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Just a short two years before the first fairgoers stepped through the entrance gates—tickets in hand to see the gleaming “White City” architecture of the World’s Columbian Exposition—Jackson Park was a muddy, swampy mess.

by Jen Masengarb, Director of Interpretation and Research

Green In The White City

Photos from 1891 show Jackson Park as a marshy landscape flooded from Lake Michigan. And yet, by the time visitors arrived in May 1893 to the World’s Fair on Chicago’s south side, the landscape had been transformed. The country’s most well-known landscape architect of the era, Frederick Law Olmsted, was tasked with turning this swamp into a picturesque Wooded Island in the middle of the fairgrounds. Outside of the more formal central Court of Honor, visitors to the Wooded Island enjoyed lush new vegetation, gently sloping hills, pathways, scenic views and quiet reflective spaces away from the frenzy of the Fair buildings. Amidst all the focus on the buildings at the Fair, it was the landscapes that knit the pavilions together and provided outdoor spaces and breathing room.

Throughout the mid-19th century, Olmsted and his professional partner Calvert Vaux designed some of the country’s most significant urban landscapes. These included Central Park in New York City, the Emerald Necklace in Boston and Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. Even in 1869, decades before Chicago’s World’s Fair, Olmsted was commissioned by the City of Chicago to create a south side plan. He envisioned two new urban parks—one along the lakefront and the other inland—connected by a strip of green space. After the 1893 Fair, the South Park and Lake Park plan was realized and became what we know today as Jackson Park, Washington Park and the Midway.

A Brief History of Landscape Architecture

The profession of landscape architecture dates back to 18th century Europe, when designers were hired by wealthy royal residents to transform the grounds of their palaces and manor homes. But by the 19th century, the role of landscape architects broadened and shifted. In the United States, cities were growing rapidly and governments needed to create urban landscapes for whole neighborhoods. Designers like Olmsted and Vaux began working at larger scales and collaborating with urban planners and architects across the country to create parks and boulevard systems. Later on, Progressive Era green “breathing spaces” provided a respite from dense, smoggy cities and also gave citizens a common, civic gathering space in which to play, rest, meet or organize.

Throughout the early 20th century, Chicago landscape architect Jens Jensen continued the work of the City’s parks department and designed four massive neighborhood parks: Garfield Park, Humboldt Park, Douglas Park and Columbus Park. In the 1930s, landscape architect Alfred Caldwell would go on to create the quiet and picturesque Lily Pool in Lincoln Park. By the 1960s, landscape architects like Dan Kiley came to Chicago bringing with them new ideas about green spaces. He designed more formal gardens influenced by modernism, such as the South Garden of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Landscape Architecture Today

Like Olmsted, Jensen, Caldwell and Kiley before them, landscape architects today still combine the scientific fields of ecology, botany, horticulture and biology with environmental psychology, design and art. They design backyards and rooftops, urban parks and rural trails, skate parks and streetscapes, playgrounds and plazas. And they design solutions that use landscapes to save energy, reduce pollution, revitalize forgotten post-industrial areas, and make ecosystems healthier and more biodiverse.

Today, Chicago is recognized for several innovative new parks that have reused existing industrial spaces. These include the Lurie Garden in Millennium Park, Northerly Island, the 606 linear park, and Palmisano Park in the Bridgeport neighborhood. Chicago’s motto, “Urbs in Horto” (“City in a Garden” in Latin), continues to be a guiding force in creating new public landscapes that heal, give meaning, delight and inspire citizens across the city.