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Green Open Spaces in Urban Areas

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Pigeons on a park bench
The parks are the lungs of London.
- William Pitt, British Prime Minister (1766 - 68)

They have now been recognised as the lifeblood of major urban centres and the staple of Sunday afternoons in the city. The importance of green open spaces in urban areas should never be underestimated.

Many of us have moved to the urban hubs of our respective countries for a chance of a good job and a great nightlife. However, lurking in the hearts of each and every single one of us is the urge and, indeed, the desire to walk barefoot in the park without a care in the world, yet still remaining within a five-minute journey from the office.

Here are some of the world's finest parks and many of its hidden treasures.

Amsterdam, The Netherlands

Vondelpark started out as a space for horse riding in the 18th Century. This you can still see in the long circular walkway that winds through it. Therefore, it was also a park for those of high social standing. It's still surrounded by the most posh houses in the city.

The park is easily accessible, which makes it the most popular green space in Amsterdam. It's a stone's throw away from the Leidseplein, a square visited by almost every tram in the city. From the Leidseplein it stretches south creating a long thin strip of park.

The park was planned on marshland, like almost the entire city. You can build houses on wooden poles to stop them from sinking into the soft marshland and yes, that's what they did in Amsterdam, but how do you stop a park from sinking? You drain it. The park has an extensive drainage system underground, yet still it sinks about a centimetre every year. When it rains for a few days - and in Holland it's always more - the grass turns to mud, and the fun stops for most people.

Despite all the sinking and the soaking, the park is full of life. There are trees in it that are rare to the Netherlands and there are rare plants and flowers for visitors to admire. The park is also home to a variety of animals; chickens, the omnipresent pigeons, a handful of llamas, some cows, some horses, and turkeys all living peacefully in a fenced reserve. In another section of the park, a wide assortment of roses were planted in a hexagonal pattern, and it's a really fragrant rose garden at that. Many dogs can be seen walking their people at any time of day. A group of greenish-yellow parakeets also resides in the park.

Besides rare flora and fauna, you meet some pretty weird people in the park too. There's one guy who likes to skate around the asphalt walkway dressed in nothing more than a silver string Speedo swimming trunks every summer, just going round and round. He's not alone though as the park is very much loved by skaters, who either bring their own or rent good skates from the pancake restaurant at the south end. The Friday night skate in Amsterdam is a must. Over the years, the amount of skaters in the park has grown so much that pedestrians have started to complain.

Anyway, there's lots to do besides skating. There are concerts, both classical and pop (in both Dutch and English), performed by known and not-so-known artists. If there aren't any concerts, there's theatre on stage, or dance, and if there's nothing planned around the central stage, it's used by a gang of break-dancers, who practice there. The programme of events for the Vondelpark, which stretches from May to August, is found on the walls of many of the city's bars.

Of course, marijuana and cannabis enter into play in the Vondelpark as well. The park is a great place of relaxation. In the 1960s, people loved to celebrate the age of Aquarius by smoking a bag of weed and jumping into the main pond naked. Nowadays people consider it relaxing just to smoke a small spliff and lie in the grass. Smoking yourself into oblivion is usually for tourists. For many others, just having a picnic, an outdoor party or a few hours working on your exams, working on the tan or working on nothing at all, is the best way to enjoy the park.

There is a lot of art to be found in Vondelpark. There's a Picasso statue which looks a bit like a fish and not one of not Picasso's best, in the middle section, and a large statue of Joost van den Vondel (Dutch poet) near the main entrance. A large tree stump painted blue adorns another part. The Netherlands Film Museum, with footage from the dawn of moving pictures, is in an old stately building at the north end of the park. Besides these visuals, many musicians of varying ability playing different instruments frequent the park.

Police in the park are numerous, but they are more laid-back than elsewhere in the city. Vondelpark is one of Amsterdam's more tolerant spaces. Pick-pockets are also quite numerous, because of the relaxed nature of the tourists once they get to the park. It's generally believed that it's best to avoid the park at night.

Berlin, Germany

Right in the centre of Berlin, close to the Brandenburg Gate, Reichstag and Potdammer Platz, the Tirgarten is a large forested park which also houses the Zoological Gardens.

There are plenty of open spaces where Germans will worship the sun especially as is their wont for naturism so don't be alarmed if you see a lot of naked flesh. Also visit the nearby historical site of the Berlin Wall which used to run along the eastern edge of the park and Potsdammer Platz in the location where it used to cut through.

Boston, Massachusetts, USA

In the Boston area there is of course the popular Boston Commons, its large field with statues and benches. Most people enjoy taking picnics with the family, or a date. It's also a great place just to go and sit and read a good book.

Right next to the Commons is the Public Garden which is a great place for kids and the kid in all of us too. They have swan boats, 'Mother Goose's Little Ducklings' and more trees than the Commons for those of us who still can't resist the urge to climb. There are sand boxes and swings as well.

South Boston has Castle Island where there is an old Fort from the American revolution that during the summer offers tours. The beach is right there, a park for kids, and there's also separate areas for people to ride bikes or skate. There are grassy fields and trees, along with a pier to watch ships coming in.

The Esplanade is a great place to go and see free shows, but it is not a very good idea to go skating or bike riding if there is going to be a show. People on foot have no problem taking out someone on skates to try and get them out of the way. The Hatch Shell on the Esplanade is also a great place to catch free concerts - previous performers include Moby and Catherine Wheel.

Bournemouth, Dorset, UK

Although not a sprawling urban wasteland, Bournemouth can still be pretty concrete-oriented. Just a 20 minute walk from the suburbs, behind some houses, is Throop river. Chancing upon it must be a strange experience, as it's not signposted, and a row of houses backs onto it; but over the river are green fields and farming land. It's so beautiful and unspoilt. But best of all it feels like no-one else knows about it. Let's just hope the developers don't get their grubby paws on it, like so many of the urban green areas around Bournemouth.

Brandon, Manitoba, Canada

Compared to other open spaces mentioned in this entry, Rideau Park is a small park by comparison, covering one city block in Brandon's East End. To anyone who has spent any part of their lives in Brandon's East End it is a special part of the city.

Bordered by lilac bushes, the rest of the area is soft green grass, huge old trees, and flower beds planted each spring by the city. On the west side there's a low spot, a natural hollow, where people still go to picnic and let their kids run free and play. Also on that side is the Rideau Lawn Bowling facility, often lit at night for play.

South of the park, the road is now closed so in winter people can toboggan on the huge hill that rises towards the East End Community Centre. There is now an outdoor swimming pool on the west side at the top of the hill, and above that, the old wading pool, where four generations, or more, of East Enders have played as children. The community centre is next to the wading pool, with a warm-up room for skaters using the two outdoor rinks (one for hockey and one for skating). Hundreds have learnt to skate there. In the same building, in the east side, is a dance hall. In the 1950s and 1960s it was a venue for pre-teen dances.

Here are one Researcher's fond memories of the park,

Although I moved out of the East End at the age of 12, there was always an affinity for that end of town. I'd played at the wading pool, played in the park and watched the lawn bowling, and tobogganed there. As a teenager, I returned to East End to the teen dances, where I met the person who became my husband several years later.

Bristol, UK

The Downs in Bristol are located at the top of the city, just above trendy Clifton on the way to Westbury-on-Trym. The area is basically just a vast expanse of flat grassland bordered by the road to the Clifton Suspension Bridge, the top end of Redland, the start of Westbury and the cliffs of the Avon Gorge.

During summer evenings and almost all fine weekends, the Downs play host to couples and families strolling, groups of friends and workers playing ballsports, dog walkers, joggers and the odd stray nutter. Later in the evening, the area around the watertower becomes a favourite haunt of men wishing to meet other men for semi-private moments of passion.

The Downs also play host to concerts, festivals, firework displays and other public events. The easiest way to get there is by following signs to Bristol Zoo, which is located on the Clifton side of the Downs. The Downs enjoy a special status as a protected public space in Bristol, but there are a number of rules concerning behaviour (no fires and so on).

Brooklyn, New York, USA

Prospect Park is the most wonderful creation of Frederick Law Olmstead and Calvert Vaux, the turn of the 20th Century landscape architects responsible for many great US city parks. No matter which way you turn, you always get the feeling that the vista that presents itself is worthy of a landscape painting. The park boasts an incredible harmony of forests and meadows, and the buildings inside are also beautifully designed. Best of all, this lovely creation is open to the public every day of the year for strolling, walking dogs, playing frisbee, cricket (there's a big West Indian population in Brooklyn), soccer, touch football, volleyball, or softball, jogging, skating, bicycling, boating, or just having fun.

The park is best entered at Grand Army Plaza, which abuts the park loop road (3.34 miles) and the Long Meadow. The 11th Street Bandshell is accessible at 9th Street and Prospect Park West and has free concerts on summer weekends. There are pedal boats to rent on the lake, near Lincoln Road and Ocean Avenue. The Prospect Park Zoo and Lefferts Homestead (a 17th Century farmhouse) is at Flatbush Avenue and Ocean Avenue.

Carlisle, UK

Carlisle is a strange city in that most of the bowling greens are in little back alleys surrounded on all sides by terraced housing. This is because in the 1930s the City Council gave special dispensation to any pub which laid on outdoor sporting facilities. So all the open spaces became bowling greens. It makes playing bowls in Carlisle a great experience as you are never quite sure if you have arrived at the right place until you go up the little alleyway.

Chicago, Illinois, USA

Grant Park is located in the heart of downtown Chicago across from Lake Shore Drive and Lake Michigan. The Park is about eight city blocks long and about three city blocks wide. Surrounding the park there are, to the south, the Adler Planetarium, the Aquarium and the Natural History Museum; to the east, Lake Michigan and Lake Shore Drive; to the west, downtown Chicago, the Art Museum, and the Goodman Theatre and to the north, more of downtown Chicago and Navy and North Piers.

Grant Park is a series of lush greenery surrounded by streets. The park contains an elaborate rose garden and the famous Buckingham fountain which was became recently popular as the fountain featured in the opening credits of Married With Children. The park abounds with trees and large open areas where festivals and football (soccer) matches are held, and where people picnic. Every weekend during the summer there is some kind of festival being held such as the Jazz Fest, the Gospel Fest, the Country Music Fest, the Blues Fest, the Celtic Festival, Venetian Night where you can go to observe the lovely boats travelling down the Chicago River and out onto Lake Michigan, and the always famous 'Taste of Chicago' which is an enormous food festival that coincides with the 4 July. The 4 July fireworks are set off on a barge out on Lake Michigan and Grant Park is the place to go and view them.

Also during the summer the Chicago Symphony Orchestra plays free concerts on many, many nights. A popular pastime is to pack a dinner, a blanket and some candles and go down to Grant Park. Set up a romantic evening picnic, listen to the classical music pour out of the stage, watch the sun go down over the city, observe the most romantic skyline, and kiss as the stars come out and the coloured lights are turned on at Buckingham fountain.

Dublin, Ireland

At a meandering 1,800 acres, Phoenix Park is the biggest city park in Europe. Easily accessible from the city centre either by bus or, if you're feeling energetic, foot and provides a welcome little bit of the country in the middle of all that brick and granite.

The park plays host to all sorts of amenities and amusements, from public football pitches to meandering walks around a myriad of monuments including the staggeringly dull Papal Cross which was erected to commemorate the one and only Papal visit to Ireland in 1979. Also worth taking a peep at - you can hardly miss it - is the memorial to that reluctant Irishman the Duke of Wellington ('Just because one is born in a stable does not make one a horse') in the base of which, prior to completion, a massive banquet was held from which every guest, bar one, exited unscathed.

The park is also home to a variety of flora and fauna and there's a large herd of deer and signposts that diligently warn motorists of the fact that they do, on occasion, perform feats of immense stupidity such as trying unsuccessfully to play chicken with the average family hatchback. Among the more threatening wildlife to be seen is the President of Ireland and the United States Ambassador to Ireland, both of whom have large and rigidly secured residences within the confines of the park.

Finally the Park is also home to the National Zoological Gardens which is desperately trying to shrug off its jaded image (previously the most exciting bit about the zoo was Pets Corner - and then only because they had swings and slides) in favour of a more upbeat image. The wide open spaces also provide the perfect setting for occasional free concerts - at which one, or all, of U2 are always rumoured to be playing (despite the fact that they never do). Whatever your reasons for going, no trip to Dublin is quite complete without a trip to the park to chill out, trip out or just walk about.

Düsseldorf, Germany

There's a nice park in Düsseldorf Zoo, near the Brehmstrasse ice hockey stadium. Many years ago, there was the zoo of Düsseldorf, but the only thing remaining of that is the sculpture of a monkey near the entrance. In the park, you may take your dog for a walk, spend time with your children on a little playground, walk around a small lake with ducks and fish or just enjoy the old trees. On a matchday in the Brehmstrasse (Düsseldorfer EG, if you like ice hockey) you can even try to climb over the fence, next to the lake, and get in the stadium for free, but that's a little risky. The best time to visit is in the morning.

Edinburgh, Scotland

Princes Street is Edinburgh's main shopping thoroughfare. On the north side are all the shops and on the south side is Princes Street Gardens.

The City of Edinburgh grew up around the Royal Mile between the Castle and the Palace of Holyrood. The buildings were tall tenement blocks, built close together with narrow alleyways, or closes, between them. Running water, plumbing and sanitation were non-existent and a large proportion of the waste from the city found its way into the Nor Loch (North Lake) which lay to the north side of the Castle Rock.

In the Mid 18th Century the city fathers decided that a new Edinburgh should be built, reflecting the growing affluence of the city and the site chosen was the area to the north of the Nor Loch. The beautiful Georgian New Town was subsequently built and most of the city's rich and famous moved in. Originally the north side of Princes Street was private housing; trade and commerce being banished to the streets behind. Since the wealthy property owners could not be expected to look out over the smelly, disease-ridden Nor Loch, part of the plans included the draining and cleaning up of the loch area. And so Princes Street Gardens came into being.

The east end of the Gardens begins at Waverley Bridge where all the open-top city tour buses leave from. This part of the Gardens is dominated by the Scott Monument, a 200ft Gothic spire commemorating Sir Walter Scott. The west part begins at the Mound and is overlooked by the Castle. Features include a floral clock, complete with mechanical cuckoo, the Ross Theatre which is known locally as the 'the bandstand' and an open-air café and children's play area at the west end.

The Gardens really come alive during the Edinburgh International Theatre Festival with performances taking place anywhere a space can be found. The Ross Theatre is one of the venues during Edinburgh's Hogmanay celebrations.

During the summer the Gardens are a popular lunchtime venue for citizens and visitors alike. Being below the level of Princes Street, most of the traffic noise disappears and the Gardens are a wonderful sun-trap.

Edmonton, Canada

Edmonton, the capital of Alberta Province, is home to what is described as the largest urban park system in North America. Stretching almost 50 kilometres along both banks of the winding North Saskatchewan River, and reaching wooded fingers up ravines into neighbourhoods far from the river itself, this continuous stretch of greenspace covers almost 7500 hectares - about eleven percent of Edmonton's land area. This high percentage of area given over to parkland helps Edmonton have one of the lowest population densities of cities in North America.

Within the 22 contiguous parks there are huge stretches of native forest, 150 kilometres of biking and walking trails, pedestrian and cycle bridges crossing the river at regular intervals, sports fields, golf courses, public swimming pools, a zoo, and three attractive historic neighbourhoods that feel like rural villages within walking distance of downtown. History is a common theme in the river valley; from the parks commemorating Nellie McClung, the other members of the Famous Five, and many other influential Edmontonians of past years, to the rambling Fort Edmonton Historic Park. At Fort Edmonton Park visitors can experience living history from the Hudson's Bay Company fort which was the seed of the city to the Al Rashid Mosque which was built by Edmonton's Muslim community in the early part of the 20th Century.

London, UK

Battersea Park

Battersea Park was created to stop the poor misbehaving, as legend would have it, as fresh air would keep them out of houses of ill-repute, apparently.

The park fits neatly between the Albert and the Chelsea Bridges which light up at night with hundreds of tiny white bulbs and it boasts no less than a bowling green, some lakes that you can row in, a café where they play live jazz in the summer, numerous tennis and football courts/pitches, a tasteless 'Peace Pagoda' and even a kids' zoo. There are also a couple of Henry Moore sculptures by the lake which are slightly the worse for wear but pretty impressive, nonetheless.

The park is unpretentious - unless you count the 'South Chelsea' yuppies with their designer babies - and teaming with activity all year round. Well worth a visit, especially if you're into recumbent cycling since you can hire every hybrid kind of bike you can imagine for a ride around the park.

There is a fantastic children's park in Battersea Park. It's professionally supervised by a youth group run by the local council. They've got swings, slides and climbing frames for children aged under eight, but also have wooden climbing structures, rope swings, rope slides and massive 'sheer drop' slides for older children, aged up to 14.

Most children's parks are only suitable for those up to the age of ten or so, so this is quite unusual. It can get a bit crowded, particularly during the holidays and on sunny weekends.

Finsbury Park

One would not immediately identify Finsbury Park as north London's most beautiful green space, consisting as it does mainly of recreational areas and muddy patches of poorly maintained grassland. Neither is it particularly large, comprising little more than a couple of square miles in total between British Rail's Great Northern Line, to the west, and Seven Sisters Road to the east.

It does, however, provide an interesting cross-section of London's inner-city population and cultural life. To the north and west of the park, for keep-fit enthusiasts, there are tennis courts, a cricket pitch, and a small track-and-field stadium. Amateur volleyball players vie for space with fundamentalist Christians trying to chat up lost souls on dreary park benches on the main central concourse. Amiable drunks pass the time of day together in the area to the park's southernmost entrance. Any casual passer-by can participate in the pick-up football matches that seem to start spontaneously, using jumpers and t-shirts as goalposts, between disparate groups on a Sunday afternoon. Naturally, many of these would-be Thierry Henry types wear the colours of Arsenal, the local football team. Others, however, are to be observed less appropriately attired in jeans and brogue shoes, and the general impression is of cheerful passers-by deciding on a whim to join in their first knockaround since leaving high-school any number of years ago...

During the summer, the park is host to a number of events which are well-known nationally, such as the Fleadh festival which mainly celebrates Celtic-influenced popular music. Another example is the Gay Pride festival that takes over the park for one weekend a year in the early summer. There are also a number of interesting cultural sights within reasonable walking distance, including Alexandra Palace, Highgate Cemetery, and the historic area of Hornsey and Crouch End. The Bohemian splendour - and inner-city squalor - of Hackney lies to the east.

The area is well-served by transport links. Travellers from out of town can arrive at Finsbury Park station via British Rail from the north. This station can also be reached on the London Underground by either the Piccadilly Line or the Victoria Line. The northernmost area of the park, which is far more pleasant, can be accessed via Manor House tube station, also on the Piccadilly Line. There are also many local bus links both from the centre and from the outskirts of London - too numerous to mention here. For longer stays, one can find a choice of reasonably priced hotels on Seven Sisters Road, which runs due north forming the eastern boundary of the park.

Hampstead Heath

Hampstead Heath is an enormous expanse of greenery in north London. You can get there on the Northern Line and get out at Hampstead station, take a right up the hill and then the park is there for you to explore. You can get there by bus, many of which run from central London's Charing Cross Road. The North London Line, aka the Silverlink, stops at Hampstead Heath station and from there it's a couple of minutes' walk to the heath. This is where you'll find lots of natty little shops and bars to quench your thirst.

Kenwood House, on the heath, is an 18th Century building in the middle of the park. It has many paintings from the 17th/18th Centuries including works by Joshua Reynolds and Franz Hals. Entrance to the house is free and the most amazing room to wander around in is the Orangerie which has stunning views over the heath.

Incidentally, this is where some of the film Notting Hill starring Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant was shot. In a way this is slightly unfortunate as the number of tourists has increased beyond the house's capacity and the once tranquil atmosphere is shattered by hordes of tourists at the height of summer.

In front of the house there is a miniature 'Hollywood Bowl' with a lake in front. As you look at it there is a little bridge on the left; don't try to cross this as it is in fact just a cut out to make the place look pretty and quite effective it is too. Every year, this area is transformed for 'Music on a Summer's Evening' concerts where you pay circa £10 to listen to classical/film music in the great outdoors, occasionally accompanied by fireworks. Bring some champers and loads of food to ensure a truly memorable and not to mention magical evening.

Spaniards Inn is a little pub on Spaniards Road that bisects the heath. It was built in 1585 and now has a preservation order on it. If you are arriving by car, beware because the Spaniards Road bottle-necks at the pub thus allowing only one-way traffic. Be prepared to give way but also to take your chances getting through.

Legend has it that it was frequented by highwaymen - and none more impressive that the old devil himself Dick Turpin. The pub is cosy and conducive to clandestine meetings and love trysts. It has a small car park too.

Jack Straw's Castle - until recently a well-known pub (the highest in London), now a block of luxury apartments - is a landmark for a different reason. As you look at the building, to the left there is a path heading down to a wooded area. Head right and you walk slap bang into the gay men's cruising area. Walk further along - the darker it gets, the more 'heated' it gets. At night time you will see fluorescent boxes which hold condoms and lubricant. This activity is tolerated by most Londoners but surprisingly not by the Hampstead residents.

The heath is also home to three swimming ponds - one for families, one for females and one for males. They are all pretty much secluded and skinny dipping is tolerated in the single sex areas. The water is a delicious moss green colour, a bit pongy and you come out with a film of algae. But hey - it's almost natural. When you leave the ponds, you'll get a nasty sensation when you step into the sludge which usually comes up to your ankles.

All in all, the heath is a vast expanse of land that harbours many corners for those of all walks of life. If you want privacy you got it, you want a large space to play footie, you got it. It's a great space for almost any outdoor activity. Also, once you've learned how to view an eclipse, the heath gives a perfect opportunity to watch any solar phenomenon - especially from Parliament Hill.

Holland Park

Tucked in to the north west end of Kensington, it often sits neglected in the shadow of the better known parks at the other end of High Street Kensington - Kensington Gardens and Hyde Park.

It can be entered from various directions, the entrances on Kensington High Street, and near Holland Park tube being the most obvious. Although it may look like it's going to be a tiny little place, possibly somewhat claustrophobic compared to Hyde Park, in fact it is nothing of the sort: everything is on a more intimate scale, but there is a wide variation in the character of the park from place to place that can make some of the larger spaces feel somewhat desolate.

The park has an open air theatre which puts on plays and musical performances in the summer, features some truly beautiful gardens in a variety of styles (although the Japanese garden occasionally has scum on the pond) and best of all, peacocks. There's also accommodation for young people right in the middle, so there's somewhere local to stay.

St James's Park

St James's is easily accessible from Westminster and the heart of London. From Piccadilly Circus you just go straight down Lower Regent Street and cross over the Mall.

It is a favourite lunch time retreat for many workers in the very heart of the West End during the sweltering hot summer months; London can be exceptionally stifling when the heat does rise.

Diana, Princess of Wales once helped save a man from drowning in St James's Park. The Park has Horseguards Parade to its east side and Buckingham Palace to the west. It is one of three Royal Parks which are more or less connected. Green Park and Hyde Park being the other two.

However, St James's is the one if you want to watch the ceremonials of state passing by as Ambassadors and Presidents pass by the Mall on the way to being presented to the monarch.

Richmond Park

Richmond Park stretches from Sheen in the north to Kingston in the south; and from Richmond, Petersham and Ham in the west to Roehampton in the east.

It is the largest of the park areas in London and one of the Royal Parks. It is also one of the deer parks for royal deer and is one of the few open spaces in London that you can virtually get away from the overwhelming drone of traffic noise.

At 955 hectares (2,360 acres) it was enclosed as a hunting park in 1637 by Charles I. The deer run wild and are quite docile except during mating season, see the warnings at all the gates. In the middle of the lake are the Pen Ponds which are a haven for many waterfowl and other wildlife and the picturesque Isabella plantation is an enclosed floral paradise with many species of flowers, shrubs and trees.

Tower Hamlets cemetery

The Tower Hamlets Cemetery is not a park but it's green, it's open, it's space so how much nearer can you get? It is a wild piece of land in the midst of civilisation. It is located in east London, Bow, near Mile End tube station. Turn right as you come out of the station and right again into Southern Grove, where the main entrance is. The cemetery is wild and overgrown and you can, if you are lucky, observe some volunteers picking weeds .

The cemetery is at least 130 years old and it feels like it with ivy-overgrown huge trees, graves hiding beneath weeds and rotten gravestones beneath the paths. The best thing to do is to enter and to get lost, enjoying the absence of the city.

Munich, Germany

Since 1789 there is a place full of calmness and peace in Munich – The Englischer Garten. It is the green heart of the Bavarian metropolis and the biggest park in Europe, situated in the middle of a city. The funny thing is that this park was created by an American, Benjamin Thompson, who later became Count Rumford and Bavarian Minister of War, as well as a social Reformer.

At the beginning, the place around the river Isar was thought of as a military garden, but soon the idea of a Volkspark, which is German for park of the people, was realised. Several farms, nurseries, a sheepfold and an agriculture school were built.

In 1989, the Englischer Garten celebrated its 200 year anniversary and has preserved its natural beauty and romantic wildness. Everyone can find a place; parents with children go often to the park because kids can play and shout and just be happy. You can go for a walk with your dog and let him off the leash too. If you like to sun bathe in the nude, then head for the area dedicated to naturism.

In the Japanisches Teehaus or 'Japanese Teahouse', you can watch an original Japanese tea ceremony, carried out by a Japanese Teamaster. The Teahouse was built 1972 by Mitsuo Nomara.

The Chinesischer Turm or 'Chinese Tower' is one of Munich’s most charming beer-gardens in summer. In winter there is a Christmas market with arts, crafts, Santa Claus and a nativity scene. It was built in 1789 - 1790.

From The Monopterus, a little round temple, built by Klenze1 in a Greek style On sunny days there is a beautiful view of Munich's Skyline.

At the heart of the Englischer Garten is Kleinhesselhoher Lake with three islands and the Seehaus or boathouse. This is the best place to switch off, to swim or to feed the ducks.

New York City, New York, USA

Bryant Park

While not a large piece of greenery, Bryant Park, located at 42nd Street and 6th Avenue in New York City (right near the library and down the street from Times Square) is a delightful spot to visit.

The highlight of the park's use is the annual summer film series that is hosted there. Once a week they show movies on a huge screen erected on one edge of the lawn, and New Yorkers grab their little section of the grass with blankets starting from 5pm and hang out in a very relaxed (for New Yorkers) fashion until sundown. The films chosen are normally classics, and draw an intelligent, cultured crowd who also happen to have little funds (it is free). So mostly the crowd is students and recent graduates, with an occasional older couple. The normal open container laws seem not to apply on movie night, and bottles of wine are freely passed around.

Another highlight in Bryant Park are the movable green metal chairs that you can arrange yourself. It's nice to be able to arrange your own little conversational clusters at lunchtime.

All in all, a delightful night in a normally insane city.

Central Park

One of the best examples of urban parks, you could argue that it is the very definition of urban green space with a huge rectangle of trees, ponds, play grounds, a small zoo, a famous museum, formal gardens, 'wild' preservations, statues and wandering paths.

It has been called the 'greatest gift New Yorkers ever gave to themselves', and it certainly could be one of the most expensive; hundreds of acres of prime undeveloped land right in the middle of the most expensive property in the USA. If one even tried to put a value on the land alone, it would be in the many hundreds of billions of dollars.

When first built, it was north of the developed part of the city, surrounded by farms rather than skyscrapers. Then it was 'north' of the city and hardly 'central' but the city grew north and overtook the park.

Many of the natural rocky outcroppings were covered with small decorative buildings, some purposely had no fixed paths to the top so the patrons would be encouraged to explore their own path to the buildings.

The large lake in the north of the park is really the remains of one of the early drinking water reservoirs that was used before the massive underground aqueducts were built to bring fresh water to NYC from upstate, more than a century ago.

Most of the roads that pass though Central Park are in deep 'cuttings' to reduce noise and are curvy to reduce speed.

Some of the more interesting statues in the park include 'Alice in Wonderland' and 'Balto'.

It is recommended to stay away from inner parts of Central Park after dark, but even at night it can be safe if there is enough of a crowd around. A few years ago when Disney was touring with the old Main Street Electrical parade, thousands walked though Central Park when it was dark with no ill effects other than it was hard to catch a cab that night.

Central Park is definitely one of the joys of New York. The Delacorte Theater presents open-air Shakespeare plays on summer evenings for free. The reservoir jogging path is 1.5 miles around and has spectacular views of the skyline. The main loop road is six miles around and has two good hills for skaters and cyclists (and masochistic joggers). Cat's Paw Hill is behind the Metropolitan Museum and Great Hill is at the north end of the park. Central Park has the Conservatory Garden at 103rd Street and 5th Avenue, which is a gorgeous botanical garden free and open to the public. It has Wollman Skating Rink at the south end for ice skating in cold weather. On the Great Lawn there are often opera and symphony concerts, and at Rumsey Playfield, near 72nd Street, there is Summerstage, which offers really wonderful pop music concerts, also for free.

Strawberry Fields is the section of the park on the west side of Central Park at 72nd Street dedicated to the memory of John Lennon whose apartment building, The Dakota, where he was shot, is right across the street. It's a beautiful little portion of the park with a large mosaic on the ground in the middle of the path with one word - 'Imagine'.

A few more interesting trivia items from the Central Park Website. Central Park has,

  • 26,000 trees
  • 275 species of birds
  • 20 million visitors annually (excluding New Yorkers)
  • 7 miles worth of benches
  • 58 miles worth of pedestrian paths
  • 21 playgrounds
  • 7 bodies of water
  • 843 total acres

Still the most fascinating activity in Central Park is watching everyone else’s activity. It’s like one huge, animated Brueghel painting. The very best possible vantage point is from a trusty steed. There are miles of wonderful bridal paths winding through Central Park. One may rent a very useful mount, for most levels of ability, from the historic Claremont Stables at 89th Street and Amsterdam Avenue. And while we’re on the subject of horses and art, let’s not forget the beautiful old Carousel. Permanently housed in an rather unappealing red brick round-house, this delightful herd of snarling equines has so far resisted the city’s contempt for history. Take a ride before they’re sent to pasture. That goes for the real one’s, too.

Rochester, New York, USA

Rochester's wonderful Rundel Library contains a garden of sorts, with a gazebo and several wrought-iron benches. It's a great atmosphere for reading, though there isn't anywhere to place cups of coffee from the library's café. The sound of the birds, sculpted fountain, and muffled traffic create a pleasant ambience, though you may just want to pop on some headphones. Of course, Bausch and Lombe remind you at the entrance that you have them, and not the county government, to thank for the garden.

St Louis, Missouri, USA

Located on the western edge of the city near Washington University, Forest Park is an excellent and diverse green space - part hills, part flat. The park contains a great zoo (check out the gorillas), art museum, history museum, and science centre - all free. There's also an ice skating rink, tennis centre, a 10km paved path skirting the park borders, playing fields, a small botanical garden, and a theatre. The park itself contains thickly-forested areas, open fields, and ponds. It's a huge area well worth visiting and spending as many daylight hours as you can in. At night urban myths abound about the sinister activities going on within the park's borders - probably mostly untrue.

San Diego, Calfornia, USA

The Balboa Park is spread out over an area of 1200 acres in San Diego, near the Mexican Border. One of America's three great urban parks, a quarter million people live in its immediate shadow in the centre city Districts of Cortez Hill, Golden Hill, Bankers Hill, Hillcrest, University Heights and North Park. The park effectively links San Diego's commercial districts (to the south-west, on the bay), with the artistic and culinary amenities (and alternative lifestyles, in several neighbourhoods) of the uptown inner city communities.

The park itself was founded in 1868, as the heart and showcase of the new 'American' urban districts of San Diego (previously, the city was centred around the 18th Century presidio fortress constructed on the bluffs to the north-east of the park by the city's original Bourbon Spanish rulers). The great boulevard that bisects the park, El Prado, was constructed in 1915. Most of the parks Spanish Colonial architecture, although impressive, actually dates from the early 20th Century, and should be considered revivalist in nature. Today, the park and its various civic institutions serves as the cultural heart of the San Diego-Tijuana metropolitan area, a region with nearly five million inhabitants straddling both sides of the La Frontera, the US-Mexican border. Each year, over 12 million people visit and use the park.

While Balboa Park is mostly known for being the home of the world-famous San Diego Zoo, it is actually a fairly nice urban park. There are large groves of eucalyptus trees and big grassy areas to sit and picnic.

There are also a large number of friendly museums, sometimes with free admission. A favourite is the Rueben H Fleet Space Museum, but it is a big museum and not for people 'getting back to nature'. The Museum of Man also has some interesting exhibits although they are small.

Also in Balboa Park is the Old Globe Theater, a good-sized theatre with three stages - one regular, one outdoor, and one in the round - which sometimes has quality productions. Belying its name, the Globe only sometimes shows Shakespeare. It is really hard to say whether a Globe show will be good.

Probably the biggest place to avoid, if you are looking for the park experience, is the San Diego Zoo. It is a really great place to visit, but it can get very crowded, especially in the summer. Parking at the Park can also be a pain, almost impossible during an Old Globe show. It's best to take the number seven bus which runs around and through the park.

Balboa Dam Recreation Center gets its name from the low level at which the land sits - the road through the park is flooded at least once a year. It was refurbished entirely following the 1994 Northridge earthquake.

It is also recommend that you avoid the area altogether after dark. While not dangerous, there are a few unscrupulous characters hanging about.

Sheffield, Yorkshire, UK

Sheffield has a plethora of green open spaces within the city boundaries. Graves Park is one of these and a favourite spot to take children and visitors on a fine day. The park is cunningly hidden, tucked into the dogleg curve of Chesterfield Road and Meadowhead, the main route out of Sheffield towards Chesterfield.

What makes Graves Park special is that it houses a collection of rare breeds - mainly domesticated animals, such as sheep and cattle. Children can also go into the aviaries, supervision is provided by the staff, to mix with the birds. An avenue of trees planted by Sheffield Mayors with the odd poignant gap where one has fallen victim to time or disease (the tree, not the mayor), reminds visitors that trees are a symbol of trust in the future.

Graves Park provides a mixture of 'family' walks which are reasonably well-tended and marked and open countryside with mature stands of trees where the more adventurous or fit can exercise more energetically. Dogs are welcome to join in but must be on leads around the livestock pens - keep an eye out for treacherous leavings!

In the grand tradition of the British Park, the café is gloomy and ramshackle, redeemed by the birds nesting in the rafters and a rather charming knot garden at the front, where families rest their legs, sucking on whatever sort of ice cream was left in the freezer when they got to the café and allowing their children to run riot through the ornamental plants.

Thin Blue Line

In the UK there is a nationwide network of canals and navigable rivers. The canals pass through urban areas and are a green and blue counter to the brick and concrete jungle. You can paddle on the Regent's Canal in London just near to City Road and see swans, ducks, geese and many other waterbirds.

Once on the canal you're away from the noise of the roads and the ever-hurrying people and traffic. The canals also have nice paths running alongside - once for the use of horses hauling the boats, now they make for a nice walk, run or cycle ride. You can take yourself on a boat right into the middle of several cities, Manchester, Birmingham, London - try it to see a city from a different viewpoint.

1German architect and landscape and portrait painter. Court architect to Louis I of Bavaria, for whom he built many structures in Italian Renaissance and neo-classical style. His chief works in Munich were the Glyptothek Museum, the Pinakothek Museum and the Odeon .

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