The development of landscape design shares much of its history with agricultural development. Although some of what was considered a landscape in the past was driven more by function rather than beauty, gardens and greenery have been a source of design for hundreds of years.
Think of some of the oldest and most famous gardens like those at the Palace of Versailles outside of Paris and Villa d’Este in Tivoli, Italy. These and many others were designed far before there was the term ‘landscape design’.
In modern America, landscape design plays a big role in the layout of urban, suburban and rural areas. The history includes both softscaping and hardscaping. Let’s take a stroll through history and discover the many evolutions of landscape design.
The Hanging Gardens of Babylon
The hanging gardens of Babylon is certainly one of the earliest recorded stories of what we now call landscaping. Hailing from the 6th century B.C., these structures were allegedly built along the Euphrates river by Babylon King Nebuchadnezzar.
Legend has it that he built the gardens for his wife as a reminder of her homeland. However, some scholars doubt they ever existed because Nebuchadnezzar kept detailed records of his many accomplishments but never mentioned the gardens.
Today, our knowledge of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon comes from interpretations passed down to ancient Greek and Roman historians. They were not actually “hanging” but would have been draped over a series of terraces that were said to have been as much as 75 feet high, 22 feet deep and 400 feet long.
Although there is no definitively known origin of landscaping, most experts believe, based on what’s been uncovered, that Rome was the center of its growth. After all, the ancient Romans were master engineers and enjoyed lush scenery.
In ancient Rome, the garden was a serene escape. Design was often based upon religious elements and included both softscaping and hardscaping. Although Roman gardens weren’t the first and were inspired by the Egyptians and Greeks, they were the most prevalent. Rome was able to scale landscape design so that it was a norm for every home, not just the elite.
Not long after the Romans, gardens become popular in the east, too. The Middle East considered gardens to be for rest and reflection. Their gardens were centered around water and were constructed with walking paths, much different than the smaller landscapes of the Romans. For shade, natural canopies and pavilions were built.
In Asian countries, landscaping was heavily influenced by religion, mostly Buddhism. Japanese gardens were designed to be quiet areas to meditate and almost always included a water feature. Chinese gardens had dual roles: both as a reflective spot and a social one. Plants in these gardens were largely symbolic, like the prolific use of bamboo, which represents strength and resilience.
The Middle Ages were a time when landscaping was lost, but it was revived during the Renaissance. This is especially true of Italy, where gardens went from simple to elaborate piazzas. In the 17th century, France begins to show ornate and sophisticated gardens. It’s in this century that the gardens of Versailles were developed as well as those in Vaux-le-Vicomte, designed by Andre le Notre.
The designs of Notre greatly influenced gardens in the 18th century, especially in England, where large parks were created, modeled on designs from France. Architecture and landscaping begin to blend more at this time with the grounds at Blenheim Palace as an example.
This period is also associated with cottage-style landscape design. These were smaller, compact gardens and landscaping, which would eventually be an inspiration for suburban green spaces.
Landscape Design in the U.S.
In the late 19th century, Frederick Law Olmstead became known as the “Father of American Landscape Architecture.” His work influenced the grounds at the U.S. Capitol and Central Park in New York City.
His aesthetic was to include lots of green pastures among the city buildings. In 1899, Olmstead founded the American Society of Landscape Architects, and classes in the field were offered at Harvard beginning in 1900.
What Olmstead did in inviting so much green into the city was hugely significant in what other cities would start to do, including Chicago and Cleveland. They begin to create urban parks, balancing the concrete jungle with green spaces.
The Subdivision Causes Shifts in Landscaping
Beyond the decision for cities to incorporate more greenery, American landscaping took a new turn with the emergence of the subdivision. Outside the city, neighborhoods began to pop up from the 1950s on. These homes sat on a lot, whereas houses had been much further away from one another previously, with each property having a larger slice of acreage.
The subdivision reduced the size of what one could do with their yards. This shift meant that landscaping would be on a smaller scale and could be designed based on what was attractive versus the necessity to grow certain things for sustainability purposes. Landscape design in the 20th century completely separates itself from agriculture.
The 21st Century: Outdoor Livings Spaces
In the 21st century is all about creating outdoor living spaces. Homeowners want an oasis when they step outside the door. There are cooking spaces, lounging areas, water features, and fire pits to incorporate into a busy landscape. This takes a lot of creativity to develop something that works for the space, and uses both plants and hardscapes to create the right experience for the homeowner.
The history of landscape design goes back as far as the world’s ancient civilizations. Working the land in those times was mostly based on agriculture, but these ancient gardens showed signs of designed landscapes as well. As lifestyles have evolved, modern landscape design has come to be both functional and attractive.
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