Reuniting Man and Nature:
The Need for Natural Landscapes in Urban Areas

The time will come when New York will be built up, when all the grading and filling will be done, and when the picturesquely-varied, rocky formation of the Island will have been converted into the foundations for rows of monotonous straight streets, and piles of erect, angular buildings. There will be no suggestion left of its present varied surface, with the single exception of the few acres contained in the Park. Then the priceless value of the present picturesque outlines of the ground will be more distinctly perceived, and its adaptability for its purpose more fully recognized. It therefore seems desirable to interfere with its easy, undulating outlines, and picturesque, rocky serenity as little as possible, and, on the other hand, to endeavor rapidly, and by every legitimate means, to increase and judiciously develop these particularly individual and characteristic sources of landscape effects.
- From a letter dated May 31st, 1858, written by Frederick Law Olmstead, Architect-in-Chief of New York City's Central Park, to the Board of Commissioners of The Central Park. [1]

This paper examines the presence of natural landscapes within cities. These landscapes will be addressed through two themes: urban waterfronts and urban parks. Waterfronts and parks play many key roles in the workings of a city. These roles show the importance of natural landscapes in maintaining urban vitality. Roots of the current problems facing cities are first examined. The roles of specific urban waterfronts and parks are then reviewed with respect to some general research. It is my thesis that the presence of natural landscapes is helpful for urban development and redevelopment.

I. Urban Development

Man originated in the wild. Around the time of the latest Ice Age, humans emerged as hunters and gatherers, people whose livelihood depended on the plants and animals of the land on which they lived (Fellmann, Getis, & Getis, 1992). Hunting animals and gathering plants from natural growth provided enough food for everyone. The human race thrived in the landscape left by the receding glaciers of the Ice Age. Primitive stone tools were also developed to aid in life's workings. The population spread over most of the earth and grew immensely.

Population growth required a more productive means of obtaining food. Agriculture was discovered as a more productive method of subsistence than gathering. In a similar manner, hunters became herders. Rather than taking from the land that which they needed by hunting and gathering, people started to mold the land to serve their own needs by herding and farming (Fellmann, Getis, & Getis, 1992). The implementation of agriculture, over time, changed many of the previous ways of life. Technological innovations allowed many humans to become detached from the workings of the earth. The domestication of plants and animals also marked a change from the land influencing people to the people influencing the land.

The interaction of people and their environment was determined not only by landscape, but the culture of the people. As human lifestyles evolved, tribes and societies formed centers for trade and other activities. Permanent settlements soon developed due to the discovery of agriculture: farmers could no longer roam freely about the landscape, but rather had to stay in restricted areas in order to tend to their crops. Several important locations for farming and trade emerged as cultural hearths. These areas were the centers of cultural development (Fellmann, Getis, & Getis, 1992).

A consequence of the forming of cultural hearths was the founding of cities (Fellmann, Getis, & Getis, 1992). Because so many cultures were evolving, they invariably came into conflict with each over. Societies needed land on which to live, and the better land was contested by rival societies. Fort technology developed as a means for people to defend their land. Forts grew into castles, and these places became the location of many activities. Castles and their surrounding settlements developed into villages and then cities.

Cities became key areas for economic and cultural activity because of their central location and concentrated population (Fellmann, Getis, & Getis, 1992). Networks of cities grew into large nations and states as more and more cities were founded. Forests were often cleared for this purpose. Cities were also often begun along waterfronts because of their accessible location. In this manner cultures grew from societies that lived on the land to those that built over it.

These changes were well justified by the cultures that carried them out. In contrast to more primitive societies that remained hunters and gatherers, urbanization was viewed as a sign of a more refined civilization. People were taught to view the environment in which their ancestors thrived as an evil and savage place. Further advances in agriculture allowed people to live in cities without having to directly care for their basic needs; not nearly as many farmers were required to feed the entire population. Attention was able to be turned to more technological developments. Modern trends of urbanization were welcomed as signs of cultural advancement.

Highly functional skyscrapers that looked like nothing more than glass boxes soon dominated the city landscape. Yet despite the apparently linear progression of humans' habitat from the wilderness to the city, many people still had reservations. Naturalist schools of philosophy questioned not only the separation of man from nature, but the need for cities and governments as well. Today, postmodern trends in philosophy and architecture restate these same concerns. With the unstable conditions of many cities today, what our relationship with nature should be remains an open question.

It is important to begin by examining the history behind the current problems facing cities because, as we shall later see, this is where we may also find their solutions. Most cities today have many social and economic problems. Social problems include racial disputes between members of several interacting cultures. Segregation still occurs in housing and job markets, causing unequal opportunities and conflicts.

Economic problems also arise from a general trend in suburbinization. Nearly 70 percent of the metropolitan residents of this country reside in the suburbs (Hughes, Kingsley, & Peterson, 1993). These migrations are paralleled by a suburbinization of the job market, a movement that leaves many problems in its wake. Besides the decreased economy of the city core, poor and minority groups remain stuck in the inner city as a consequence. The advantages of living in the city core have diminished due to advances in transportation and a subsequent relocation of industrial centers. This leaves room for abundant low income housing in the abandoned industrial centers. Low income housing is therefore not planned in the suburbs.

The goal of urban revitalization is to solve these problems by making the city core an advantageous place to live in once again. Strategies include dispersing the concentrated lower class from the inner city, developing the area to attract more income, and training inner city residents for better paying jobs (Hughes, Kingsley, & Peterson, 1993). It is at this stage where the roles of waterfront development and the presence of parks play a key role in the process of urban revitalization.

II. Urban Waterfronts

In general, the history of urban waterfront developments can be understood from a modified version of the economic rent model (West, 1989). This theory of land use is also known as the rule of bid rent for highest and best use. The model was made based on the theory and empirical data that suggest land use is determined by the economic possibilities in each area. The predominant condition of urban waterfronts before the late 1950s shows that the city harbor was a central place for business relating to ocean cargo. In addition to the central location, industry was also planned along rivers due to an availability of hydropower and easy waste disposal. Many of these businesses were later relocated due to advances in railway and highway transportation. Urban waterfront industry was no longer the least expensive way of manufacturing and transporting goods. Industry moved to cheaper land because of the ease in transportation, and the city core became deindustrialized. In the 1960s and 1970s the urban waterfront existed as something of an industrial wasteland because of its low economic and social conditions.

However, the deindustrialization of the waterfront area does not need to cause the complete abandonment of the area. Instead, many other developments can make use of the waterfront. In many ways the deindustrialization of the waterfront is a blessing. This is because there is now room for not just industry, but commercial, residential, and public access space as well. Therefore, the deindustrialization of the waterfront, although initially leading to a decline of the area's worth, may in the end allow for a rebirth of the waterfront as a more enjoyable and recreational area.

In many cities, efforts are currently being made to renew the strength of the waterfront. These efforts are supported by several conditions. Vacant industrial highways, waterways and railways are in many ways prime spots for development. Land left vacant by deindustrialization is now cheaper. These areas have high aesthetic and functional values due to their proximity to water and the city core. Because of the many potential overlapping jurisdictions of government that are involved, however, detailed planning is essential for such waterfront development and redevelopment (Mulvihill, 1991).

An example will help to illustrate the processes involved in waterfront development. This case is the planning of development along New York City's waterfront. Zoning rules concerning building size limits and public access spaces were first approved by the New York City Planning Commission. Provisions called for as much as 20 percent of the lot area in residential districts to be accessible to the public (NY Times, 8/17/93). The rules were ratified by the City Council's Land Use Commission (NY Times, 10/7/93), and soon afterwards by the full council. The goal of these provisions was to encourage development of this neglected strip of land without cutting off public access. The city wanted to make more money through property taxes, but still allow the general population to enjoy the area. This establishes a public and private partnership which is viewed as a step in the right direction (NY Times, 10/14/93). There are also currently some twenty projects just a few hundred yards away on the New Jersey coast, including Newport Center, Port Liberte, and a new ferry service (Smolski, 1990).

Many different developments can be planned along the urban waterfront. Large scale mixed use developments offer many commercial and economic opportunities. These projects contribute a great deal to the process of re-establishing the vitality of the inner city. Other types of developments are more social than economic. Parks, river edges, and environmental art all add to the cultural landscape. Of similar importance are restorations and preservations of historical sites along the waterfront. Lastly, marketplaces, festivals, World Expos and the like contribute much to an area's well being (Mann, 1988). They are not only a source of economic contributions to the city, but also enhance the culture of the area.

St. Paul, a town that was founded on the Mississippi River in the mid 1800s, serves as another example of an area undergoing waterfront redevelopment. The higher economic efficiency of railways decimated the waterfront industry in the late 1800s. During this change in the riverfront area, the upper class moved to higher ground in the suburbs. Low income housing took over the riverfront area, but this too thinned out with the decrease in immigration. Barges appeared on the river by the 1940s, but industrial expansion sagged once more due to the rise of suburban ports (Eversman, 1993).

Waterfront redevelopment is currently working by changing the original function of port areas. As early as 1986, plans were being made to rebuild the empty waterfront land. Plans were drafted by the Downtown Riverfront Commission and passed by the City Council, but never came to focus, however, because the river cleanup took more effort than expected. A new plan called for strict guidelines for housing projects along the riverfront, and failed to bring in any proposals or private investments (St. Paul Pioneer Press, 2/13/94).

Many organizations are still offering their proposals to claim the St. Paul waterfront. Included are ideas for an amphitheater, a relocated Science Museum, housing, offices, and manufacturing. By this time the 1986 plan is deemed to be out of date, but new attention is being paid to the potential that waterfront development holds. Despite the decreased percentage of river traffic, the area has a rich history. Detailed planning is important and holistic plans are essential to work with downtown redevelopment in order to construct a truly working waterfront and downtown (St. Paul Pioneer Press, 2/13/94).

Three issues should be considered when building on the waterfront. Landscape architects involved in the planning process should first consider the functional value of their work. This includes attention paid to accessibility and security. As well as planning flood control, environmental education should also be implemented to ensure protection of the land and wildlife. Finally, the most important aspect of a proposed development is its contextual fit within the existing landscape (Breen & Rigby, 1991).

This last issue relates to the postmodern trend in architecture. In some ways this movement is a turn away from the modern strive for urbanization. Rather than a collection of glass boxes, postmodern architecture tries to give buildings more character and make them look welcoming. Buildings are designed as more of an addition to the natural landscape than an intrusion to it. Especially along the waterfront, then, where cities usually first began, a sense of serenity and natural presence, along with an attention to its historical importance, is needed to bring about the area's full worth. Along with this significance, its physical connection to the city and its previously mentioned economic and cultural potential make the waterfront a key resource in inner city redevelopment (Smolski, 1990).

III. Urban Parks

I now wish to explain how the presence of urban parks is also a part of the urban revitalization process. Many urban parks exist today as the bankrupt estates of early residents who acquired forest tracts in settled areas (Loeb, 1989). Yet a role reversal exists between these estates of the past and their nearby cities and the urban parks of today and their surroundings. Against the backdrop of nature, the historical habitat of human beings, cities once stood out as an intrusion to the land. Because cities were then a new phenomenon, urban parks were thought of as an outgrowth of the land. Today, urban parks are rather thought of as an addition of nature to civilization. A typical park now stands within the urban habitat of modern humans. Like zoos, urban parks are a reminder of the natural wildlife and plantlife that exist outside the civilized city.

As a consequence, the formerly complex forest structure gives way to an impoverished attempt at a natural landscape. The urban park of today is no longer so much of a forest as it is a very large garden, and gardens require maintenance. A park is difficult to maintain when it is overrun my many more visitors than the land can sustain. An example of such a transformed area is Seton Falls Park, the Bronx, New York City (Loeb, 1989). This former forest became a run down place filled with garbage and poor vegetation. However, a restoration project is working to reconstruct the damages that resulted from too much public use and misuse.

Despite such problems, parks remain valuable assets to the city landscape. An example is London, a city that resulted from the growing together of several villages, each with their own parks. As a result, London is currently scattered with hundreds of beautiful parks and gardens (Canetti & Lesberg, 1976). In order to make the most of available park space, one survey in London measured the value of different park characteristics (Rowley, 1992). The value of a park was measured by the numbers of visitors it served. Heaviest uses occurred during lunch hours. The size and shape of the parks were not significant factors, but seating choices, isolation, climate, shelter, and refreshments all improved attendance. These results show that small public parks can make use of limited urban spaces.

Parks can also help to dissolve racial boundaries. Harlem, New York City is perhaps the most famous enclave of a black population in the world. The southern border of Harlem has long been regarded as a dividing line between white and black neighborhoods. A state park, complete with pools, playgrounds, and areas for basketball and baseball was constructed in southern Harlem. Since its opening in May of 1993, Riverbank state park has been attracting more and more white visitors to Harlem (NY Times, 8/25/93). Because blacks use the park as well, this is an example of how an urban park can help to break racial barriers and color lines.

Work on the land can also help to bring communities together. Volunteers who devote their efforts to improving the urban forest come from many backgrounds. One organization that helps to channel these efforts is American Forests' Global ReLeaf campaign (Fish, 1993). Another example of such a movement is the rejuvenation of a small lot in the Bronx area of New York City (NY Times, 8/22/93). A tract of land that previously contained a malodorous 50 tons of garbage was transformed into a community garden by a combination of government and neighborhood efforts. Such a beautification project contributes much to an area's well being.

Urban forests produce many intangible benefits to social welfare that cannot be readily measured in terms of revenues alone. Parks are a place for recreation, which can boost morale and make cities attractive to settlers and tourists (Cranz, 1982). Trees contribute in many other ways to the quality of city life. They are an attractive source of shade and shelter, their natural presence increases property values, and therefore tax revenues as well. Trees also serve as natural air, wind, noise and heat filters (Tagtow, 1990). For some reason, a natural presence also makes people feel more relaxed and at home, a phenomenon that shall be examined more later. These benefits, coupled with their aesthetic values, make urban forests a valuable municipal resource. Like waterfronts, then, parks and forests are a key ingredient for urban revitalization.

The last example of an important natural landscape within city limits is that of New York City's Central Park. Built by a farmer and an architect out of a then remote city dump in 1857, this is a haven that a photographic essay describes with the following sentence: "Surrounded by the hurly-burly of New York City, this pastoral retreat soothes the souls of visitors with its meadows, playing fields, and leafy dells."[2]. Indeed, Central Park's role in the vitality of New York City is very important.

Central Park lies in the middle of Manhattan Island, the core of New York City. The park measures 51 by 3 blocks, or 843 acres. The area holds everything from softball games to music concerts to Shakespeare in the Park festivals. As a whole, the place offers a pleasant country getaway within its very urban surroundings. Included are woodland paths, fountains, sculptures, a carousel, and even a zoo that contains animals from polar, temperate and tropical climates. A visitor to Central Park will see citizens doing everything from roller blading to playing chess, and can witness such landmarks as Strawberry Fields and Tavern on the Green (Beacom & Spiegel, 1989).

It is, however, the simple meadows that are perhaps the park's most valuable feature. One need only imagine what the city would be like without the park to grasp the park's importance. There is a strong vitality of the community within the confines of the park that is not really allowed to exist out on the concrete and asphalt. The natural presence of the park offers some much needed relaxation and spiritual peace to the city's residents and visitors. Central Park is a perfect example of a very valuable urban forest.

IV. Natural Landscapes and Urban Development

I am finally ready to present my argument concerning the need for natural landscapes in urban areas. First of all, the presence of trees and parks contributes to citizens' well being. As can be seen with Central Park, parks offer many things that an urban terrain cannot provide. These include open spaces, natural vegetation and wildlife, and a quiet break from the fast paced city lifestyle. It seems that in many ways people do not feel their best on the terrain of the city. Rather, people feel more at peace within the parks of the city and outside the city in the countryside itself. This calls for a further examination of man's place in nature.

Although technological advancements have enabled us to become unattached from nature, our historical connection with the land is not entirely forgotten. Humans have a far longer history of being hunters and gatherers than they have of anything else. This tradition has perhaps even become ingrained into our very instincts. I wish to argue that we have a need for a natural environment that cannot be satisfied by wholly man made surroundings.

This claim can certainly be questioned. Perhaps modern urbanization truly is a mark of human advancement, and earlier lifestyles should be left behind. Cities appear to offer a much better quality of life than earlier existed. Some people who are born and raised within entirely urban surroundings seem to not be lacking any quality to their life. However, most urbanites find it relaxing to take a walk through a nearby park, and often spend their vacations in the wilderness. Perhaps humans currently strive to be in nature because to them, in contrast to their ancestors, it represents time taken off from work. However, it is important to note that the city dwellers' vacations are sometimes spent doing modified versions of ancient activities, such as fishing and hunting.

Also, the current problems that cities are facing suggest that the notion that man can be safely shut off from nature has its problems. Many of the problems that arise within city limits would arguably not take place in other surroundings. If people were spaced out more over the landscape, there would not be as many possibilities for conflicts to erupt. I am not suggesting that we should burn our cities, abandon technological advancements, and run back into the forest. Instead, the benefits from living in a natural landscape can and should be transferred to the city itself.

These benefits exist because humans thrive best in a natural habitat. Further support for the theory that humans need a natural environment comes from the current trends in suburbinization. When cities were first founded, because it the central location, living in the city core was the goal of most citizens. However, as advances in transportation made it easier to get away from the city core and still make use of its goods and services, the upper class moved to the suburbs. At the very least, the richer residents of the city core built country houses in which to spend their vacations. It is not unreasonable to think that the need for a natural habitat is one of the factors that has caused the current trend of suburbinization. This is because suburbinization is the movement away from the urban landscape to a more, albeit somewhat artificial, natural habitat.

The earlier mentioned postmodern trends in architecture are based on the realization that living in a glass box is problematic. Instead, cities are trying to be redeveloped in an entirely different manner than during the first wave of urbanization. Attention is being paid to the natural features within the city itself, such as waterfronts and parks, because maintaining such a presence is needed to make the place comfortable. Waterfronts and parks are valuable landforms within the city, and their continued maintenance contributes greatly to the quality of city life.

Harnessing the promise of urban waterfront redevelopment and the presence of urban forests has the potential to cure the social and economic problems that cities are now facing. These problems have very deep roots, so a consideration of once again placing man in a more natural habitat is essential for urban vitality. Natural landscapes, therefore, are a key for urban development and redevelopment.


1 Charles Beveridge and David Schuyler (Editors), The Papers of Frederick Law Olmstead, Volume III: Creating Central Park, Baltimore: The John's Hopkin's Univeristy Press, 1983, p. 196.

2 Beacon, David, and Spiegel, Ted. "Manhattan's Own Island: Central Park" National Geographic Traveller 6(1989): p. 74.


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Galen Cranz, The Politics of Park Design: A History of Urban Parks in America, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1982.

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This essay was written by John Hubbard for the Macalester College course "GEOG 11: Human Geography" in May 1994. It has not been significantly altered from the original version; the last modified date shown below indicates when this Webpage was last uploaded in its present form.

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