Chiara Del Core 1 apr 2021 Articles 0 comments

Public green spaces: evolution, contemporary features and aspects

by Chiara Del Core

1. The changing concept of a garden throughout history

The word garden of Indo-European matrix dates back to the meaning of enclosure, a closed place.
The term indicates a protected space where shelter and relaxation can be found. The first examples of gardens have very ancient origins: according to historical evidence, in the territories of Mesopotamia there were real green areas exploited as orchards and gardens dating back to the third millennium. Dating back to the second millennium, however, are the first Assyrian examples, in the twofold variant of public gardens and gardens belonging to the royal palaces. Often the green space took on a symbolic meaning, sometimes sacred, almost to represent terrestrial paradises rich in plant species with beneficial properties. Originally, the garden follows a precise structural scheme divided into functional areas, adorned with rows of trees and protected from the outside through a wall. It is a place for recreation and relaxation but at the same time it is exploited for the cultivation of fruit and vegetables and wine.

It is important to observe how the shape of public gardens changes over time in close relation to the change in the city. These changes are dictated by social needs in turn caused by historical contingencies. While in ancient Greece the garden was of little importance and acted as a simple ornament of the most important city squares, in Rome the prata publica were indispensable green spaces for collective everyday life. These were plots of wood interspersed with avenues for strolling where people met and spent their free time in company. Furthermore, the introduction in the gardens of the architectural element is the merit of ancient Rome: the colonnade (peristyle), the pergola (peripterus) and the temple (tholos) had specific functions and were framed by flowers, plants and trees. As anticipated, we must not forget that green space is modeled on the real needs of time, as it forms an integral part of the urban fabric. For this reason, in the Middle Ages, the need to defend against external attacks forced the city to demarcate its walls and markedly reduced spatial availability. It follows the placement of the green spaces outside the walls and the destination of the same for lawns and tournament areas.

In the Renaissance era there was a real revolution in the design of the garden: in relation to the rapidly expanding city, it is seen as a precious place that refers to the natural world. The art of gardens involves the most popular architects of the time, committed to studying in detail forms and placement of trees and shrubs. Subsequently there is an upper hand of the built element compared to that planted, to return in the 17th century to the vegetation that occupies ever larger and no longer delimited spaces. The aristocratic villas open the gates of the sumptuous private gardens, laying the foundations of the conception of the public garden open to all. The eighteenth century is characterized by the introduction of a first classification of the distinct urban green space in the fenced garden, avenue for strolling and public garden. The latter found great development during the 1800s, becoming a real social phenomenon in England where the population is growing rapidly. The less wealthy group of citizens who do not enjoy the private garden, thus have the opportunity to spend some free time in contact with nature. The phenomenon quickly gained the consensus of the poorer social classes thanks to which the professional figure of the landscape artist makes his way. The first public parks in France and England were made up of rest areas and walking areas equipped with urban furniture; soon the model spreads throughout Europe reaching the present day with the current connotations.

Function and structure

Closely linked to the connotations of society, the function of the garden over time is directly reflected on its structure. Throughout history, certain functions have followed to meet specific needs: provide areas of shade, shelter and relaxation, express magnificence and pomp and still cultivate plant species and medicinal herbs.

In all cases, the garden is seen as a space to be cared for and preserved, a place of peace able to soften the spirits of daily difficulties.
Often it assumed ascetic significance, seen as a place of meditation or was a representative element of the power of noble families and families (private gardens). In addition, for a long time the green space provided the opportunity to study and learn about the plant species that made it up, making it a useful medium for the knowledge of botany.
The civilizations that have followed over the course of history have distinguished themselves by considering the gardens with greater or lesser importance and dedicating more or less profound attention to them from the point of view of structural design.
In ancient Greece the term garden has sacred connotations; at the base lies the concept of gratitude for the divinity that contributes to the fertility of the soil. Usually enclosed by walls, they had a geometric layout and marked according to the different intended uses: animal breeding, rows of fruit trees, area intended for worship.
For the Romans, on the other hand, the garden has a social and ornamental value, a refuge from daily labors and a place full of religious significance, a real paradise on earth. These are spaces, the realization of which is promoted for the people by the wealthy Patricians and later by the Emperors; fenced and flanked by arcades, they had a complex structure full of fountains, statues, terraces, stone benches and temples.
During the Middle Ages, historical events caused a strong change in the structure of the garden; the growing need for defense leads to an ever-smaller opening to the outside and this also affects the open space used as a green. The so-called "Hortus conclusus" was born, closed by four walls, inside the monasteries, it housed a fountain in the center and the remaining land was used for the cultivation of medicinal plants and orchards. The situation during the Renaissance is very different in which the garden loses all its functional value to become a space intended for leisure and pleasure. The introduction of fixed parameters in the spatial organization generates a very precise design of the territory. The artificial element prevails over the natural one, rigor and symmetry are at the base of the overall scheme. Water becomes a fundamental element: fountains, jets, water games make the garden an almost theatrical environment.
In the following period, society underwent profound transformations and the 19th century city left ample space in the use of different elements. For this reason there is no defined model of garden but a mix of styles and connotations from the past prevails.

Roma, antichi giardini sul Palatino    

Rome, ancient gardens on the Palatine Hill, in the center the scheme of Hortus Conclusus, the Orto dei Semplici in Padua on the right the Renaissance garden of Villa d’Este in Tivoli


New social question

Between the end of the 1800s and the 1900s, the rapid increase in cities and the construction of many buildings caused the growing need to introduce urban green spaces open to the public. Soon from larger cities, parks also spread to towns and villages where the demand for collective use areas was on the rise. With the passage of time, these spaces have taken on an increasingly specific functionalization, distinguishing themselves in areas dedicated to recreation, rest, sport and games. Today there is a constant need for greenery in the city, not only aimed at the well-being of the individual but also at the ecological balance of the entire urban structure. In a changing city context, where pollution represents a serious threat to the individual's psycho-physical comfort, green areas characterize an indispensable element of social connection and a useful improvement tool. Furthermore, due to the progressive standardization of the urban aspect, citizens have gradually lost their original sense of belonging to a community. To overcome this problem, collective public spaces are used, specifically neighborhood parks and gardens, capable of regenerating and creating sociability.
They can give a specific identity to the territory, favor the psycho-physical comfort of the individual and increase the livability of the environment. The need to return a differentiated image of the city and of the places destined for the community, combined with the needs of a society much more varied than that of the past, leads to a concept of greenery less tied to predetermined schemes. Unlike some past historical periods, today it is customary to prefer free forms that follow the morphological trend of the terrain and adapt to the reality in which they are located. An extensive type of vegetation prevails which guarantees a simpler use of the spaces, low construction costs and simple maintenance. Autochthonous species distributed over the entire surface are mainly used according to the need for shade or sunshine and not according to pre-established geometries and designs. The aim is to satisfy not only aesthetic but also and above all functional needs. The area must be designed according to the properties of the context in which it is located and to which it must be perfectly integrated; the internal and external paths to the area must be perfectly connected to guarantee the free flow of people.

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