America’s Green Giant

1.

The nearly universal acclaim that greeted the High Line—the linear greenway built between 2006 and 2014 atop an abandoned elevated railway trestle on Manhattan’s lower west side—reconfirmed the transformative effect parks can have on the quality of urban life.1 Real estate prices have soared in the vicinity of this one-and-a-half-mile-long wonder of adaptive reuse, and the surrounding neighborhood is now among the trendiest and costliest in town—thousands visit it daily, many from abroad. Yet however much the High Line has enriched the postmillennial megalopolis (economically not least of all), its social effects pale in comparison to the revolutionary vision of the public park as promulgated by its greatest American exponent, the nineteenth-century polymath Frederick Law Olmsted.

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Biltmore Estate, Asheville, North Carolina
Frederick Law Olmsted; portrait by John Singer Sargent, 1895

Besides being an experimental farmer, prolific journalist, crusading publisher, military health care reformer, and insightful social critic, Olmsted was also the greatest advocate and impresario of the public realm this country has ever produced. Now best remembered as the codesigner, with the British-born architect Calvert Vaux, of New York’s Central Park of 1857–1873, he was even more important as the veritable inventor of landscape architecture as a modern profession. For apart from Olmsted’s exceptional and apparently innate abilities as a horticulturist—he had little formal training—he systematically conceived the large-scale reshaping of the natural terrain to an extent unimaginable to such illustrious and influential antecedents as Capability Brown in Georgian England and Andrew Jackson Downing (Olmsted’s beloved mentor) in pre–Civil War America.

Olmsted can also be said to have Americanized high-style landscape design, for despite all he learned from British sources about felicitous composition—there is an almost cinematic quality to his gradual revelation of one breathtakingly arranged Arcadian tableau after another—whenever possible he used native species to make his schemes seem like spontaneous emanations of the ecology rather than artificial impositions. Though he was hardly averse to transporting the best available plant material over long distances, and had mature specimen trees and shrubs for Central Park shipped in quantity from England, Olmsted always closely studied local settings for indigenous characteristics that he reproduced with astounding fidelity. Likewise he shunned the strenuous exoticism of Victorian gardening, with its cedars of Lebanon, Argentinian pampas grasses, Mexican agaves, and Norfolk Island pines that flaunted horticulture’s new imperial reach.

Olmsted and his collaborators created scores of parks large and small—in Boston and Fall River, Massachusetts; Baltimore; Bridgeport, Hartford, New Britain, and New London, Connecticut; Chicago; Detroit; Louisville, Kentucky; Milwaukee; Montreal; Buffalo, Newburgh, and Rochester, New York; Newport, Rhode Island; Philadelphia; and San Francisco. He also laid out campuses for the University of California at Berkeley, Stanford University in Palo Alto, and the University of Chicago; Mountain View Cemetery in Oakland, California; as well as one of America’s earliest planned suburbs, Riverside, Illinois. He was responsible for the nation’s first state park—the Niagara Reservation,…


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