At the end of the 1800s, Hartford became known as a city of parks. Settled in 1636 as an agricultural community along the Connecticut River, it evolved into an industrial and commercial center during the 1700s and continued to grow and prosper in the1800s.
By 1850, over 13,000 people resided in the city. Thousands moved from rural areas and an agricultural life into the cities for jobs in the new factories. The urbanization and industrialization of cities like Hartford resulted in substandard living conditions for many of the poorer people.
The creation of parks in major cities during this timeframe was the result of reformers who pushed for open, natural, outdoor spaces that offered a respite from the factory floor and crowded tenement buildings. Such conditions spurred a Hartford minister, Horace Bushnell, to persuade the city to establish a public park.
Citizens of Hartford voted in 1854 to accept the plan for Bushnell Park and set in motion a long-term effort to build seven public parks throughout the city. The city acquired lands for six additional parks through purchases and bequests.
Five of the major parks were left in trust to the city between August 1894 and November 1895. This was rightly called the Rain of Parks, with over 1,200 acres of park space added to the city during this time. The parks are Elizabeth, Colt, Pope, Keeney, and Goodwin. In the early 1900s, Hartford had more park space per resident than any other city in the country.
In 1860, the city established a Board of Park Commissioners, who oversaw the development and management of the parks for over a century. The park commission engaged the services of Frederick Law Olmsted to create a park system for Hartford. Olmsted, known as the father of American landscape architecture, was born in Hartford in 1822. He designed Central Park in 1857.
During the first half of the 1900s, Hartford continued to be a very wealthy municipality and was able to devote public funds to the development and maintenance of its public park system. In the late 1950-1960s, Hartford, along with many other New England cities, began to feel the financial strains that have plagued them ever since. People left the cities to settle in suburbs. The City of Hartford has a slim budget for its parks compared to their heyday. In the past 30 years, community, volunteer, and neighborhood groups have formed park partnerships with city government to save their parks. Hartford has about 10 “Friends of” groups of Parks, Bushnell Park Foundation, and Elizabeth Park Conservancy.
Hartford has a population of 125,000 today. Nicknamed the "Insurance Capital of the World," Hartford is home to major insurance company headquarters, and insurance remains the region's major industry. Our public parks, like Elizabeth Park, are just as important today as they were when Horace Bushnell crusaded for outdoor space for all.