During the last few years before the American Civil War turned brothers against brothers—the darkest four years in our young nation’s history—two other prominent citizens, Frederick Law Olmsted and Charles Darwin, left their distinctive marks on the US environmental movement. Even though they were both raised in wealthy, aristocratic families and looked remarkably alike, with their flowing white beards and bald pates, these two men made contributions that could not have been more different.
In 1857, in New York City, Frederick Law Olmsted was using his skills to help people live in harmony with the environment, by transforming New York’s Central Park from a desolate brown dumping ground into the world’s first showcase of urban green open space. As a child, Olmsted gained a deep and abiding respect for the natural world from both his father and his stepmother. This upbringing implanted within him the belief that access to the peace and solitude provided by open spaces and natural areas was one of the secrets to a happy life.
Born in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1822, Olmsted, as a young man, wasn’t quite sure what he wanted to do with his life. He tried his hand at many professions—most notably as a journalist and book author—but none of those fulfilled him. Through all of these unsatisfactory career choices, Olmsted’s thoughts kept returning to an idea he had been mulling over in the back of his mind ever since he was a child roaming the rolling open spaces of the Connecticut River Valley.
He believed that America’s burgeoning cities should be more hospitable—making them enjoyable places to live instead of just urban commerce centers crammed with tall buildings and dense with gray pavement. As Olmsted saw it, the best way to improve the livability of a city was to create more open green space—places where residents could take a break from their workaday worlds and just sit, relax, dream sweet dreams, and enjoy themselves for an hour or so.
What a novel idea for a profession, Olmsted thought—instead of designing buildings to shelter people’s bodies from the outside world, design outdoor spaces that could expand people’s minds to enjoy the intrinsic values of nature. Even better, he realized, would be creating a network of green spaces that tied urban cityscapes together and made it possible to walk for long, uninterrupted distances in a quiet environment. These thoughts later became the seed for Boston’s famous “Emerald Necklace”—the first urban greenway system found anywhere in the world.
The more Olmsted thought about it, the more he realized he was on to something. In 1857, his big break happened when he was hired by the city of New York as superintendent for the reconstruction of Central Park. His work on Central Park’s design set a standard of excellence that continues to influence landscape architecture in the United States. In fact, Olmsted was one of the first people to practice this field and is now widely considered to be the “Father of American Landscape Architecture.”
At the end of his twenty-five-year career, Olmsted and his firm had designed more than five hundred projects throughout the United States—mostly of the urban-improvement variety. In addition to New York City’s Central Park, Olmsted was the designer of the US Capitol Grounds, the Biltmore Estate property in Asheville, North Carolina, and the Stanford University Campus in Palo Alto, California. He also served as site planner for Chicago’s 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. Since he emphasized emulating the scenic value of the natural world in his work, Olmsted also spent great deal of time helping humans experience nonurban parks. He was head of the first Yosemite National Park commission and leader of the campaign to protect Niagara Falls.
Olmsted was one of the first people to practice this field and is now widely considered to be the “Father of American Landscape Architecture”. His main goal—no matter what he was working on—was to improve the human experience. He wanted his parks to be available to all people, no matter their cultural status or lifestyle. Also, in one of the first official instances of social justice, Olmsted’s antislavery letters were published individually, and then, in 1861, were collected into one book, entitled The Cotton Kingdom.
Even though Olmstead died just after the turn of the twentieth century, the landscape architecture firm he founded successfully lived on until 1979—in the capable hands of his sons and their successors. Today, his home and office are owned and managed by the National Park Service as the Olmsted National Historic Site, located in Brookline, Massachusetts. Many of his conceptual drawings and detailed plans also can be found in the Library of Congress in Washington, DC.
What architect so noble . . . as he who, with far-reaching conception of beauty, in designing power, sketches the outlines, writes the colors, becomes the builder and directs the shadows of a picture so great that Nature shall be employed upon it for generations, before the work he arranged for her shall realize his intentions.
Olmsted dovetailed his passion for the natural world with his profound belief that everyone should have access to quiet green spaces for solitude and reflection, away from the din and clamor of our nation’s expanding urban areas. He turned his quest and extraordinary vision for improving the human condition into a unique profession that endures today throughout the world. His dedication to realizing his childhood dream by inventing something the world had never before seen should certainly be something imitated by today’s climate activists. Perhaps new, yet undreamed of, technology holds the key to designing a world future compatible with climate change.