Olmstead on Parks

“Frederick Law Olmstead (1822-1903) is most often remembered as America’s preeminent landscape architect—a profession he named, helped to define, and elevated into an art form in beloved parks and public spaces, among them New York’s Central park, Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, the U.S. Capital grounds, the Biltmore Estate, and Boston’s “Emerald Necklace.” (Front Flap)

He knew that a lot of work was needed to turn natural areas into natural areas that could be safely enjoyed by people, and this book review of a compilation of his writings, Writings on Landscape, Culture, and Society from Atlantic Magazine is a good start to learning more about why his principles desperately need to be integrated into the American River Parkway.

An excerpt.

“His first principle was that a park should complement the city to which it belongs. If a city is cramped, crowded, and rectilinear, its park should be composed of sinuous thoroughfares and a variable topography that includes large open spaces. The “comparative largeness” of Central Park was essential, since a park should “be a ground which invites, encourages & facilitates movement.” The giddy impulse you feel, upon arriving at the Great Lawn or Sheep Meadow, to burst into a full-out sprint—that is by design.

“A park should also be faithful to the character of its natural terrain. It was in “bad taste,” for instance, to grow lawns in the arid western United States or palm trees in New England. Beauty was to be found not in decorative plants, as one might expect from a florist’s display window, but in general effects. Trees should be grouped in such a way that “their individual qualities would gradually merge harmoniously.” In one of Olmsted’s earliest memories, he planted a seed from a honey locust tree and, returning to the site a year later, discovered a sprig of leaves. By the time he was 12, it had grown into a sapling. Decades later, he found that his honey locust tree had been chopped down. After a momentary sentimental twinge, Olmsted concluded that he was glad the tree was gone, “for its individual beauty was out of key with the surrounding[s].”

“Man-made structures were also out of key. When bridges or buildings were absolutely necessary, they should be built from local stone, heavily camouflaged with shrubbery and vines. One of his most remarkable technical achievements in Central Park was to make its four major crosstown thoroughfares disappear: He sunk them into the ground and hid them with foliage. Much of the park’s charm derives from the alternation of rolling expanses and hidden passages, such as those that thread through the Ramble, which create the illusion of privacy and mystery.

“An unmistakable irony creeps vinelike through Olmsted’s landscape theory: It takes a lot of artifice to create convincing “natural” scenery. Everything in Central Park is man-made; the same is true of most of Olmsted’s designs. They are not imitations of nature so much as idealizations, like the landscape paintings of the Hudson River School. Each Olmsted creation was the product of painstaking sleight of hand, requiring enormous amounts of labor and expense. In his notes on Central Park, Olmsted called for thinning forests, creating artificially winding and uneven paths, and clearing away “indifferent plants,” ugly rocks, and inconvenient hillocks and depressions—all in order to “induce the formation … of natural landscape scenery.” He complained to his superintendents when his parks appeared “too gardenlike” and constantly demanded that they “be made more natural.”

“Olmsted recognized the contradiction, and struggled with it. If natural beauty was the goal of landscape architecture, then wouldn’t “the best result of all man’s labor … be but a poor counterfeit”? For that matter, why not simply leave nature as it was? Why interfere with organic processes, adding shrubs here, thinning trees there?

“Olmsted himself had a good imagination. He foresaw that Central Park, built at what was then the northern end of New York City, would one day lie at the heart of a metropolis of millions. He predicted the expansion and enrichment of Boston, San Francisco, and Chicago, and prioritized the value that unborn generations would gain from his designs over immediate effects. He was one of the earliest preservationists, demanding the protection of the Yosemite Valley, and among the first to explain why rural areas must be defended against the “anxiety to sell out.”

“But Olmsted did not foresee that the entire planet would become a park. Biologists, if not the general public, have understood for decades that the Earth is our canvas. The question is, what kind of artists will we decide to be? What kind of taste will we have? Our recent history isn’t promising. We continue to place lawns and swimming pools in deserts, skyscrapers in swamps, and mansions on beaches. In search of fuel, we decapitate mountains, turn forests into lumberyards, and break our promises to defend the sanctity of public land. We reserve our most beautiful landscapes for the wealthiest, restricting the poor to overcrowded slums or depleted agricultural zones. Unlike Olmsted, we tend to favor temporary effects at the expense of the future.

“We have already become landscape architects but we have not used our powers as artfully as we might. We have left too much to chance, too little to design. We remain apprentices. But Olmsted, the master of the form, has left behind a clear instruction manual. From the grave he urges us to use our increasingly sophisticated tools to make our global landscape more beautiful—more “natural.”

About David H Lukenbill

I am a native of Sacramento, as are my wife and daughter. I am a consultant to nonprofit organizations, and have a Bachelor of Science degree in Organizational Behavior and a Master of Public Administration degree, both from the University of San Francisco. We live along the American River with two cats and all the wild critters we can feed. I am the founding president of the American River Parkway Preservation Society and currently serve as the CFO and Senior Policy Director. I also volunteer as the President of The Lampstand Foundation, a nonprofit organization I founded in 2003.
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