• Centennial Park, Sydney Parks and Places

    What actually is a ‘park’?


A guest post by Mark Johnson, Founder, Civitas


The term “park” is loaded with meaning – but different meanings to different people. The original idea of a park, or pleasure garden for public use, grew out of public discontent with the expansive gardens and hunting grounds controlled by royalty in England, France and Germany.

Under popular pressure, in the 18th century some royal families began allowing public access to their private grounds on a limited basis. As the industrial age dawned, the disparities of wealth and public health led to a belief that access to nature was a necessary requirement of urban life for everyone.


The beginnings of parks for people

Much investigation, reporting and theory was written in the mid-19th century that led to a growing belief that public places for nature were essential to urban life. The seminal example of these ideas was Central Park in New York, the first park designed entirely with public use in mind. With its completion the world began to recognise that nature was no longer just a place to hunt, gather or grow crops – nature was important to the personal health and social structure of new urban populations.

With this example, many parks began developing in cities around the world in response to the same urban problems of London and New York. Theories and design practices began developing to deliver and manage these new spaces. From their original inception these were pleasure gardens that ranged from the highly pastoral and passive to formal patterned gardens for the display of plants. Arboreta, Botanical Gardens, Zoological Gardens and Parks were all an outgrowth of these trends.

In general these parks were seen as places of passive reflection, respite and social gathering – parks were thought of as an antidote to the stresses of the city.


Centennial Park was designed as a Victorian park

Centennial Park was designed as a Victorian park


A shift towards public health and recreation

But between World War I and World War II a new idea of public health emerged that was based in modern ideas of personal activity, sport and health. In the period following World War II there was a marked shift away from the idea that parks were for passive use toward a more progressive idea that parks were venues of healthful physical and social activity.

By the 1960’s the worldwide norm had become parks for active recreation, including international standards for ratios of park space and recreation services per capita of population. The idea of public parks had shifted from reflection to action.

For the next 30 years the majority of new park development and park management was about managing the competing needs of various park recreation users. Maintenance and scheduling of multiple sports became the role of the parks managers.


Integration with cities, integration with people

By the 1990’s however, new ideas began to emerge. There was a growing awareness that nature had a role to play within cities, and that people enjoyed access and participation with nature. There was also a growing awareness of the need to make cities more liveable and sustainable – and that meant more complex systems for mobility, more mixing of uses, more compact forms of urban design, and multiple purpose spaces and buildings. Social life began returning to the streets and public spaces of most cities during this period, a trend that continues to grow.

During this same period world cities saw increases in populations with declining resources for the development and management of new parks and other elements of the public realm. One common response was to begin using planned, programmed events and festivals as a way of both generating revenue for park operations and to attract people back into core cities. Suburban flight and commercial development had a material impact on the economic and social life of core cities, and urban advocates seized on the creation of new public venues and events to draw people back.

The myriad of public museums, aquariums, zoos, and other cultural and entertainment venues that have been developed globally since the mid-1980’s is astounding. Cities began competing for their new cultural attractions as well as their historic ones. This trend continues as it is ever more clear that cities are in global competition for tourists, talent and ambitions that lead to economic development and stability.


Moonlight Cinema in Centennial Park began operating in 1997

Moonlight Cinema in Centennial Park began operating in 1997


Improving quality of life

Urban parks are rapidly becoming another tool used to improve the quality of life for citizens while also attracting new attention from visitors. Parc de La Villette in Paris, Bryant Park and the Highline in New York, and Millenium Park in Chicago are examples of parks being designed specifically for cultural and entertainment uses.

This is the current trend among the great parks of the world, such as Sydney’s Centennial Park. Today’s Victorian parks (i.e. Centennial Park) have to meet the full range of needs and desires of increasingly diverse and active populations. People need active recreation, organised sports, and quiet areas for reflection as always; but new and more intensive uses are finding great success in most parks as well. These include a rapid increase in various forms of personal exercise such as cycling, running, rollerblading and many other forms of movement, places for dogs both on and off-leash, and many other activities. At the same time the desire for the use of parks for special events, festivals, themed activities (outdoor movies, concerts etc.) and for general recreation (bird watching, picnicking etc.) is also on the rise.

The successful contemporary urban park, no matter what the size, is now supporting many more activities, many more patrons, and many more management and maintenance demands than ever before. In the most active examples such as Bryant Park, the park almost exists purely as a social and commercial gathering place that changes so frequently that the social scene is the primary attraction.

This has led to highly increased costs and an upward cycle of increasing fees, sponsorships, corporate uses and branding. In high density locations like Bryant Park and Millenium Park the most pressing issues of debate are the protocols and pricing for multiple access. Both of these examples have gone to levels of branding that have created significant concern and push-back from special interest groups and the public at large. In general, these parks have been built on public lands, paid for with at least a measure of public money, and are at times seen as being hijacked by corporate interests instead of available as free and open parkland for all.


Today an estimated one million cycling visits are made to Centennial Parklands every year

Today an estimated one million cycling visits are made to Centennial Parklands every year


Outdoor curators

This trend has changed both the trajectory of public parks and the roles of those who are responsible for them. It is no longer sufficient to be the director of park activities like it was 100 years ago, nor is it adequate to be the manager of public recreation like it was 50 years ago. Today, for a park of the size, significance and complexity of Centennial Park, we must become curators of the park and all its uses.

A curator does more than direct and manage, he or she continually balances and designs the use of the park to both satisfy loyal users and to attract new ones. Much like a museum that includes old masters, a permanent collection plus travelling exhibits, the curator chooses to have both recurring visitors and new offerings that raise issues, ideas and trends that patrons find compelling.

Much like a well-run museum, there can never truly be a stable state in a successful urban park. Curating the timing, overlap, and content of each activity changes with the seasons, by the year, and by the trends of use as tastes change. This means that the curators have to understand that a great park has a very durable, resilient and handsome framework of spaces, places, attractions and connections, while also having places and activities that change over time. Parks are places of personal and collective veneration, but are also places where people come to find themselves anew.


More than 650,000 registered sports users come to Centennial Parklands every year to play and practice

More than 650,000 registered sports users come to Centennial Parklands every year to play and practice


This curatorial balance requires that the curators and the users have an ongoing relationship and dialogue about the current state and future offerings within the park. One realisation that emerges is that there are very few activities within a complex park that can afford to be single purpose only. To the extent possible uses overlay or are inter-visible with one another; are multiple use depending on the day or time; or are converted between various uses by management techniques.

For example, football fields that are under heavy weekend and evening pressure may be used for kites, model airplanes, or other sports during non-playing times. Roads that are critical to access for active sports may be closed portions of the day or week to cyclists and other wheeled activities. Parking may be managed in many ways to increase or decrease visitation in various areas.

Lastly, special events can be parsed into many types ranging from private events to major spectacles, each with a different responsibility and fee that is appropriate to their impact and contribution to the financial health of the park.


Graph provides an outline of the evolution of the role of, and management approach to, parks over time

Graph provides an outline of the evolution of the role of, and management approach to, parks over time



Mark Johnson is a recognised thought leader and designer of policies, systems and landscapes that regenerate cities. Mark has designed projects of every scale on several continents. He is widely regarded as a leading intellect and lecturer with deep knowledge and insights into how cities become healthier and more sustainable in a global economy and culture.

Mark is the founder of Civitas and provided guidance and strategic advice on the development of the Centennial Park Master Plan 2040.


Become an Insider


Similar Articles

  • Centennial Parklands wins two state-wide Awards of Excellence

    Centennial Parklands was successful last night in winning not one, but two state awards at the Parks & Leisure Australia’s 2018 NSW & ACT Regional Awards of Excellence, held in Tamworth NSW, including Best Playspace and Best Strategic Planning.

  • Peter Rabbit in Centennial Park!

    Did you know that Centennial Parklands is one of the most film-friendly public spaces in Australia? We host over 180 commercial filming and photography shoots a year, and have a long history of featuring in movie blockbusters including the Great Gatsby, Australia, Wolverine and Gods of Eygpt just to name a few. Why? Just have […]