemes succeeding more or less, a combined raid is next made on the boundary fence because “it is unsightly, it is useless, it is a relic of barbarism, a sign of aristocratic exclusiveness,” and so forth. “The grounds belong to the public, and they should not even seem to be shut out from their own. If removed, they may be trusted not to abuse the confidence reposed in them. The temptation to trespass would be resisted, and the proper gateways only would be used for entrance or exit just as before.” The fence accordingly is removed, and the boundary is immediately overrun in every direction. The constructed walks become anomalous, as tracks are soon beaten out in the grass on all the direct lines of passage, and all semblance of order vanishes from the grounds along with the last vestiges of garden finish and ornamental embellishment.

These usages are fatal to all artistic design, as shabby gentility is especially offensive to good taste. Their effects are more of less visible in all our public grounds, and most seriously deface what were originally the fairest portions. This has led to some reaction against any careful finish, and to a demand for simplicity to the extent of crudeness; all open grounds to be treated as commons, and all plantations as if they were natural woods. But the natural beauty of the simplest scenery is soon destroyed by such public usage. Whatever the style of improvement may be, it must be maintained intact and perfect after its kind, else all the money spent on it is worse than thrown away.

This is not meant to discredit the taste which selects for public grounds sites where pronounced natural features are the chief attraction, without any improvement, so-called, except what is necessary for convenient locomotion in public use. Examples of this class may be cited where their grandeur or picturesqueness make fine embellishment an intolerable intrusion. Such are the Wissahickon Glen at Philadelphia, the Gorge of the Genesee at Rochester, East Rock and West Rock Crags at New Haven, the Lynn Woods at Lynn, Burnett Woods at Cincinnati; the State Reservations at Niagara, Minnehaha and the Dalles of the St. Croix. The taste which perceives the scenic value of such places and conserves them for public enjoyment, is a promising sign of the strength of public sentiment which in any community may be depended on to support all intelligent effort in the improvement of a public ground to conserve and develop its natural beauty.