Celebrating the visionary behind Boston’s Emerald Necklace

2022 marked the bicentennial of the birth of Frederick Law Olmsted, the father of landscape architecture.

Updated: 8:00 PM EDT May 5, 2023

A PARK IS AN OASIS, A PLACE TO COMMUNE WITH NATURE AND PRESS THE RESET BUTTON IT ALLOWS YOU TO WANDER, ALLOWS YOUR MIND TO RELAX AND REST. OUR PARKS ARE OUR COMMON GROUND THROUGHOUT THE CITY, CREATING COMMON GROUND WAS THE MISSION OF FREDERICK LAW OLMSTED, FOUNDER OF AMERICAN LANDSCAPE. ARCHITECTURE 2022 MARKED THE BICENTENNIAL OF OLMSTED’S BIRTH AND HIS EPIC IMPACT ACROSS NORTH AMERICA. WHAT DID OLMSTED DESIGN? WELL, WHAT DIDN’T HE. HOMESTEADS GREATEST WORK INCLUDE? NEW YORK’S CENTRAL PARK, THE US CAPITOL GROUNDS, MONTREAL 700 ACRE MOUNT ROYAL PARK, AND OF COURSE, BOSTON’S EMERALD NECKLACE. THESE 1100 ACRES LINKED NEIGHBORHOODS VIA WINDING PATHS AND WATERWAYS. PROFESSOR TED LANDMARK DIRECTS THE DUKAKIS CENTER FOR URBAN AND REGIONAL POLICY AT NORTHEASTERN UNIVERSITY. I GREW UP IN NEW YORK AND I WOULD RIDE MY BICYCLE AROUND CENTRAL PARK, AND I ALWAYS THOUGHT IT WAS THE MOST WONDERFUL PARK IN THE WORLD UNTIL I MOVED TO BOSTON. A LINEAR PARK. AS IS THE CASE WITH THE EMERALD NECKLACE IN BOSTON, WHERE ONE IS CONSTANTLY ENCOUNTERING NEW FEATURES AND NEW WAYS OF THINKING ABOUT SPACE. THIS IS A MUCH MORE INTRIGUING WAY OF DESIGNING A PARK BECAUSE THERE’S ALWAYS MAGIC. THAT MAGIC ALSO CONTROLS FLOODING AND RELIEVES OVERCROWDING. PICTURE BOSTON WITHOUT THE COMMON IN THE PUBLIC GARDEN OR THE COMMONWEALTH AVENUE MALL. WHAT ABOUT THE BACK BAY FENS? THE RIVERWAY OLMSTED PARK AND JAMAICA POND? NOT TO MENTION THE ARNOLD ARBORETUM AND FRANKLIN PARK? OLMSTED WAS AT THE HEIGHT OF HIS CAREER. HE’S FAMOUSLY QUOTED AS SAYING TO HIS MENTEES AND HIS SONS, NOTHING MUST COME BEFORE THE BOSTON WORK. NOTHING COMPARES IN IMPORTANCE. WHEN OLMSTED ORIGINALLY DESIGNED THE FENS. JEN MERKLE IS AN EDUCATOR AND ART CURATOR. SHE’S IN CHARGE OF CULTURAL PARTNERSHIPS FOR THE NONPROFIT EMERALD NECKLACE CONSERVANCY, BASED IN THIS HISTORIC HOUSE. NEXT TO JAMAICA POND OLMSTED WORK JUST DOWN THE ROAD IN BROOKLINE. STARTING IN THE 1870S, IT TOOK HIS FIRM MORE THAN 20 YEARS TO BUILD THE EMERALD NECKLACE. BOSTON HAD A LOT OF PROBLEMS TO SOLVE, A LOT OF SANITARY PROBLEMS, WATER FLOW PROBLEMS. REMEMBER, BOSTON IS SURROUNDED ON THREE SIDES BY WATER AND AS THE CITY KEPT LANDFILLING BY THE 1870S, THE FLATS OF WHAT BECAME THE FENS AREA WERE A FETID SEWAGE SWAMP. OLMSTED’S GREEN SOLUTION COMBINED ENGINEERING SKILLS WITH HIS SIGNATURE STYLE, CAREFULLY MIMICKING NATURE’S ASYMMETRY, HE RECOGNIZED THAT IT WAS IMPORTANT TO HAVE A PATHWAY THAT DIDN’T NECESSARILY HAVE A CLEAR DESTINATION. THAT ONE IS INTRIGUED BY WHAT MIGHT LIE AROUND THE NEXT BEND. GIVEN THAT OLMSTEAD CONSIDERED HIMSELF AN ARTIST, I WOULD ARGUE THAT THE EMERALD NECKLACE PARK SYSTEM, THE PARTS THAT HE DESIGNED, ARE THE LARGEST IMMERSIVE ART INSTALLATION IN THE CITY. HE ALSO KNEW ABOUT THE POTENTIAL HEALTH IMPACTS OF EXPOSURE TO NATURE, FRESH WATER AND FRESH AIR. MOST IMPORTANT, OLMSTED BELIEVED PARKS SHOULD BE FREE AND OPEN TO ALL. TO MY MIND, OLMSTED’S GREATEST STRENGTH WAS THAT HE DID NOT SEE HIMSELF AS A PERSON WHO WAS ONLY DESIGNING FOR ELITES AND WEALTHY PEOPLE. WHAT SHAPE THAT VIEW WAS. HIS WORK AS A REPORTER? WELL BEFORE HE BECAME A LANDSCAPE ARCHITECT BETWEEN 1852 AND 1854, WHILE IN HIS EARLY 30S, OLMSTED WROTE FOR THE NEW YORK DAILY TIMES, WHICH LATER BECAME THE NEW YORK TIMES, HE WAS COMMISSIONED TO WRITE ABOUT THE CONDITIONS OF SLAVERY ACROSS THE SOUTH. FOR NORTHERN AUDIENCE, SARASOTA IS A PROFESSOR AT THE HARVARD GRADUATE SCHOOL OF DESIGN, AS WELL AS FOUNDING PRINCIPAL OF A LANDSCAPE ARCHITECTURE AND DESIGN FIRM IN NEW YORK. SHE’S WRITING A BOOK RETRACING OLMSTED’S PIVOTAL TIME IN THE SOUTH. 20 TRAVEL SOUTH. HE COMES AWAY WITH SOME KEY CONCLUSIONS SLAVERY, YOU KNOW, NOT ONLY DEHUMANIZED THE ENSLAVED, BUT ALSO DEHUMANIZED THE ENSLAVERS. WHAT HE WITNESSED IN THE SOUTH WAS A LACK OF INVESTMENT IN PUBLIC EDUCATION, IN MUSEUMS AND HEALTH AND THE KIND OF COMMON GOOD THAT’S REQUIRED TO BRING UP THE COMMON MAN, AS HE PUTS IT. SO YOU’RE SAYING THAT THERE’S AN ABSOLUTE CONNECTION WITH WHAT HE EXPERIENCED AND SAW AND THEN HOW THAT AFFECTED THE WAY HE LOOKED AT PUBLIC SPACES? EXACTLY. IT WAS ACTUALLY DESIGNING THE SOCIETY. HE SOUGHT FOR AMERICA TO BE IF WE WERE GOING TO FORM A POST BELLUM SOCIETY IN THE FORM OF A DEMOCRACY, THAT WE NEEDED A SENSE OF CIVIC GROUND PARKS WHERE EVERYONE HAS ACCESS IS REALLY WHAT THE WIND AT OUR BACK IN TERMS OF ADVOCATING AND DESIGNING FOR THESE SPACES IS. UNDERSTANDING THE LEGACY OF OLMSTED AND THE LEGACY OF OUR PROFESSION. ITS ORIGIN STORY THAT THESE SPACES REALLY ARE IMPORTANT TO THE PROJECT OF DEMOCRACY. AND LAST OF ALL, THE CULTURAL LANDSCAPE FOUNDATION RELEASED A REPORT AND AN EXHIBITION CALLED THE OLMSTED DESIGN LEGACY. RIGHT. IT POINTS OUT THAT EVEN THOUGH THE SITES ARE PROTECTED, THEY WANT TO MAKE SURE THEY STAY THAT WAY. AND SOME OF THE SITES ARE THREATENED BY CLIMATE CHANGE AND OTHER FACTORS, AND THEY WANT TO BE SURE IT’

Celebrating the visionary behind Boston’s Emerald Necklace

2022 marked the bicentennial of the birth of Frederick Law Olmsted, the father of landscape architecture.

Updated: 8:00 PM EDT May 5, 2023

Creating common ground was the mission of Frederick Law Olmsted, founder of American landscape architecture. The year 2022 marks the bicentennial of Olmsted’s birth and his epic impact across North America.The Emerald Necklace Conservancy is devoted to stewarding and protecting Boston’s Emerald Necklace, one of Olmsted’s most celebrated designs. Through October 2022, the Conservancy is celebrating Olmsted’s bicentennial with a series called Olmsted Now, which includes public events at all six Olmsted-designed parks in Boston.Professor Ted Landsmark of Northeastern University’s Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy is a leading authority on landscape architecture.Sara Zewde is a landscape architect and professor at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. She is currently at work on a book about Olmsted’s work as a journalist during the era of slavery.

Creating common ground was the mission of Frederick Law Olmsted, founder of American landscape architecture. The year 2022 marks the bicentennial of Olmsted’s birth and his epic impact across North America.

The Emerald Necklace Conservancy is devoted to stewarding and protecting Boston’s Emerald Necklace, one of Olmsted’s most celebrated designs. Through October 2022, the Conservancy is celebrating Olmsted’s bicentennial with a series called Olmsted Now, which includes public events at all six Olmsted-designed parks in Boston.

Professor Ted Landsmark of Northeastern University’s Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy is a leading authority on landscape architecture.

Sara Zewde is a landscape architect and professor at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. She is currently at work on a book about Olmsted’s work as a journalist during the era of slavery.

Landscape Architecture 

Read More