Metro, Newton

Local Libraries Co-Host Anniversary Talk for Park Designer Frederick Law Olmsted

Newton Free Library and the Cary Memorial Library in Lexington co-hosted an online talk in celebration of architect Frederick Law Olmsted on what would have been his 200th birthday on Thursday. 

Olmsted designed some of the United States’ most iconic parks.

“Olmsted certainly anticipated the fact that we—none of us, particularly children—don’t spend enough time in nature,” said lecture host Roxanne Zimmer, a community horticulture specialist. “A park is a work of art, and yes, it’s an antidote to the city.”

The talk was part of a national series of programs called Olmsted 200, which explores Olmsted’s work—including environmental conservation, park design, university campus design, and community planning.

Olmsted, who was born in 1822 in Connecticut, designed about 100 public parks and recreational spaces throughout his career, including Central Park in New York City and the Niagara Reservation in Niagara Falls, New York. 

Zimmer emphasized Olmsted’s commitment to making natural spaces accessible to the public, which she said stemmed from his experience visiting the People’s Garden in England in the 1850s, one of few public parks in the world at the time. 

“When Olmsted saw this and saw people of every class enjoying it, he said to himself, ‘Why don’t we have something in democratic America that is as, if you will, democratic or comparable to this People’s Garden?’” Zimmer said. “He said, ‘You know what? Park access should be the right of all Americans.’”

She also highlighted the fact that the Industrial Revolution and increasing urbanization were the historical contexts of Olmsted’s work, which created a greater need for deliberately planned natural spaces. 

She listed grass and turf, wooded areas, waterways, stone, and vistas as important features of Olmsted’s designs. Olmsted also used lines and paths to engage park visitors, according to Zimmer.

“[Olmsted] also believed that people were curious,” she said. “If you put people in a straight line, they’re not going to be curious about what’s around the corner. So you will see in Olmsted parks what are now known as sequential experiences: curved lines, you go up and down steps. … That kind of builds your curiosity as to what surprise might be around [the corner].”

During the question-and-answer session, an audience member asked about the preservation of state parks and waterways in the era of increasing environmental deterioration. Zimmer said that there are additional Olmsted 200 talks across the country, acknowledging the issue as a point of concern nationwide.

Zimmer also said that Olmsted’s legacy persists in today’s Green Belt Movement, which focuses on environmental conservation, as well as in the research into nature-deficit disorder. She emphasized the importance of scenery and nature to the human condition. 

“A number of people said to me that it was Prospect Park [designed by Olmsted], that they came to during the pandemic just to feel more secure and at peace,” Zimmer said. “And you can see why.”

November 6, 2022