Frederick Law Olmsted Essay

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Frederick Law Olmsted was one of the principal architects and landscapers of the early modern United States. Combining his design work with research and writing, Olmsted became known as an influential force in forging the combination of aesthetic and technical issues that have become established as the dominant paradigm in urban and rural planning concerns. Popularly, he is more wellknown for being the designer of such famed parks and open areas as the lands surrounding the Capitol Building in Washington D.C., Central Park in New York City, and the Niagara Reservation near Niagara Falls. Generations of Americans have benefited from the recreational and health-promotional opportunities provided by parks envisioned and planned by Olmsted.

Olmsted’s career encompassed foreign travel and an investigation into the slave trade in the southern United States. His experiences in the South, in Britain, and in China helped him to understand the importance of egalitarianism in designing public parks.

In most hierarchical societies, the ability to gain access to public goods such as parks was limited to various degrees. European societies had tended to limit the access to these goods to wealthy elites, while overseas imperial possessions were restricted on the grounds of ethnicity. Colonial Shanghai, for example, was infamous for its (apocryphal but symbolic) signage “No Dogs or Chinese” in supposedly public spaces.

Olmsted was committed to identifying ways in which such discrimination would be impossible to sustain and the methods by which he worked have become guidelines for the industry he helped to create. Not just people but the physical environment too was to be integrated into the design scheme. He realized the importance of maintaining the quality and good health of the land on which parks were to be built in order to ensure they could be sustained for future generations.

He was able to come to this understanding due to, at least in part, his wide range of experiences and travel: among his accomplishments were commanding a unit in the American Civil War (1861-65) and managing a gold mine in California. Nevertheless, the apparent rationality of his ideas belies the fact that at the time his approach was considered not just unusual but extreme and slightly improper. Ultimately, rationality and systematization won out over romanticism.

The combination of skills that Olmsted helped bring together for the field of landscape design, together with noted colleagues such as Calvert Vaux, have helped him to become known as the father of American landscape architecture. It also brought to bear a systematic and scientific approach to the discipline that underlines the general American ideology of subjugating, or at least transforming, nature to fulfill the will and desires of the people, variously defined. This tradition is reflected in American political ideology as it has often been expressed toward the land and the environment.


  1. Troy Erdman, “Landscape Architecture: Design and Problem Solving,” Tech Directions (v.61/2, 2001);
  2. Susan L. Klaus, “Efficiency, Economy, Beauty: The City Planning Reports of Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., 1905-15,” Journal of the American Planning Association (v.57/4, 1991);
  3. Frederick Law Olmsted, Civilizing American Cities: Writings on City Landscapes, B. Sutton, ed., (Da Capo Press, 1997);
  4. Witold Rybczynski, A Clearing in the Distance: Frederick Law 0lmsted and America in the Nineteenth Century (Scribner, 2000).

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