I think we 21st-century Americans take for granted the inclusion of green spaces within even our most dense urban spaces and communities. That isn’t to say that we don’t make good and happy use of the Boston Common and Public Garden, the Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia, Central Park in New York, the Riverside Parks in Chicago, and the many other similar spaces at the heart of our major metropolitan areas; a simple trip to Boston Common on any spring day will be all it takes to make clear how much enjoyment we city dwelling Americans get out of these oases of grass and trees and water before returning to (mixed metaphor alert) the urban jungles all around them. I just mean that we might not recognize just how much what we’re enjoying was far from a given, and just how fully we owe the existence of such spaces to my next (and most local; see link #1 below) nominee for the Hall of American Inspiration, Frederick Law Olmstead (1822-1903).
Olmstead’s professional accomplishments are, in both breadth and depth, hugely impressive. In his first career, as a journalist, he co-founded one of America’s oldest magazines (The Nation, in 1865) and produced three volumes of travel writing about the South in the decade before the Civil War that remain among our most astute observations of that or any region, among other achievements. During the Civil War he worked as Executive Secretary of the US Sanitary Commission, an organization to aid wounded soldiers, and co-founded the Union League of New York. He is generally considered one of the originators of the field of landscape architecture (along with Andrew Jackson Downing), and in that career he and his Brookline, Massachusetts firm (which in later years he ran alongside his sons John and Frederick Jr.) designed hundreds of college and university campuses, including Stanford, the University of Chicago, Wellesley, and Yale. He was the principal designer of the grounds for the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago (usually known as the Columbian Exposition). He was so important in the preservation of Yosemite Valley that when Yosemite became a National Park, it included a promontory named Olmstead Point. He wrote hundreds of influential essays and treatises (most collected in the archive at link #2) on a range of relevant topics and issues. He was, quite simply, one of the leading Americans of the second half of the 19th century.
Yet none of those impressive and influential efforts and roles can perhaps sum up Olmstead’s contributions to America as well as this: when we moved back to Boston in 2003, my wife and I lived in an apartment overlooking Huntington Ave., a busy street (that included a subway line as well as three to four lanes of traffic) at the border of the Fenway neighborhood of Boston, Jamaica Plain, and Brookline. That was the urban world into which my older son was born and in which he spent the first half-year of his life. Yet I could walk for only a hundred yards or so and be at a small pond that formed one link in the Emerald Necklace, a chain of parks and ponds and waterways that Olmstead designed to snake throughout much of Boston. Beginning with Central Park in the late 1850s—the original idea for which came from Downing, but Olmstead and English architect Calvert Vaux won a design contest and developed the plan for the Park as it came to be created—Olmstead would spend much of his remaining four decades figuring out ways to make cities greener. Moreover, and even more impressively, it was (it seems) entirely Olmstead’s idea to make Central Park as open and accessible as it was and is—the existing models of city parks were much more contained and thus more potentially exclusive, with who and how many people entered able to be carefully controlled and managed; but Central Park, like all of Olmstead’s subsequent city parks, was designed to accommodate, indeed to welcome, the growing and diversifying community of urban inhabitants whose city it was to be a core part of.
Olmstead’s efforts came to be associated with a Progressive era movement known as the “City Beautiful” campaign, and certainly such parks make their cities much more attractive than would otherwise be the case. But beauty can perhaps imply aesthetic enjoyment, the appreciation of an observer or a viewer; and by far the most attractive side of Olmstead’s parks is instead precisely how easily and fully they allow their cities’ residents to become active participants, to use them for relaxation and recreation, to make them a full and meaningful part of their lives and experiences within the urban space. Which is to say, no offense to Kermit, but thanks to Olmstead it is in fact pretty easy for even the most citified Americans to be green. More tomorrow, on a very different Exposition and the dueling voices at the heart of one of its most prominent celebrations.
PS. Three links to start with:
1) The Olmstead National Historic Site, located on the back road my wife drives to work every day: http://www.nps.gov/frla/index.htm
2) Great project dedicated to archiving all of Olmstead’s voluminous collection of writings: http://olmsted.org/ht/a/GetDocumentAction/i/4072
3) OPEN: What do you think?
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