Father of Landscape Architecture and Urban Parks
By Michelle Werts
Last week, we celebrated the birthday of the “Father of National Parks.” Today, we’re recognizing another famous father.
Frederick Law Olmsted, aka “Father of Landscape Architecture” and creator of many of America’s famous urban parks, was born on this date in 1822. During a century in which America was rapidly expanding and becoming more urban, Olmsted recognized the importance of green spaces for not only their beauty, but also for how they could help reduce stress and allow people a quiet escape from the demands of a busy world.
As a result, some of today’s largest cities have magnificent parks either directly because of Olmsted or indirectly due to his influence. Here are a few of his lasting legacies.
New York City’s Central Park
After a national landscape design contest in 1857 — the first of its kind in the country — Olmsted and his associate Calvert Vaux’s Greensward Plan was selected as the guiding principle behind the park’s design. Under this plan, the park was transformed into a rolling pastoral landscape. To create this effect, the designers actually lowered four of the roads that cut through the park below the surface to create an uninterrupted oasis, which the 843-acre park remains to this day. And, Central Park isn’t Olmsted’s only contribution to NYC’s cityscape — Brooklyn’s Prospect Park was also his handy work.
The U.S. Capitol
No, Olmsted didn’t design the iconic dome, but he did sculpt the green space surrounding it. His plan was to create a symmetrical flow around the building that would highlight it in its best light. By using carefully placed low walls, trees, shrubs and curved walkways, Olmsted made sure that the Capitol could be ogled from any number of vantage points. And, that marble terrace that goes all the way around the Capitol … that was all him, too.
Olmsted didn’t just leave his mark on the East Coast. When the Stanford family decided to establish a university in California, they turned to Olmsted to design the campus. According to Stanford’s website, the design process was often “contentious, but finally resulted in an organization of quadrangles on an east-west axis.” While the idea of quadrangles might be English in concept, as executed on Stanford’s campus, it’s all about creating green vistas and open spaces while keeping the buildings centralized.
These three sites only scratch the surface of Olmsted’s legacy, as he had a hand in dozens of urban parks, urban parkways, residential communities, college campuses and housing estates across the country. And that doesn’t even count his personal legacies: his son and stepson, who continued in his footsteps, created landscape architectural impacts of their own.
Olmsted and his family were pioneers with their emphasis of incorporating green spaces into cities and urban areas around the country, paving the way for those that came next. Many of our urban parks and trees owe a big influence to the work of Olmsted and his fellow landscape designing compatriots. So, today, in celebration of Olmsted and the urban green spaces he inspired, go pay your respects to him by visiting a local park and basking in the joy the trip brings.