At The New Yorker, for the 200th anniversary of Frederick Law Olmsted, Alexandra Lange meets with landscape architect Sara Zewde and goes over some of Olmsted’s legacy. Like many important figures from the past, his life and work can look contradictory to contemporary eyes.
Olmsted espoused abolitionist views, but his projects displaced Black and Native communities. He was a democrat who modelled America’s public parks on aristocratic estates, and a nature lover who moved mountains of dirt to reshape topography for aesthetic purposes.
Today, landscape architects might use his work (Central Park in New York, the Emerald Necklace in Boston, and the Parc du Mont-Royal in Montréal, for example) to show the value of great parks in cities, but their goals now include combatting climate change and reducing spatial inequalities, ideals, unsurprisingly, not present in Olmsted’s work. They now also look to older models, like the “longer history of landscape architecture that includes Indigenous communities and the ways in which they continue to design the land,” or forward to someone like Kongjian Yu, who popularized the concept of the “sponge city” in China. That said, even back in Olmsted’s era parks could be used for more than decoration and recreation.
The Olmsted project that Boone sees as the most relevant today is the seven-mile-long Emerald Necklace, in Boston, built during the eighteen-eighties. It connects a chain of parks of every personality, from the formal Public Garden, with its swan boats, to the twisty Riverway and the so-called great country park at Franklin Park. Boone described the “audacity” of Olmsted’s plan. “Him saying, ‘We have open sewers, we have flooding,’ ” and designing layered systems, extending across the city, that absorb water, serve as wild habitats, offer a protected transportation system, and, as a bonus, are beautiful—that was remarkable for the time.
Lange also mentions inequality in a few places, how real estate prices rise around some parks, how they sometimes cut or isolate communities, or how the architect is heralded but not the people maintaining it, and sometimes outright saving it. All issues more commonly addressed nowadays, all part of more forward looking ways of thinking about the city, and its various components.
Image: Mount Royal Park, Montréal, Canada by Rich Martello on Unsplash.