Frederick Law Olmsted, Trees in streets and in parks (Review)

I last came across the American landscape architect, Frederick Law Olmsted, a few years ago when I was doing some freelance research for a Canberra 2013 centenary project. This was because Olmsted, who designed New York’s Central Park with Calvert Vaux, inspired Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahoney Griffin, the original designers of Canberra. Now, it just so happens, that my current read is a book by Jane Jose, Places women make, about the contributions women make to the development of cities. In it she talks of Marion Mahoney Griffin, and her role in the design and planning of Canberra, a garden city. So, when a piece by Frederick Law Olmsted titled “Trees in streets and in parks” popped up as last week’s Library of America’s Story of the Week, I decided it was for me.

Frederick Law Olmsted

By James Notman, Boston, 1893, engraving of image later published in Century Magazine (Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

It’s a fascinating piece for its insight into nineteenth century thinking about trees, parks and cities. The article was published in a journal called The Sanitarian. He commences by disagreeing with an idea promulgated by French art critic, Charles Blanc, that nature is not beautiful, only design can be so described! Olmsted admits that some trees can be poorly or inappropriately planted or maintained but even those can be – well let him say it

But looking up at the continuous green canopy which these maltreated trunks support, swaying in the light summer breeze against the serene blue beyond—swaying not only with the utmost grace of motion, but with the utmost stately majesty—I say that cheaply, inconsiderately as the planting work was done, if the result is not to be called beautiful, it is only because it has more of sublimity than beauty.

Take that Monsieur Blanc! However, sanitation being his apparent main interest, he moves on to talk about parks and their importance to the “sanitary apparatus of a large town”. Parks are important for providing clean air to city residents. Travellers to London, he writes, had until recently described its myriad parks as ‘“airing grounds,” “breathing places,” “the lungs of London”’. Although times are changing, “the atmospheric theory”of the value of parks still holds strong, he says. For people to benefit from this air, the parks have to be attractive, so trees are planted for their decorative value.

However, it is not for their air-purifying value, nor for a decorative motive, that he plants trees in his parks. His reason doesn’t “interfere with or lessen the value of a park as an airing ground”, but not pursuing decoration as a goal results, he suggests, in a more attractive and less costly park. So, what is his purpose? Well, it has to do with defining “sanitation” more holistically: it’s not just about supporting the body but also encompasses the mind. Yet, he realises,

It is plainly not enough to answer that it is to move the mind recreatively, because that is equally the motive of Punch and Judy, of a flower-garden, of a cabinet of curiosities, of jewelry.

Frederick Olmsted

Portrait of Olmsted, at (the beautiful) Biltmore Estate, 1895, by John Singer Sargent (Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Admitting he’s not a scientific expert, he argues that “the recreative and sanative value of large parks” comes from what he describes as an unconscious process. He distinguishes, in other words, between “conscious, or direct recreation, and unconscious, or indirect recreation”. Designing the placement of trees (and other garden objects) to call people “to a halt, and to utter mental exclamations of surprise or admiration” runs counter to this idea of “unconscious recreation”. A park’s highest value lies, rather, in “elements and qualities of scenery” to which the minds of those experiencing them give “little conscious cogitation” at the time. These elements or qualities “are of too complex, subtle and spiritual a nature to be readily checked off, item by item, like a jeweler’s or a florist’s wares”.

He provides an analogy. It’s the difference he says

between the beauty of a common wildflower seen at home, nearby others of its class, peeping through dead leaves or a bank of mossy turf, and that of a hybrid of the same genus, double, of a rare color, just brought from Japan, now first blooming in America, taken from under glass, and shown us in a bunch of twenty, set in an enameled vase against an artfully-managed back-ground.

In other words, coming across a scene, flower, tree unexpectedly and perhaps without even consciously stopping to comment on it, may have “a more soothing and refreshing sanitary influence”. These are the natural, simple pleasures that “cottagers in peasant villagers” have always been able to enjoy. And here he moves to a more political point. With the growth of cities and the development of the rich, with “the prominence given by the press to the latest matters of interest to the rich and the fashion-setting classes”, the problem is that

the population of our country is being rapidly educated to look for the gratification of taste, to find beauty, and to respect art, in forms not of the simple and natural class; in forms not to be used by the mass domestically, but only as a holiday and costly luxury, and with deference to men standing as a class apart from the mass.

This impoverishes us, dissipates tastes that once brought happiness. It’s a very appealing attitude to parks and park-making, though I must say his language is not the most straightforward to read.

The National Association for Olmsted Parks summarises the legacy of Frederick, his sons and their successors as:

The Olmsteds believed in the restorative value of landscape and that parks can bring social improvement by promoting a greater sense of community and providing recreational opportunities, especially in urban environments.

I think this is what you’ll be hearing about again soon, when I review Places women make!

Frederick Law Olmsted
“Trees in streets and in parks”
First published: In The Sanitarian (September 1882).
Available: Online at the Library of America

18 thoughts on “Frederick Law Olmsted, Trees in streets and in parks (Review)

  1. About six or seven weeks ago my wife and I visited the Wormsloe Estate outside Savannah because she had seen featured its mile long avenue of 400 live-oaks – over a century old – and stunningly beautiful. We walked its length both ways. Part of the appeal of the cover of John Behrendt’s book: Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is the moodiness created by the live-oaks in the background – the hanging epiphytes (Spanish moss) and the mist swirling in from the river. I had never come across (or never noticed, at least) live-oaks till this visit to the south-east of the US. Dallas, Savannah, Florida, and now here in New Orleans! Wonderful. There is an avenue of plane trees in Tamworth – saved recently by environmentally concerned citizens (led by Robin Gunning – a locally very important scientist and woman) – commemorating those who died in the Great War – equally – if differently – splendid. And on a number of occasions Olmsted’s Central Park has delighted us. I did a house-sit for friends on the edge of Pymble and St Ives a couple of years back – admiring a couple of places nearby featuring houses & gardens designed by Walter and Marion Mahony Griffin. How lucky to have her – and her husband – in Australia during those important years.

    • Lovely response Jim. Did you get to Biltmore in Asheville? We loved Asheville, and Olmsted was involved in designing Biltmore’s garden. Funnily, although I’ve been to NY a few times, I’ve spent very little time in Central Park. We certainly have wonderful street trees in Canberra. As for Pymble, St Ives and environs, the trees and bush there are beautiful I agree.

  2. I will always remember Olmstead for the work he did at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893 – I read about that and a lot of his background in Devil in White City by Eric Larson and it just stuck with me. Quite a guy!

  3. Thanks Bekah, and do yourself a favour Sue, read The Devil in the White City, a great read. I knew I had heard the name Olmstead, but I couldn’t place it until Bekah mentioned the book. This morning while running along the creek at the parkland near my home, I saw a little Peppercorn tree. I was surprised as mot of the trees in the park are natives. I have been to Central Park in New York, and loved the variety of the landscape. You would hope everyone would agree with Olmstead, on the importance of trees and parks.

    • Thanks Meg. I think I’ll buy it on the Kindle where I only have
      – 24 x TBR books! I love noticing different trees when we travel, in 0Z and OS. They really are something, aren’t they?

  4. I studied landscape architecture in my undergrad degree (I switched majors in my third year and focused on environmental planning instead) so I have a soft spot for Olmsted. If I remember correctly, he was the one who came up with the genius design of bridges and archways so pedestrians would not be run over by carriages touring the park. (Or that may have been Calvert Vaux, who worked on the project with him. Anyway, this sounds like an interesting read…

      • I guessed kimbofo that was what you meant. Given your background I expect you’d really enjoy Jane Jose’s Places women make about women and urban design, mostly in Australia but with some reference to women elsewhere too.

        • Yes, I’ve already looked it up and seems it’s available in the UK as an ebook. I’ll wait for your review before I press the “purchase” button!

  5. What a lovely, forward thinking man that Olmsted was! I remember wishing during the Australian bicentennial celebrations that a ‘Bicentennial Park’ would be created, to match the existing ‘Centennial Park’ in Sydney. If only our political leaders were as forwarding thinking … Still, the new (ish) botanical gardens at Cranbourne, Victoria are a step in the right direction.
    The husband and I have ordered 14 oaks to line our rural driveway and they’ll go in this winter. I hope to still be here in 30 years to enjoy them as mature trees. And if not, I hope someone in the future will consider them as a gift – as I do the Avenues of Honour planted in my town and the next closest. One oak for every local soldier fallen during WW1. Those avenues are far too long.

    • So glad you enjoyed this post Michelle. Good on you for planting an avenue of oaks. How big are the ones you are planting? We’ve just planted 6 smaller trees in our yard – two ornamental pears, and 4 crape myrtles – but about 15 years ago we planted two bigger ornamental pears (not as big as oaks though) and they are going so well. We both love them and are proud of them. I certainly hope you’ll be around in 30 years, being the young thing you are.

      And yes, agree completely re those memorial avenues.

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