Places That Belong to Everyone


He died uncertain whether any of his creations would survive into the future. His proposition — maintain valuable center-city land as green space — was tenuous and vulnerable to the developers of housing tracts and racetracks and shopping districts. But Olmsted’s worst fears haven’t been realized. Instead, his creations have become centerpieces, points of pride for scores of communities across the country. Far from receding, Olmsted’s influence has only increased in the century since his death…” — Justin Martin

Frederick Law Olmsted (1822-1903) is perhaps best known for his design (with Calvert Vaux) of New York City’s Central Park. But this visionary gift to future generations is only one of many Olmsted designs that bring “trees and greenery into the congested grid of streets.” In the course of his career, Frederick Law Olmsted designed more than thirty major city parks, the U.S. Capitol grounds, several university campuses, and many planned communities.

But there’s much more to Olmsted’s life, as Justin Martin’s Genius of Place: The Life of Frederick Law Olmsted makes abundantly clear. Olmsted packed many lives into the time he was given: he commanded a medical unit in the Civil War, managed a California gold mine, played a key role in the early preservation of Yosemite Valley, had a long career as a traveling journalist, co-founded The Nation, and was an early and influential abolitionist.

Justin Martin tells a rich story of a remarkable life — a life full of passion, struggle, and triumph. The Land Library wouldn’t be complete without a shelf or two on Olmsted’s life, work, and lasting influence — books such as Genius of Place, and the recent collection (also pictured above), Frederick Law Olmsted: Essential Texts, edited by Robert Twombly.

And here’s a few more Olmsted volumes from the Land Library’s collection:

A Clearing in the Distance: Frederick Law Olmsted and America in the 19th Century by Witold Rybczynski, and, a real surprise corner of an adventure-filled life — A Journey Through Texas: or a Saddle-Trip on the Southwestern Frontier by Frederick Law Olmsted (named one of the 50 Best Books on the American West by True West magazine).

kidsbiophilic cities
The Man Who Made Parks: The Story of Park Builder Frederick Law Olmsted by Frieda Wishinsky (at our Waterton Canyon Kids Nature Library), and scores of books that, at least in part, owe their inspiration to Olmsted. Books such as Biophilic Cities: Integrating Nature Into Urban Design and Planning by Timothy Beatley.

And lastly, we love the way Justin Martin decided to end his book Genius of Place — not with the grand arc of Olmsted’s career, but instead with the description of one particular place that he designed:

“Yes, Olmsted is still very much with us. You can read his work….Better yet, you can visit one of his green spaces. These transcendent creations provide a window into his spirit as surely as regarding the Starry Night will rouse Van Gogh.

Perhaps you have a favorite Olmsted spot. I know I do. I walk down the steps of Central Park’s Bethesda Terrace, past the Angel of the Waters statue, and make my way to the edge of the Lake. Then I follow the shoreline to the Bow Bridge and walk across. I like to stand at the water’s edge, soaking up this peerless composition: Vaux’s beautiful bridge, both spanning the Lake and reflected in the Lake, and Olmsted’s untamed Ramble all around.

But this is so far beyond a mere work of landscape architecture. Looking around, I’m always struck by the variety of people — every income group, every nationality, young and old, enjoying a dizzying number of different activities. Here it is, the twenty-first century, and one of Central Park’s original purposes remain very much intact. In the truest sense, this place belongs to everyone. I think Olmsted would be proud.” — Justin Martin

bow bridge
Central Park’s Bow Bridge, New York City


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s