Parkway Precedents

Attractively landscaped roadways have a long tradition in European urban planning. Europe’s broad boulevards and tree-lined avenues were precedents for the late nineteenth-century American parkway movement. Paris was particularly notable for its attractive avenues and shady promenades, some of which connected the city with its outlying parks and suburbs. Picturesque English landscape parks with their winding carriage roads and carefully crafted informal landscapes also influenced American parkway design.(5)

Central Park is widely acknowledged for its formative influence on American park development, but it was equally important to American parkway design. Planned by landscape architects Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, Central Park employed many design approaches later adapted to parkway design. These included limited roadway access, informal design, and attractive grade-separation bridges at intersections. The separation of different types of traffic was also exceptional, with pedestrians and equestrians provided with separate circulation networks and utilitarian cross-park traffic restricted to inconspicuous secondary roads.(6)

Olmsted and Vaux are credited with introducing the term "park-way" in the late 1860s. The term "park-way" captured the concept of an urban area that combined the functions of a "park" and a "way." Olmsted’s and Vaux’s original "park-ways" were tree-lined boulevards intended primarily for pleasure traffic traveling to and from suburban parks. These parkways were designed to provide relief from ordinary city streets by carrying travelers over an attractive and relaxing tree-lined roadways. Parkways also served as elongated parks that brought the benefits of nature to the urban public. Olmsted and Vaux designed their first parkways to provide access to Prospect Park in Brooklyn, New York. Eastern and Ocean Parkways were lined with trees and turf to provide attractive environments for walking, riding, and carriage driving. Parallel secondary roads accommodated utilitarian traffic and access to houses. The Brooklyn parkways were clearly influenced by the boulevards in Paris and were formally developed with regularly spaced plantings in parallel rows.(7)

According to landscape historian Timothy Davis, the next step in the evolution of American parkway landscape came during the 1880s when Olmsted and his associates designed a series of park improvements in Boston.(8) Olmsted’s plans connected the city to its outlying districts by a combination of boulevards, carriage drives, and informal linear parks. The primary parkway connected the city’s Public Garden with suburban Franklin Park via the Back Bay Fens and the existing formal boulevard known as Commonwealth Avenue. The Boston parkway was more picturesque than its Brooklyn predecessors, as it followed the banks of the Muddy River to Jamaica Pond, where it became a short curvilinear boulevard that led to Franklin Park. The wide, winding right-of-way along the Muddy River portion of the project established the foundation for the modern, picturesque parkway. As Davis points out, Olmsted’s Boston projects helped redefine the basic concept of a parkway from a tree-lined but essentially urban avenue into a park with a road as its principal design feature. The Boston project allowed Olmsted "to combine the arterial function of the French boulevard with the picturesque aesthetics of the English landscape park."(9) Other cities throughout the United States developed park systems and various types of parkways as well, including Chicago, Minneapolis, and Denver. Boston’s parkway, however, was the outstanding example of American parkway design until the creation of the Bronx River Parkway in the 1920s.(10) Boston’s Back Bay Fens served as an important example for the BRP project because it had similar conditions to the Bronx River and demonstrated the potential of river reclamation through parkway development. A 1911 article in the Real Estate Record of Westchester County, used the Boston example to promote the proposed Bronx River Parkway, observing the "strikingly parallel" conditions confronting Westchester County.(11)


(5)Timothy Davis, "Mount Vernon Memorial Highway and the Evolution of the American Parkway" (Ph.D. diss., University of Texas at Austin, 1997), 29, 36-38.
(6)Davis, "Mount Vernon Memorial Highway," 53.
(7)Davis, "Mount Vernon Memorial Highway," 56, 67, 76.
(8)Davis, "Mount Vernon Memorial Highway," 76; Ethan Carr, Wilderness by Design: Landscape Architecture and the National Park Service (Lincoln, NE and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1998), 42-43.
(9)Davis, "Mount Vernon Memorial Highway," 78.
(10)Davis, "Mount Vernon Memorial Highway," 78, 81.
(11)Bronx Parkway Commission, Report of the Bronx Parkway Commission Organized Under Chapter 504 of the Laws of 1907 (New York: The Trow Press, 1912), 13; "Possibilities of the Bronx River Parkway," Real Estate Record of Westchester County, November 1, 1911, 3, 22-23.