Trees are remarkable. Urban trees and urban forests are a sign of a nation’s health and well-being.
Over 150 years ago, Frederick Law Olmsted began to design the North American landscape.
Born in Hartford, Conn. in 1822 as an eighth generation America, his family was amongst the original founders of the settlement.
His father introduced his son to the pursuit of beauty in nature. Frederick developed a reverence for nature from his father. He became a keen observer of the natural landscape.
There were two other influential thinkers that shaped his early life: Timothy Dwight, president of Yale College from 1758 to 1817, and Andrew Downing, America’s first eminent landscape gardener.
It was Downing’s belief that city dwellers needed the refreshment of green-space and invigorating air. He felt that by bringing all classes of society together in parks that democracy could be strengthened. Downing’s belief became Olmsted’s passion.
As a young man, Olmsted traveled to the southeast of America, into Panama and up into Texas. He also visited London and Paris.
Olmsted felt the chief reason of a park was to create an effect on humans by presenting a view. He likened the view to soothing music that envelopes the soul.
He was fond of the pastoral landscape: turf, quiet streams, ponds and open groves of trees.
In 1857 he joined forces with Calvert Vaux and they entered and won the competition to design New York City’s Central Park.
In 1858 with a budget of $1.5 million they set about designing and transforming 633 acres into the world’s finest urban park.
Olmsted was the architect-in-chief of Central Park. He had 4,000 employees. Together he and Vaux designed and adapted a meadow to pastoral scenery. They created a picturesque steep rocky Ramble between the lake and the reservoir at 79th Street.
Throughout Olmsted’s 40-year career he set about creating rural scenery in urban centers. He used light and shadows to create mystery. Rich foliage, lush undergrowth, rolling meadows scattered with trees and ponds of water that reflected the trees and sky were his hallmark.
In 1868 he and Vaux invented parkways — a series of boulevards running through major residential sections of New York City. The parkways created green-space throughout the city and connected public recreation grounds.
Olmsted introduced children to parks.
Olmsted and Vaux went on to design Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. In 1871 they created Chicago’s South Park; two parks connected by a strip of long boulevard with a canal. They used one million plants. Afterwards they parted company.
In 1874 Olmsted designed Montreal’s Mount Royal Park. He took a steep rocky site and transformed it into a mountain character.
He created Detroit’s Belle Isle, the “Emerald Nechlace” of green-spaces in Boston, the park systems in Rochester, N.Y., Louisville, Ky., East Bay Regional Parks of San Francisco and a network of mountain parks west of Denver.
He planned many university campuses including: the American University in Washington, D.C., Amherst College, Bryn Mawr College, Columbia University, Cornell University, Gallaudet University, Groton School, Trinity College — Hartford, Yale, College of California at Berkeley, Lawrenceville School, N.J. and Stanford University.
Olmsted planned the grounds of the U.S. Capitol. He planted enough trees to conceal the building until it could be seen from its best four vantage points.
He created and planned the landscape of George W. Vanderbilt’s Biltmore Estate in Asheville, N.C. He designed the magnificent three-mile approach to the estate with 10,000 rhododendrons. He also conceived and designed the estate’s arboretum and encouraged Vanderbilt to acquire 120,000 acres of land adjoining the estate where the cradle of U.S. plantation forestry began.
Olmsted was one of the leaders instrumental in setting aside the Niagara Falls Reservation.
He was a visionary who understood the importance of water and cautioned its careful use in the semi-arid west.
Today all citizens of North America owe a debt of gratitude to Frederick Law Olmsted for his exquisite beautification of many urban centers.
Dr. Reese Halter is a conservation biologist at Cal Lutheran University, public speaker and founder of the international conservation institute Global Forest Science. His upcoming children’s book is “The Mysteries of the Redwood Forest with Bruni the Bear!” Follow him: twitter.com/DrReeseHalter.