Thursday, December 25, 2008

The maker of the modern American urban landscape

Not the power broker or the boss--they only ruled their own fiefdoms.

Not the various presidents and senators who passed through Washington in the last century.

The man I sing of in the wee hours of Christmas morning is the legendary landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, who designed a mind-boggling number of parks, towns, greenways, university campuses, and other odds and ends in his half-century as the country's pre-eminent creator of green space. Olmsted's influence was so pervasive and his work so well-received that it generated minimal controversy in its day, and certainly hasn't been the object of criticism on a grand scale since. As a result, his impact on the daily lives of millions of people is almost overlooked (25 million people visit Central Park alone every year) because it's so readily accepted. Still, take a look at the map linked above, or this list from wikipedia, and let it sink in: one person is responsible for the way all of these places look and feel.

Brooklyn is no exception: Prospect Park and Fort Greene Park are both the work of Olmsted and his longtime partner Calvert Vaux. A rumor persists that Prospect Park was Olmsted's favorite work, and though I couldn't verify it with extensive googling, I'm happy to perpetuate it (my scanty findings did reveal that Prospect graces the home page of the National Association for Olmsted Parks--they wouldn't put it front and center if it wasn't his favorite, right?). According to the Parks Department, Prospect hosts 8 million visitors annually.

There's far too much to say about Olmsted to make a single post about the man much more than a salutation to his accomplishments. I'm leaving out his fascinating egalitarian social thinking as well as a number of his other accomplishments, including co-founding The Nation. I suppose that's for another day, or for an Olmsted biographer. Suffice to say that he was a bringer of joy, relaxation, and recreation to millions in his day and every year that's followed. As long as his parks are around to enjoy (as they were for the hundreds I saw with sleds and skis in Prospect after the snow on my Saturday run), he'll keep on giving those gifts, as immortal as Santa Claus himself.

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