Urban Nature: the story of Jens Jensen

Urban Nature: the story of Jens Jensen

by John Walenta

TORONTO – What makes a city livable? First class restaurants? Fashionable shops? Night spots full of life and vitality? Or perhaps it’s the great museums and galleries of art?

Without a doubt, all of these are important elements but they are not the only thing that gives life to a satisfying urban reality. The name of Jens Jensen is not very well known to those outside his line of work but he still merits a warm acknowledgement for his contributions in planning more livable and welcoming cities, especially in North America.

Jensen was America’s first and perhaps most influential urban landscape architect. It is not an exaggeration to say that through his efforts and his projects, we all live in places where green space is abundant and which offers us a respite for enjoying nature.


Jensen was not an American by birth: he was born in fact in Denmark in 1860. He passed the early part of his life in the country, on his family’s farm. Here he developed a great love and respect of nature. As well, during three years of obligatory military service in the Prussian army, Jensen had the opportunity to visit the grand public gardens of Berlin and other European cities. In 1884 he decided to emigrate to the United States.

Jens Jensen

Jens Jensen, portrait

Jensen established himself in Chicago where he found a post with the commission of public parks: in this capacity his genius was provided an opportunity to flourish. Chicago, in the 1880’s and 90’s, was similar to many other large American cities: heavily industrialized, dirty, full of people – many recent immigrants in search of a better life. A social reformer at heart, Jensen thought that “contact with nature is a vital part of being human and just because one lives in a city it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have the opportunity to connect with the natural world.”

Despite the widespread political corruption griping the administration of the city, Jensen succeeded in making his way and becoming superintendent of the Commission of Parks. In this role he was responsabile for creating four public parks that one can still admire even today.

Jensen's Columbus Park

Columbus Park

Jensen made numerous excursions into the surrounding prairies to study wild flowers that later would be transplanted into a portion of Union Park, thus creating in 1888 that which would become the best example of the native American garden. Meanwhile in Columbus Park, Jensen created a water pool for children that evoked memories of the watering holes in which one swims in the country.

JJ 1

It’s important to remember that at this time a large part of the American prairie had been converted into agricultural land thanks to the invention of the steel plow in 1847 by John Deere. In what remained however of the grassy expanse Jensen was able to find the inspiration for his parks using not just local plants but also materials. The majority of his waterways for example are presented with strips of limestone in order to recreate the sense of natural rivers found in the Midwest.

The interests of Jensen were not limited the urban centre of Chicago: he also played a fundamental role in preserving a part of the southern shore of Lake Michigan better known as the Dunes of Indiana. Even though this fragile ecosystem is little known among the vast majority of Americans, it forms part of the National Parks system and was approved by Congress as such in 1966. The park extends along the lakeshore for almost 25 miles.

Jensen's indiana dunes

Indiana Dunes

Jensen also collaborated with many conventional architects, including Frank Lloyd Wright and Louis Sullivan, with whom he created a characteristic and regional style of landscapes for such notable individuals as Julius Rosenwald, founder of Sears & Roebuck, and Henry Ford. In the Memorial Garden of Abraham Lincoln in Springfield, Illinois, Jenson planted a forest of oak trees that he hoped would remain alive “for thousands of years, after every made-man monument erected to the memory of Lincoln would pass into dust.”

In 1935, after the death of his wife, Jensen decided to relocate to Ellison Bay, Wisconsin, where he established a school to instruct future landscape architects this cementing his legacy. He sought students who “could study deeply and make things of value – non for themselves but for the common good.”

For all these reasons the next time you take that brief stroll through a great urban park near your house, set aside a moment to thank Jens Jensen for that small slice of nature in the vast jungle of cement and asphalt. Without him, when all is said and done, it could have just been another grey day in the city.

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