Landscape design is a living art that is significantly older than recorded history. Since the days of ancient Egypt and Greece, people have been transforming the landscape to meet a variety of visions, from a private, peaceful oasis to dramatic, awe-inspiring public vistas. Other landscape designs throughout the ages have evolved through the relationship of humans and their environment. These include the patterns of farm fields and settlements that create a practical and aesthetically pleasing view.
The history of landscape design is the history of the human experience with nature. The private gardens of estates in the ancient world are illustrations of complete human control over the natural world -- a stark contrast to the dangers that lurked in the desert, jungle or forest beyond city walls. Modern landscape design in Western culture views the outdoors as a place to play, creating private yards with pools and entertainment areas and public parks designed for walking, picnics and ball games.
Small-scale landscape design draws on a long history of estate, courtyard and balcony gardens. It reflects the needs of the owner, from a low-maintenance transition area from outdoors to inside, a place of recreation and entertainment, or a meditative space away from the bustle of the urban world. Landscape architecture, on the other hand, is landscape design that encompasses a larger landscape view. The terraced gardens of ancient Babylon, Frederick Law Olmstead's Central Park in New York City and Emerald Necklace in Boston are examples of large-scale landscape design.
Historic landscape designs are preserved in Egypt, Greece and Italy because of the dry climate and continual maintenance by the people using the landscape features. Landscape design history in many parts of Africa, South America, and Asia is more difficult to discern because climate and land-use patterns disguise previous design elements. New forensic archaeological techniques such as seed and soil analysis are helping to re-create an image of what garden and landscapes may have looked like in a wider array of regions.
French-born philosopher Rene Dubos held that the effect of landscape design was to raise evolutionary instinctive responses in the viewer. Dubos maintained that the most effective landscape designs should provide a sense of refuge and comfort so that people feel secure. He said they also should provide a vista, or "prospect," so viewers have a sense of openness and can see a surrounding area free of attackers or predators, as well as a source of water, such as a stream, pool, or fountain.
Modern construction equipment creates significant potential for future landscape designs that were unimaginable in history. New visionaries have also created an aesthetic of landscape design purely as visual art, emphasizing large-scale appearance over functionality. The works of husband-and-wife artist team Christo and Jean-Claude -- ringing the Biscayne Islands in bubblegum-pink plastic or constructing temporary fabric gates through Central Park -- present the most outstanding examples of the potential for future artistic landscape design.