For many of us on the Gulf Coast, our parks are key parts of our local landscape, and some of the most lasting symbols of our cities.
We took a look at three historic Gulf Coast cities that take pride in their urban planning, including Pensacola, New Orleans and Mobile. All three were once ruled by foreign empires who established grid systems of blocks with open squares and urban plazas that would come to influence the growth of each city they call home.
Here are four Gulf Coast parks that helped inspire their cities for generations past and future. Be sure to let us know about your favorite parks and public spaces in the comments.
Plaza Ferdinand VII, Pensacola
The Pensacola city plan and street grid was laid out by British military officer and civil engineer Elias Durnford in 1764. His plan remains largely intact, with the city originally centered on a large public space which included modern-day Plaza Ferdinand VII and Seville Square to the east.
Opened 201 years ago in 1815, Plaza Ferdinand VII is among the most historic parks in the southern United States, and possibly the oldest on the Gulf Coast. The park sits on land originally given by the Spanish Empire.
The park is largely considered the cultural epicenter of the city, surrounded by the T.T. Wentworth, Jr. State Museum (the former Pensacola City Hall), Seville Tower (once the tallest building in Florida), the Pensacola museum of art (formerly the county courthouse), and an urban landscape of 18th and early-19th century storefronts and art galleries.
The surrender of Florida to the United States from Spain occurred at the park on July 17, 1821, when Pensacola was declared the capital of the territory. Andrew Jackson made a historic public speech to Pensacolians and was sworn in as the first governor in the plaza. A ceremonial bust of Jackson is dedicated at the spot where he was inaugurated in the southern quadrant of the plaza.
While the city plan has been admired for its network of dense city blocks and orderly grid layout, the planners had more than parks on their mind; the system of squares and plazas mimicked military camps and parade grounds, which provided space for the British and Spanish militia to train.
Jackson Square, New Orleans
Early French colonial New Orleans was centered on what was then called the Place d’Armes (“weapons’ square”). Under Spanish rule in the second half of the 18th century, the name was Plaza de Armas.
In the same year Pensacola’s Plaza Ferdinand VII was established, the former military plaza was renamed Jackson Square for the Battle of New Orleans’ victorious general, Andrew Jackson.
Jackson, who would go on to become the seventh US President, is honored with a bronze equestrian statue created by American sculptor Clark Mills in 1851. The statue shows the general in a heroic pose on a rearing horse.
The site is most famously known for where Louisiana was established as a United States territory, thanks to the Louisiana Purchase in 1803.
For generations, Jackson Square has been home to a number of street artists, vendors, musicians and fortune tellers. The actual square itself is gated with plenty of green space and is among the most iconic landscapes in all of America.
Bienville Square, Mobile
Bienville Square is a historic city park in the center of downtown Mobile. The park was named for Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville, Mobile’s founder and purveyor of voluminous surnames.
Established in 1824, Bienville Square had its beginnings as a public park when the United States Congress designated the square to be forever used as a city park.
During the 1840s, housewives used the square to hang their laundry between the oaks, while cattle and hogs grazed nearby. The magnificent live oaks of the square have been in that location since at least 1812. At that time, land that is now Bienville Square was known as the Spanish Hospital Plot. It held a dozen structures in the midst of a residential district.
City officials planned for the space to be used for a grand city hall surrounded by a park, but the financial collapse of 1837 put an end to that idea and it remained a public square.
In 1905, Theodore Roosevelt spoke in the square to make a speech on the importance of the Panama Canal to the port of Mobile.
Post World War II, Bienville Square became blighted thanks to suburban flight as people moved away from downtown. The revival of downtown saw the popularity of the park increase and its upkeep resumed. Today, the park is well-preserved and plays host as the heart of the Port City.
City Park, New Orleans
Nestled in the center of NOLA, City Park has held a special place in the hearts of generations of New Orleanians.
More than 50 percent larger than Central Park in New York City, New Orleans’ 1,300 acre City Park has the oldest grove of mature live oaks in the entire world. If that’s not impressive enough, the urban park is crisscrossed by gorgeous lagoons, a sculpture garden, and walking paths.
The park was founded in 1854 and located in the Lakeview neighborhood of New Orleans. The public land was initially used as grazing ground for cattle and general recreation through the Civil War. In 1872, the city made the first real moves to plan out the land’s use and convert it into a true urban park. Eventually, the land was established as “City Park” in 1891.
Today, City Park is one of the largest urban parks in the United States. Some of the park’s old-growth oaks are more than 600 years old.
Correction: A previous version of this story stated the designers of Central Park in New York City contributed to the design of City Park in New Orleans. They did not. We’ve made the correction.