Parks and recreation: Olmsted’s bicentennial renews appreciation for his public spaces in Boston and beyond
By Jared Bowen
May 12, 2022Open Studio
More than ever, the pandemic made us enjoy the pleasure of parks. Frederick Law Olmsted saw that coming. The legacy of the famed landscape designer of New York’s Central Park and Boston’s Emerald Necklace is receiving a fresh look on his 200th birthday.
Olmsted is considered the father of landscape architecture in America. While it’s an endeavor he took on later in life, a string of other jobs and experiences sowed the seeds of what would become his landscaping legacy .
Olmsted ran a farm on Staten Island. He took a six-month walking tour through Europe and the British Isles, which compelled him to write the book “Walks and Talks of an American Farmer in England.” In 1852 his writing took him to the South where he reported on slavery for The New York Daily Times, an experience that deepened his commitment to social justice. Five years later the connections Olmsted made as a journalist led him to a job that exposed him to the innerworkings of urban planning — he was appointed Superintendent of Central Park.
At the outbreak of the Civil War, Olmsted took leave from his job overseeing Central Park to become the general secretary of the U.S. Sanitary Commission, a private relief agency that supported sick and wounded soldiers. A 2011 article in the New York Times pointed out the commonalities between Olmsted helping men in battle and his urban design, “both endeavors required organization, discipline, energy and efficiency, qualities Olmsted had in abundance.”
Olmsted ultimately settled into his landscape architecture career in Brookline, Massachusetts, where his designs literally and figuratively took root. His home became a hub of landscape design in the late 1800s and his architectural philosophy was unwavering.
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Jason Newman, superintendent of Olmsted National Historic Site, which encompasses Olmsted’s home and office, said Olmsted’s parks are intentionally understated. “He wanted the person coming into that environment, not knowing it was designed. It was the ‘art to conceal the art.’” Newman says that the Olmsted Historic Site is called the place of places, “what happened here was the design of so many other places around the country. We not only have the Emerald Necklace, we have the Buffalo Park system, we have the Louisville Park system.”
Olmsted named the home Fairsted, and it contains roughly a million documents produced by Olmsted and the successors, including his sons, to his firm. They correspond to some 5,000 projects the firm ultimately produced — making parks part of everyday living.
Newman said these parks helped to save the Republic amid social upheaval during the Civil War as “it was so important for the country to come together through the creation of these large public spaces.”
In Greater Boston these large public spaces make up The Emerald Necklace, a system of parks Olmsted spent nearly 20 years designing beginning in 1878. It stretches from Dorchester’s Franklin Park to the Charles River.
Karen Mauney-Brodek, president of the Emerald Necklace Conservancy, said that there is a tendency to take parks for granted and that it might not be obvious that a decision was made for this land to be protected and be for the public. Of Olmsted, Mauney-Brodek said “he really designed with nature. He really used the landforms — the way that the water would flow — to create systems that were incredibly resilient.”
Olmsted designed paths for people to escape the city’s unrelenting grind. He crafted the Back Bay Fens to stem a public health crisis by countering the flow of sewage. He devised open spaces as a way to integrate people from different walks onto common fields. It’s why the Conservancy is one of a number of groups celebrating the bicentennial with the initiative Olmsted Now.
“He sort of created an American vernacular, but we need to expand on it,“ said Mauney-Brodek. “There are also parts of the city that don’t have as much green space as they should have. It means uplifting folks that haven’t had a voice or haven’t been able to participate or have been specifically kept out of decision, spaces.”
Ted Landsmark is director of the Dukakis Center for Urban Policy at Northeastern University. He bears some of Olmsted’s DNA, blending civil rights advocacy with decades long work in architecture and urban planning. He said that Olmsted was making parks for people and not making parks for elites. “Today, we often struggle with issues of who parks and open spaces might be designed for. And too often we find that people of large economic means are dominating the way we think about parks and open spaces.” Reflecting on Olmsted’s progressive spirit, Landsmark said “what Olmsted did in a very radical way in his time was to say that parks and open spaces should be for everyone.”
Today, Boston is in the midst of another building boom and with that comes rising home prices and gentrification. So, part of the Olmsted Now effort is to bring the city’s overlooked neighborhoods together to plan the future of parks. As Landsmark sees it, it’s all about expanding on Olmsted’s approach. “Olmsted intrinsically increased the diversity of the city, by bringing people together to together to share their cultures. And what they know of each other, to eat meals together and to play games together and to come together in ways that are non-threatening.”
To Landmark, a literal common ground is vital. And if past parks are prologue, Landsmark said they can be magical too. “The joy of the Olmsted network, I think, is that in traversing it, one is constantly finding something new and something magical and something that inspires one to think very differently about oneself in a natural environment.”
Produced with assistance from the Public Media Journalists Association Editor Corps funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private corporation funded by the American people.
- Jared Bowen @jaredGBH