Today, April 26, 2022, is Frederick Law Olmstead’s 200th birthday.This remarkable man was responsible for designing 100 public parks, in addition to scores of livable neighborhoods and private gardens. He left an amazing legacy of natural beauty. What would he think if could see what we are doing with our remaining precious land?
Olmsted’s first glimpse at what a park can be was in 1850 in Birkenhead, Lancashire. My home county. My sister lived in Birkenhead. Visits to the Park were frequent – especially during and following WWII. The Park offered respite, moments of quiet, fresh air, a chance to run, play. It was the Magic Kingdom of our youth.
Throughout the boroughs of London there are 3,000 public parks of different sizes. When rebuilding after the war, people wanted places of calm, close to their restored homes and shops. Parks were their answer.
In the 1960’s I revisited Birkenhead Park with our two young sons. Just as I had - they threw pebbles across the pond, marveled at the swans, ran like the wind, and picnicked in the grass. A Park will always be magic. The perfect prescription for what ails us. Our place to breathe.
Parks need not cover vast acres. A small oasis with trees, water, neighborly benches, lighting, and a cover to shield us from the rain is all we need. Would developers be willing to create such neighborhood spaces, instead of filling every inch with concrete and structures? And with structures reaching ever skyward – blocking the sun from neighbors. I believe many would. They too are friends, neighbors, moms, dads.
We’re doing better with trails. Trails are excellent, but they are not parks. On a trail you keep moving. In a park you stop, relax, breathe.
The New York Times created a special anniversary section devoted to Olmsted. They referred to him as a landscape architect, social reformer, and believer in public parks as a democratic idea. They also noted that the young nation Olmsted served might be unrecognizable to him today, except for the rituals preserved and encouraged by his own creations. The rituals of slowing down, wondering at nature, sharing a picnic, reading a book, breathing,
What magical birthday gift could we offer a man whose legacy and gifts to us transcend centuries? Maybe more small parks? More green spaces where future generations can learn to breathe? What a gift that would be.
Happy Birthday and thank you Frederick Law Olmsted.
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