Why Frederick Law Olmsted’s Landscaping Is So Important


Scenes of children running through lush meadows, storybook alleys of towering trees and quiet moments by the pond instantly flood the mind at the mere mention of Frederick Law Olmsted’s name. Considered the father of landscape architecture, Olmsted showed the nation the importance of public parks, laying the foundation for America’s national park system.

On the occasion of the bicentenary of his birthday, the Olmsted National Parks Association, in partnership with hundreds of parks across the country, celebrates the groundbreaking landscape architect’s work with various conferences and events. The goal is to inspire others to create and invest in America’s green spaces, just as Olmsted did.

“Frederick Law Olmsted used landscape architecture to meet people’s needs: physical, mental and social,” says Anne “Dede” Neal Petri, president and CEO of the National Parks Association Olmsted. “He believed that connecting to nature and democratic public spaces would benefit everyone.”

Born April 26, 1822 in Hartford, Connecticut, Olmsted grew up exploring the vast landscapes of New England and upstate New York with his family. Although her love of nature began at a young age, most of her twenties were spent doing jobs here and there, traveling the world and finding out what makes people tick. Many scholars point to two particular experiences in his early thirties that led Olmsted to garden design.

“In 1850 his visit to Birkenhead Park in Liverpool, England convinced him that in the United States all Americans should have access to public parks – a radical idea at the time.” explains Petri. “During the 1850s he brought in for the New York Daily Times across the pre-war south. His direct experience with the evils of slavery profoundly shaped his vision of a democratic and equitable America – ideals he sought to express through his landscape designs in later life.”

Olmsted’s first foray into the landscape industry came in 1857 when he and British architect Calvert Vaux won a competition to design New York’s Central Park. The Greensward Plan outlined the plan for a pastoral landscape in the middle of the city that sunk four cross roads underground so that traffic would not interrupt the park experience. Thousands of workers came together to plant nearly 500,000 trees and shrubs in the 843-acre park connected by an intricate network of bridges and trails. It was the first of its kind and provided an example of how people can build spaces that reconnect us to nature.

It wasn’t until 1865 that Olmsted began practicing landscape architecture full-time, becoming one of the first Americans to use “landscape architect” as a professional title. During his practice, Olmsted oversaw the creation of hundreds of parks and gardens that all respect their natural landscape and put the people of that region first. Petri argues that Olmsted’s deep understanding of how connecting with nature can positively impact our well-being may be even more important today.

“Parks give us opportunities to connect with nature, and they support our physical and mental health as more and more studies continue to show (something Olmsted foresaw all those years ago ),” says Petri. “They can be havens for wildlife, like pollinators and migrating birds, and they can build resilience to climate change by cooling air temperatures and absorbing flooding. and politics – places of interaction as human beings and neighbors. Common ground is so important, isn’t it? »

Below, we take a look at some of Olmsted’s most notable works that embody his dedication to public green spaces.


Central Park in New York

Frederick Law Olmsted’s first landscape project, Central Park in New York, is perhaps his most famous. Together with Calvert Vaux, the duo devised a plan for a “country garden” in the midst of a thriving metropolis with three different types of landscapes: pastoral meadows and lakes, scenic woods and formal plazas.. Today, the 843-acre park has over 42 million visitors a year and hosts a number of events ranging from concerts and shows to ice skating and yoga.


The Emerald Necklace in Boston

An architectural masterpiece, Boston’s Emerald Necklace connects nine different parks through a series of walks and waterways. Frederick Law Olmsted wanted to provide a middle ground where every New England townsman could escape and enjoy the joys of nature. Three of the parks – Boston Common, the Public Garden, and Commonwealth Avenue Mall – existed before Olmsted’s plan, but he continued to build the others to show that old and new parks could work together in one system.


The United States Capitol

In 1873, Congress commissioned Olmsted to redevelop the grounds surrounding the United States Capitol. His vision enhanced the impressive building that serves as the park’s backdrop while creating a lush oasis. The most ambitious part of the plan is the marble terrace that wraps around the Capitol’s north, south, and west facades and provides more visual interest to the structure.


Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina

Considered one of his most famous designs, Olmsted’s landscape design of the Biltmore Estate introduced the practice of scientific forestry to the United States. The landscape architect worked with foresters Gifford Pinchot and Carl A. Schenck to create a 250-acre commercial timber forest that filled the barren lands and made the estate feel like it was in its own world. From there, Olmsted designed several outdoor gardens and rooms that encourage visitors to get outside and explore.


Prospect Park in Brooklyn, New York

Frederick Law Olmsted again worked with architect Calvert Vaux in 1867 to build green space for working-class people living in Brooklyn. The most striking aspects of the park consist of the scenic wooded area, the duo called the ravine, and a 60-acre lake in the center. Prospect Park remains one of Brooklyn’s most visited attractions with nearly 10 million people visiting and participating in its various sporting events and community festivals.

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