"Most lovely and picturesque city in all of Canada": the origins of Winnipeg's public park system

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Date: Spring 1996
From: Manitoba History(Issue 31)
Publisher: Manitoba Historical Society
Document Type: Article
Length: 6,247 words

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Since the dawn of civilization recreation space has been an integral part of urban life yet historians have generally overlooked its importance in meeting what is now generally acknowledged to be one of society's fundamental biological needs. Although this was only dimly recognised at the close of the nineteenth century when Winnipeg was beginning to emerge as an important urban centre, civic leaders were nevertheless anxious to incorporate then current notions of urban design into its evolving townscape. The study of Winnipeg's park origins indicates that the economic, educational and social theories of the day were no less influential in shaping the evolution of Winnipeg's park system.

The Canadian City is essentially a Victorian artifact and it is from this era that our contemporary recreation facilities emerge. Early park developments in Canada have largely been discussed in the broader context of town planning or social reform. (1) Chadwick provides very useful insights into the development of British, European and North American parks, indicating the strong links between British and North American landscape design and urban parks planning. He relates more comprehensively than most, how urban recreation space was initially provided for the upper classes then, as urbanization and social reform movements gathered momentum, and eventually as living standards improved, facilities were made available for the less wealthy citizens. Ultimately, recreation space for even the poorest segments of urban society became a matter of wider public concern rather than the preoccupation of a few philanthropists. Other scholars have also outlined the history of urban parks in the North American context, among whom can be mentioned Neumeyer and Neumeyer, Kraus and Soell. (2) Their work shows how this continent's parks and recreation movements evolved in an essentially similar pattern. Although a definitive study of Canadian parks has yet to be written, a recent history of Winnipeg's parks by Catherine Macdonald provides a fine local account and an overview of the Canadian urban parks movements. (3) It is evident from this and other studies in urban history and planning that parks development in Canada took much of its inspiration from the same underlying forces that shaped European and American cities and their park systems. (4) Winnipeg's early parks were certainly developed in accordance with the parks movements prevalent during the period. Literature of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century reveals that the North American parks movement consisted of six diverse but frequently inter-related elements: the commercially oriented parks movement, the City Beautiful Movement, the residential amenity movement, the amusement park movement, the educational enlightenment movement and the park/playground movement. (5)

The commercially oriented parks movement was in part a reflection of the growing power and influence of the city's business elites. Its adherents recognized the material and monetary benefits to be derived from the inclusion of parks in urban areas.

The new elites brought principles of business management to local government and pursued civic planning policies designed to enhance the city's attractiveness as a commercial centre. (6) Greenery was perceived as the...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A30404572