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  • Writer's picturechasmccabe

Olmsted: 200 years and counting...

Updated: Apr 29, 2022

By Charlie McCabe

I'm one-fourth of my way through a year in which I'm writing about lessons learned while working in city parks across the United States. Mostly, I've been talking about the lessons from my nearly 17 years working for parks nonprofits—as a volunteer and as an advocate— primarily in Austin, the Boston area, and New York City. I promised two weeks ago to focus on the 1970s next, and I will get there. But I'm taking some time this week to write about recent travels and park visits in Atlanta and Austin.

First, however, I want to take a moment to acknowledge that today is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Frederick Law Olmsted, who brought the concept of public parks for all to the Americas (like all good ideas, borrowed from elsewhere, in this case, a planned park and development effort in Liverpool, England), as well as the profession of landscape architect. His firm, which continued on until the early 1970s, created hundreds of parks, trails, greenways, and even landscaped grounds of private estates, many of which are now publicly owned and open to the public. (I didn't realize how many until I attended an in-person Olmsted Symposium about a month ago in Boston. Organized by the National Park Service and supported by local and national nonprofits, it was an amazing window into all of the work of Olmsted, his sons and successors.)

Olmsted and his longtime partner, Calvert Vaux, brought us Central Park and Prospect Park in NYC and then hundreds more parks and park systems through the Olmsted firm. In Boston, we're blessed with the Emerald Necklace, which is owned and managed by three public agencies (City of Boston, Town of Brookline, and the State Department of Conservation and Recreation) and supported by several other nonprofits, particularly the Emerald Necklace Conservancy. Locally in the Boston area, the Conservancy, along with the National Park Service and other public, nonprofit groups and volunteers, have launched Olmsted Now, a six-month-long set of events, programming, and exploration of Olmsted's legacy, as well as the challenges facing us both now and in the future with public space— looking closer at issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion for our ever-changing populations and the cities that house them.

Olmsted was a man of his time, and while his designs and perspectives (both pastoral and picturesque) have stood the test of time, many other park elements have been introduced since then, including sport courts and playing fields, swimming pools, modern playgrounds, and longer trails (not just for horse drawn carriages, but for pedestrian, skaters, runners and bicyclists). As time marches on, our needs evolve, and parks and public spaces respond in unforeseen ways, as the pandemic of the past couple of years has shown us. My thanks to all those who've worked to commemorate Olmsted and his legacy but are looking forward into the future and thinking about what's next.

© Copyright 2022, Charlie McCabe Consulting LLC

The complete series of public parks is here.

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