Parks and gardens have been a feature of Melbourne since the first decades of European settlement. Even before the Melbourne Town Council was formed in 1842, agitation began for the government to set aside land specifically for recreation. This was part of a worldwide movement, which began in England in the early 19th century and spread to Europe, North America and Australasia. Parks and gardens were originally conceived as a way of alleviating insanitary conditions in industrialised cities, where people living in overcrowded tenements could escape to pleasant surroundings to enjoy healthy exercise. No less importantly, they were also viewed as promoting social harmony, as places where people would benefit from the experience of mixing with those from different backgrounds and classes. In 1886 Frederick Law Olmsted, designer of New York's Central Park, included Melbourne - along with Paris, Liverpool, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Chicago - among those cities profoundly influenced in their development and way of life by the introduction of parks.
The first half of the 19th century was also a period when many newly discovered plants from around the world, including Australia, were introduced into cultivation from the wild. Interest in horticulture and botany flourished. The Royal Botanic Gardens were established at Kew near London in 1840, and Melbourne's Royal Botanic Gardens in 1846. They were intended not only to improve recreation and education, but also to aid scientific enquiry and the quest for commercial applications for plants.
Charles Joseph La Trobe, Superintendent of the Port Phillip District and Victoria's first lieutenant-governor, believed strongly in providing for 'the public advantage'. Before leaving the colony in 1854 he was instrumental in reserving from sale large tracts of land, which included areas now occupied by Royal Park, Princes Park, Albert Park Reserve, Fawkner Park, Yarra Park, Royal Botanic Gardens, Fitzroy Gardens and Carlton Gardens. However, except for a small part of the Botanic Gardens, it was some years before any development occurred. Construction of the Yan Yean reservoir provided Melbourne with a relatively reliable water supply in 1857, which was important in establishing ornamental gardens. In the ensuing years the Fitzroy and Carlton gardens, Flagstaff Gardens, Treasury Gardens, Williamstown Botanic Gardens, St Kilda Botanical Gardens, and South Melbourne's St Vincent Gardens were established. By the end of the 19th century most suburbs contained public parks and gardens.
The early parks and gardens resulted from the colonial government's reservation of Crown land, often at the request of municipal government. Much of it was unfit for building upon. On occasions it included springs and lagoons, initially used as a water supply, which later became features in reserves such as Malvern Gardens and Caulfield Park. Before the end of the 19th century, most land in the inner-and middle-ring suburbs had passed into private ownership, and with a few exceptions, pressure to provide additional recreation space could only be satisfied by purchasing private property. In 1885 Prahran Council declared a public holiday to celebrate the dedication of Victoria Gardens, Toorak Park and Greville Street Gardens, the council having bought the land for the substantial sum of £12 500. Viceregal representatives Sir Henry and Lady Loch were guests of honour at the elaborate festivities, which went on into the evening. A council election fought the following week over the new reserves was won resoundingly by councillors who had initiated the purchase. As time went by, many more councils bought land with which to form parks and gardens.
The foreshore around Port Phillip Bay was also developed for recreation. Swimming baths, tennis courts, walking paths, piers and bandstands provided exercise and entertainment. Mornington and Sorrento parks have been popular since the 1870s, when visitors would make the return trip aboard bay steamers. On occasions ornamental gardens were formed, such as the Catani Gardens in St Kilda, designed in 1910 by Carlo Catani, who also designed Alexandra Park and Gardens.
Until recently the term 'park' has generally been applied to the larger reserves used for sports grounds. Initially older parks were merely cleared to provide open spaces for football and cricket, and many were also used for grazing; a St Kilda councillor described them in 1912 as 'more often used as cattle ranches'. By then a wider range of sports were available, and tennis and golf had been introduced to Albert, Fawkner and Royal parks. Tennis courts proliferated in gardens as well as parks, and although existing parks could not usually accommodate golf, some councils later acquired land on which to build public golf courses. Most people had little time to engage in sport until after World War II. Saturday mornings were part of the working week, and sport was prohibited in public reserves on Sundays. At the end of 1937 the City of Melbourne ventured to open its tennis courts on Sunday afternoons free of charge.
Right from the start, regulations endeavoured to control the behaviour of visitors. While some constraints are still current, such as on littering or entering with unleashed dogs, others reflected the rough nature of the early reserves. Lighting fires was forbidden, as was smoking anywhere off the paths, even in the gardens, as grass was scythed occasionally rather than mown regularly and with no irrigation it grew long and dry in summer. Apparently some visitors brought along carpets to beat as it was thought necessary to ban this activity, and any poultry and goats found were liable to be destroyed. Generally people were required to adopt the middle-class behaviour and values of those who made the recreation reserves. There was no climbing or jumping over seats or fences, lying on the grass or cutting names on trees or seats. If a visitor did transgress and was caught, the penalties could be heavy. Young children were sometimes charged with offences such as stealing flowers, and one man convicted of destroying a statue in the Flagstaff Gardens was sentenced to three months in gaol.
Band recitals were popular for over 100 years, and the first moving pictures were often shown on temporary screens set up in municipal gardens, which were favoured settings for fundraising events, particularly fêtes and moonlight concerts. These sorts of activities have been revived in recent years, if on a more limited scale. As the 20th century advanced, standards of behaviour relaxed. Men and women felt comfortable lying together on the grass in view of others, a situation that shocked some members of society. Saturating the lawns with water was one remedy suggested. Other changes affected the appearance of gardens. Grass had benefited from improved irrigation techniques and mechanical mowers, which provided a closer approximation of today's expanses of smooth green lawn; abundant floral displays of greater intricacy were achieved by better trained gardeners; and fences, once necessary to exclude wandering stock, disappeared as they were perceived as infringing the public's right to enter their own reserves freely.
In 1906 the curator of the city parks and gardens commented on the playground in Sydney's Domain, a small area enclosed by a low fence and supervised by a uniformed caretaker. Boys were admitted one day and girls the next. He had recently visited the Edinburgh Gardens in Fitzroy to inspect two swings and two seesaws, and there were two swings in Richmond, in what the Argus newspaper described as 'the right locality ... a cheerless district of three and four roomed cottages, narrow streets, and squalid lanes'. Supervised, well-equipped playgrounds had been established in densely populated cities in Great Britain and the USA to improve the welfare of disadvantaged children. In 1907 the Premier of Victoria opened what appears to have been Melbourne's first public playground in Lincoln Square, Carlton. The cost was met jointly by the Melbourne City Council and State Government. By 1912, the year in which the Guild of Play was formed, others had been built in South Melbourne, Port Melbourne and Clifton Hill. In 1918 the Flagstaff Gardens playground opened with duplicate sets of play equipment so that boys and girls were segregated. It was surrounded by a barbed wire fence, and males older than 12 were not allowed in. Hundreds of thousands of children used similar facilities every year in the inner city alone, and every municipality went on to include playgrounds as a necessary recreational facility, although the supervisors and duplicate equipment eventually disappeared.
Many municipal gardens were at their most elaborate and well maintained in the years between the two world wars. Those established or extended during that period include Footscray Park, Hedgeley Dene Gardens in Malvern and Landcox Park in Brighton. However, after World War II gardens were simplified to contain costs. Paths and flowerbeds were grassed over, and labour-intensive herbaceous perennials such as chrysanthemums and dahlias were replaced with flowering shrubs. Simultaneously, money was spent on improving the parks. New ovals were formed, old ones upgraded and basketball courts, dressing pavilions, swimming pools and other sports facilities built.
Until the 1960s Melbourne had only a few isolated examples of reserves noted for their Australian and indigenous plants, including Studley Park, Wattle Park Reserve and the Maranoa Gardens, acquired by Camberwell Council in 1922. Most were conspicuous for their exotic planting rather than any Australian species they may have incorporated. The founding of the Society for Growing Australian Plants in 1957 was a precursor to a surge of interest in Australian plants and concern over loss of indigenous vegetation and native fauna habitat during the 1960s and 1970s. Many reserves formed since then, such as Blackburn Lake Sanctuary and George Pentland Botanic Gardens in Frankston, reflect those interests. Prominent among dozens of new parks formed since the 1960s were those created along creek and river valleys by the then Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works, and now managed by Parks Victoria. Jells Park is one of the most popular. Its 127 ha includes picnic areas with remnant exotic planting, other areas designated for nature conservation, and a central lake providing habitat for water birds. Recreation grounds continue to be created, often out of old industrial sites or wasteland, as was Westgate Park. The most recent, Birrarung Marr, is a park constructed on 8 ha of the former Jolimont Railway Yards and roadway on the north bank of the Yarra River. It is Melbourne's first new inner-city park in many years.
'Friends' groups, which play an active role in raising funds for projects, providing volunteer labour and lobbying management, have been formed to support many parks and gardens. The Victorian National Parks Association is an environmental lobby group that also supports several reserves in the Melbourne area, including the Organ Pipes National Park near Keilor, Kinglake National Park, Dandenong Ranges National Park and Mornington Peninsula National Park.
Initially, the colonial government administered the early recreation reserves, although in some instances committees of management were appointed that included wider representation. Management and responsibility for funding was gradually transferred to local councils, which today control most of Melbourne's parks and gardens. Parks Victoria is the other government agency responsible for managing parks and gardens, many of which are the more recent and often larger reserves.
In 1976 the premier inaugurated the Garden State Committee, the term 'Garden State' having been used as early as 1907 to describe Victoria. The committee's aim was to identify ways to improve, expand and protect private and public landscapes. This successful initiative raised community awareness of Melbourne's parks and gardens, and although the committee has since been disbanded, 'Garden State' is a term Melburnians continue to associate with their city and State.