Political Mythologies   /   Spring 2022   /    Notes & Comments

The Man Who Built Forward Better

On Frederick Law Olmsted’s Bicentennial

Witold Rybczynski

Portrait of Frederick Law Olmsted (detail), 1895, by John Singer Sargent (1856–1925); The Artchives/Alamy Stock Photo.

What would Frederick Law Olmsted (1822–1903) make of his works today, in the bicentennial year of his birth? No doubt he would be delighted by the survival and continued popularity of so many of his big-city parks, particularly Central Park and Prospect Park, but also parks in Boston, Chicago, and Montreal, as well as Buffalo, Detroit, Rochester, and Louisville. He might be surprised by the bewildering range of activities these parks now accommodate—not only boating and ice-skating, as in his day, but exercising, jogging, picnicking, and games, as well as popular theatrical and musical events. I don’t think this variety would displease him. After all, it was he who introduced free band concerts in Central Park, over the objections of many of his strait-laced colleagues. He would be pleased by the banning of automobiles; his winding carriage drives were never intended for fast—and noisy—traffic.

Olmsted might complain that so many of his landscapes had been allowed to become overgrown; he was always relentless in cutting back greenery to preserve views and vistas. I think he would be disappointed that so many of his urban parkways have been lost, converted into highways, as in Buffalo, or opened to commercial traffic and widened, as in Louisville. Nor would he approve of the intrusion into the parks of skating rinks, zoos, golf courses, and, soon, a presidential center in Chicago. He always resisted the efforts of politicians to use parks as convenient building sites for their pet projects.

Whatever he would have thought of their uses and abuses, Olmsted’s landscape creations, especially his urban parks, are anything but relics of the past—they remain a vital part of the present. What was it about his own life, and particularly his early experiences, that prepared him so well for the work that he would take on, and what lessons does that remarkable career have for us today?

To say that Olmsted was a late bloomer is an understatement. Although raised in Hartford, Connecticut, in comfortable circumstances, he had little formal education. He might have gone to Yale like his brother, John, but instead spent two years apprenticed to a surveyor, and later, two years working as a clerk for a New York importing house. As a young man, he sailed to China as a seaman on a clipper ship—an experience that almost killed him. He finally settled on farming, and after an apprenticeship, he had his own farm, first in Connecticut and later on Staten Island. Surveying is obviously a useful skill for a park builder; so is a knowledge of farming. Olmsted devoted seven years to husbandry, and as a devotee of “scientific farming” he read—and wrote—on the subject. He grew pears, importing the trees from France, and established a nursery business, selling to gardeners in the nearby city. The experience of managing a farm and cultivating trees on a commercial scale provided invaluable practical knowledge.

Farming was just the beginning; he was also drawn to the literary life. Olmsted served as managing editor of Putnam’s Monthly Magazine, a leading literary journal, and worked with Emerson, Longfellow, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Washington Irving; later he cofounded and edited The Nation. He was an early voice against slavery, traveling across the South as a newspaper correspondent, writing vivid reports and producing three books, which he subsequently condensed into a single volume, The Cotton Kingdom. During the Civil War, Olmsted served as general secretary of the United States Sanitary Commission, a precursor to the Red Cross. His last position in this extended preparatory phase of his life was as general manager of the vast Mariposa Estate gold mines in California’s Sierra Nevada. By then he was in his early forties.

Olmsted’s work as a journalist was crucial. Taking time off from farming, he made three long trips to the South and the Texas frontier on behalf of the New-York Daily Times (later renamed the New-York Times), which commissioned him to write a series of articles about the conditions of everyday rural life, including especially the effects of slavery. Olmsted had no experience as a reporter, and, as he often did, he learned on the job. What he learned was how to confront a new situation and, after conversation and close observation, reach an objective conclusion—then quickly summarize his findings in lucid prose. This experience would stand him in good stead when he became a landscape architect, working on commissions across the country. Typically, he would arrive in a new city, talk to people, walk the site, assess the situation, and, either immediately or on the long train journey home, write up his findings describing what needed to be done.

Olmsted’s landscape projects were large: the World’s Columbian Exposition (1893) sprawled over seven hundred acres, Boston’s Emerald Necklace park system encompassed almost a thousand, and the grounds of Stanford University covered eight thousand. In an age before mechanical earthmoving equipment, gangs of workers were needed to shape land, install underground drainage, excavate ponds, and move and plant trees. Such projects depended on organizational skill, which Olmsted provided. His technocratic experience was shaped by his tenure on the Sanitary Commission, which included operating field hospitals, dispensaries, and hospital ships at or near the battlefront. His organizational skills were further honed during the two years he spent managing the Mariposa Estate gold mines.

While he was in California, Olmsted began writing a far-reaching study of American society based on material he had collected on his travels in the South and social surveys he had compiled during his service with the Sanitary Commission, as well as on his observations of frontier life among the mining workers. His working title was “The Pioneer Condition and the Drift of Civilization in America.” Although the book remained unfinished, his literary ambition casts an important light on his thinking. While he was consumed with the administrative details of the work he undertook, he was always aware of the Big Picture. He had the anthropologist’s ability to stand back, gather information, and make independent judgments based on the facts. This was perhaps his strongest character trait. Whether he was laying out a university or a municipal park system, he saw the project as part of a larger civilizing mission.

Olmsted’s varied experiences produced a uniquely qualified individual: one able to think on a large scale, to digest vast amounts of information, and to organize large and complicated projects. Not least, thanks to his firsthand study of diverse landscapes, Olmsted developed an artistic eye alert to the details of scenery, not only its overall effect. He was both ahead of his time and intimately immersed in it, able to undertake innovations precisely because he had the rare ability—and the fortitude—to project unconventional ideas into the future.

Americans have become an outdoorsy people to an extent that might surprise even Olmsted. His efforts led to the preservation of the Yosemite Valley and the area around Niagara Falls; as a member of the Yosemite Commission, he had argued for a scenic road that would make the area accessible to the public. “In a century the whole number of visitors will be counted by millions,” he foretold—accurately. He would be gratified to learn that there are now more than sixty national parks.

Olmsted intended city parks to provide a counterbalance to their urban surroundings, to be small portions of surrogate wilderness. What would he make of the modern theme park, which in some ways provides the same escapist function? I think he would approve of the theme park’s democratic character—bringing a great variety of families together, albeit in a private rather than a public setting. He would certainly admire the organizational skills of the theme park designers and operators. One chief difference—and it is fundamental—is that while Olmsted’s manmade landscapes depend on underground drainage systems and pumping stations, the lakes and trees are real—no fiberglass boulders or ersatz rusticity. Another difference is that unlike a theme park, an Olmsted park has no backstage; the entire landscape is open to the parkgoer, just as in nature. This freedom of movement is an important part of the parks’ continued allure, and of their ability to absorb a wide range of recreational activities, skateboarding as well as bird watching.

In regard to freedom of movement, I think Olmsted would be puzzled by the restrictive character of many contemporary public landscapes. Constructed wetlands, which capture and filter stormwater, reduce nutrient loads, and create diverse wildlife habitat, are intended to contain water either on the surface or just below the soil surface and to minimize damage to grasses, vegetation, and soils, and are generally off-limits to the public. In addition, many new landscapes, such as New York City’s High Line, restrict movement by means of defined pathways or boardwalks. I don’t think Olmsted would approve.

One reason for his opposition to flower beds in parks was that they tended to turn parkgoers into spectators rather than participants, and he wanted people to be able to go anywhere and everywhere, which was not possible with planting beds—or with today’s wetlands. It is important to remember that Olmsted was not an environmentalist in the modern sense; he was a humanist. He advocated preserving selected wilderness areas not for their own sake but because of their effect on people. “The enjoyment of scenery employs the mind without fatigue and yet exercises it, tranquilizes it and yet enlivens it,” he wrote, “and thus, through the influence of the mind over the body, gives the effect of refreshing rest and reinvigoration of the whole system.”

City parks are urban infrastructure, although Olmsted never used such a technocratic term. His talent was to turn engineering infrastructure into something richer and more rewarding, as he did in Boston, where the Emerald Necklace started life as a municipal drainage system to control tidal flooding, but which he transformed into a chain of parks and waterways linking Boston Common to Franklin Park. The parkways of Buffalo and Brooklyn were not simply traffic arteries but linear parks. Ocean Parkway and Eastern Parkway are the antecedents of the scenic restricted-access highways such as the Merritt Parkway, the Bronx River Parkway, and the Taconic State Parkway that later appeared in the greater New York City area, and of New Deal projects such as the Blue Ridge Parkway in the Appalachian Mountains and Skyline Drive in the Shenandoah Valley. The concept of combining functions—transportation and recreation, engineering and beautification—can be traced to Olmsted and remains an important lesson for today, whether we are building flood control measures, solar farms, interstate highways, or airports. By background and temperament, he was a generalist, and he always resisted the specialist’s narrow attitude toward design. If we are to really build back better, we need to take a similar approach.

Olmsted had the rare ability to take the long view. “I have all my life been considering distant effects and always sacrificing immediate success and applause to that of the future. In laying out Central Park we determined to think of no result to be realized in less than forty years,” he wrote his son, Rick. Forty years is a long time, and it meant that Olmsted could never witness the full realization of many of the landscapes he planned. That is perhaps his most important lesson of all: patience.