New Film Highlights Jens Jensen Legacy

Jens Jensen: the Living Green is a documentary about an unjustly obscure figure who contributed greatly to conservation and garden design, especially in the Chicago area.  His legacy includes naturalistic city parks in Chicago and elsewhere, as well as preserved natural lands.

Jens Jensen
Jens Jensen. Source:

The Danish-born Jensen (1860-1951) arrived in Chicago in 1884, and got a job with the Park District as a street sweeper. Eventually he became Parks Superintendent. He was passionate about the beauty of the American prairie, which was disappearing at the time.

Jensen was one of the first to believe that parks should use native plants and reflect the surrounding natural landscape. He had strong feelings also about parks as means for improving the lives of poor and working class people. He put his ideas into practice in Chicago, creating Douglas, Garfield, and Columbus Parks among others.

Columbus Park waterfall
Columbus Park waterfall. Source:

He was that rare thing, a hard headed idealist. Jensen refused to cooperate with politicians who wanted to use the parks for patronage and for enriching politically connected businessmen. He had to leave public service twice as a result. Despite this, he never gave up an almost mystical belief in a connection between democracy and the prairie landscapes.

In addition to parks, Jensen was a leader in the partly successful effort to save the Indiana Dunes. Though one of the most biodiverse areas of the country, the Indiana legislature designated the Dunes a “wasteland” and turned most of it over to the steel industry. Ultimately a portion was saved as state and federal parks.

Columbus Park "swimming hole", 1935. Source:
Columbus Park “swimming hole”, 1935. Source:

The creation of the Cook County Forest Preserves, the first forest preserve system in the US, also owes a great deal to Jensen. Currently the preserves include 68,000 acres and some of the highest quality natural areas in the state, located in a densely urban county.

Jensen also spent years as a successful private designer, creating gardens for some of the wealthiest Americans including Henry Ford (who he at first rejected as a client).

Jens Jensen and Alfred Caldwell. Source:
Jens Jensen and Alfred Caldwell. Source:

Jens Jensen: the Living Green is not a masterpiece of documentary film making, but it is most certainly worth seeing. I especially enjoyed film footage of an interview with Alfred Caldwell, a prominent Chicago landscape architect who was a friend and protege of Jensen’s. Click the link for more information, including how to arrange a screening.

You can also find out more about Jensen by visiting the Jens Jensen Legacy Project. There are some books out there as well, but I haven’t read any of them yet.

Jensen’s story is an inspiring one in these cynical days.

40 Comments on “New Film Highlights Jens Jensen Legacy

  1. Thank you for sharing this portrait. I admit to not knowing about Jensen previously. I look forward to learning more =) I love stories about local heroes.

  2. He sounds very much like a man I would liked to have known, a great post Jason, thank you for sharing this.

  3. Thank you for this information. I had read about him but did not know much. He showed a great deal of wisdom, was obviously ahead of his time and left a great legacy.

  4. Very interesting post about someone who cared deeply enough to make an impact. I love seeing old photos, too, and that swimming hole shot is def a classic!

  5. I have read about him and I find his determination and work to be completely inspirational! We need more people in the world like him! I have yet to see this so I appreciate you passing it forward! Wishing you a wonderful weekend! Nicole

  6. After you mentioned him in your previous post, I looked him up. He is my countryman, but I have never heard about him before. Probably because he emigrated to your country.He sounds like a man with strong principles, and I think it is very nice, that he was so interested in your own native plants, and in preserving the wonderful nature.

    • He came to the US and fell in love with the prairie, he said it was to him as the sea had been when he lived in Denmark.

  7. What an inspiring, visionary man. I imagine he was very much a lone voice at the time. Amazing how he he had so much success getting people to go along with his innovative ideas.

  8. Gosh what a story, I’ve never heard of him, but he sounds instrumental in creating and preserving many important green spaces. It’s frightening to imagine what could have been lost if things turned out differently.

  9. Jensen’s own book “Siftings” is worth a look. Personal reflections on plants, gardening, and his own life.

  10. Thanks, Jason. I’d heard of Jens Jensen, but you’ve supplied a nice profile–now I want to learn more! Interesting that he, at first, turned down Henry Ford, although from what I’ve learned about Ford, it’s not really that surprising. Thanks, again. Great post!

  11. Nice portrait my friend. Wish there was more like him. Happy to report now sitting up for 5 hours a day and could be totally healed in three months. Still soliciting prayers, my friend.

  12. What a wonderful story from Parks sweeper to all that. We think of your country as a land of opportunity, I wonder if it still is.
    We sometimes used to cynically think it was a normal career pathway in Parks departments over here in the UK, from sweeper in parks, to superintendent. Things have gone too far the other way now and Parks managers often know little about gardens!

    • Actually, recent research shows class mobility in the US is more restricted than in most of Western Europe, in part due to much greater wealth inequality.

  13. What an inspiring man, lovely to hear he wanted local plants and to improve green areas for the poor……and what a rise from being a sweeper. I loved the pictures, what an interesting

  14. Good to hear about those people who are little known but made great contributions.

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