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10 parks that changed America: From Savannah to the High Line, the country’s influential public spaces

The second episode of this new PBS series explores how landscape architects have shaped U.S. cities

Central Park, New York City
Central Park, New York City
Carol Highsmith, Library of Congress

A new PBS series examining the historic architecture and urban design that has changed the country turns its focus on parks this evening. Tonight’s debut of "10 Parks That Changed America" looks at how landscape architecture can play a key role in shaping our idea of home. According to series host Geoffrey Baer, landscape architects were "thrilled" for the opportunity to have their work placed in the spotlight, since the profession rarely attracts the same attention as architects and urban planners. Yet for many, parks are key parts of their local landscape, and some of the most lasting symbols of their city. Here are the ten U.S. parks that experts and the show's editors chose to feature. Be sure to let us know about your favorite parks and public spaces in the comments.

Savannah Orleans Square
Stereograph showing residents casually posed on lawn with many trees in the background at Orleans Square in Savannah, Georgia. Library of Congress

Squares of Savannah – Savannah, Georgia

Arguably the most important early example of urban planning in the United States, the Oglethorpe Plan, created by city founder General James Oglethorpe in 1733, laid out Savannah according to a grid system of blocks and wards, with open squares at the center. The genteel arrangement provided for public green space throughout the growing city and made it easy to expand over time. While the plan has been admired for its resulting orderly layout, there may have been more than parks on the general’s mind; the system of squares Oglethorpe created mimicked military camps, and provided space for the militia to train.

Fairmount Park Philadelphia
Fairmount Park, Philadelphia, with well-dressed people promenading on a terrace. Late 19th century, via Library of Congress

Fairmount Park – Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

The 4,100-acre Fairmount Park, which borders the Schuylkill River, claims the title of largest landscaped park in the country. When Philadelphia was founded, William Penn’s original plans called for a series of small urban public spaces throughout the new metropolis. However, the plan far exceeded the 17th century reality, when these nascent public squares were instead used for cattle, trash dumps, burial grounds and public hangings. Instead, it took the arrival of this extensive park, formerly established in 1867, to create a true urban oasis in the city.

Mt. Auburn Cemetery Bill Damon via Flickr/Creative Commons

Mt. Auburn Cemetery – Cambridge, Massachusetts

Established in 1831, the first planned rural cemetery in the United States set a template for the country, its rolling, landscaped terrain and accompanying arboretum providing a peaceful resting place and a symbol of society’s changed attitudes towards the afterlife (cemetery comes from the Greek words for  "a sleeping place" ). Designed largely by Henry Alexander Scammell Dearborn, Jacob Bigelow and Alexander Wadsworth, the cemetery marked a distinct departure from Colonial-era practices of using church burial plots or graveyards.

Central Park New York Dan Cipolla via Flickr/Creative Commons

Central Park – New York, New York

The most well-known park in the country, this model of urban landscaping by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux (following their 1858 Greensward Plan), is one of the most visited parks in the world, and an oasis for Manhattanites. While it’s considered sacrosanct by many, it has a history of proposed (and thankfully rejected) improvements.

Humboldt Park Fieldhouse
Humboldt Park Fieldouse in Chicago, Illinois
Terrence Faircloth via Flickr/Creative Commons

Chicago’s Neighborhood Parks – Chicago, Illinois

Chicago is rightfully celebrated for its Lakefront trail system,and signature public spaces such as Grant Park and Millennium Park. But the public park system created during the later half of the 19th century, which features sprawling designs by John Olmsted and Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., included a series of neighborhood parks, as well as public field houses, which provided much-needed recreation facilities for the city’s growing population of new immigrants. It’s the backbone of a series of boulevards, small parks, and neighborhood green spaces spread across the city.

San Antonio Riverwalk Mike Boening via Flickr/Creative Commons

San Antonio River Walk – San Antonio, Texas

This Spanish Revival-style promenade seems like a fixture of this Texas city, but it was actually the vision of architect Robert Hugman, who believed the flood-prone river banks could be transformed into a center for commerce and tourism. Beginning with the 1938 "San Antonio River Beautification Project", the River Walk has grown to become an icon of San Antonio.

Overton Park, Memphis Image via Ian Sterling via Flickr/Creative Commons

Overton Park – Memphis, Tennessee

This cherished local park, named after a co-founder of Memphis and formally established in 1901, became a battleground for the preservation and conservation movement in the ‘60s and ‘70s, when highway planners sought to build an overpass on park land. A citizen’s group successfully fought back, taking the case to the Supreme Court. The ruling, Citizens to Preserve Overton Park v. Volpe, established a framework for judicial review and has been cited by subsequent conservation campaigns.

Freeway Park Seattle
Image by Joe Mabel
Wikimedia Commons

Freeway Park – Seattle, Washington

Designed by the office of Lawrence Halprin, this concrete park, which bridges over an interstate in downtown Seattle, served as a model for a new vision of urban design. Considered a cultural landmark, it offers a unique fusion of public park and Brutalist design sculpture.

Gas Work Park Seattle Liesl Matthies/Wikimedia Commons

Gas Works Park – Seattle, Washington

A revolutionary creative reuse project, this Seattle park, designed by architect Richard Haag, reimagined a coal gasification plant on the city’s waterfront as an active park and children’s play place. Landscaping and repurposing of different sections of the abandoned industrial facility have made this one of the more unique parts of the city’s landscape.

High Line New York City Wikimedia Commons

High Line – New York, New York

The park plan that’s birthed dozens of similar rail-to-trail conversions across the world, this Manhattan park, created atop an abandoned rail line, offers a new blueprint for reusing abandoned urban space.

10 Homes That Changed America: New PBS Series Explores U.S. Architectural History [Curbed]

How Two New York City Parks Helped Change America [Curbed New York]