It is fitting that this year in much of the United States, Arbor Day falls on 26 April, the 191st birthday of renowned landscape architect and conservationist Frederick Law Olmsted. Born in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1822 to a successful merchant, Olmsted tried out a number of occupations (ship boy with the China trade, gentleman farmer, New York Times reporter, travel writer, editor) in his youth. Those various experiences served him well in his future work, when he would advocate for equality and the power of aesthetics to improve civilization. Then in 1858, he won (along with partner Calvert Vaux) a design competition to redevelop Central Park, a commission that launched his career as America’s first landscape architect
Olmsted and Vaux went on to design many parks and landscapes across the nation, including Prospect Park in Brooklyn, South Park in Chicago, Boston’s Emerald Necklace, Belle Isle in Detroit, and the grounds of Stanford University. Drawing upon his design principles and his values, Olmsted strove to create green spaces that, no matter how densely cities grew up around them, would provide natural retreats for residents. He also fought to make his parks accessible centers of democracy where people of all sorts could coexists. His vision extended as well to America’s wilderness. As a leader of the burgeoning conservation movement, he helped establish the first national park in Yosemite Valley, California, set up Niagara Reservation, and articulated the mission of nature preservation (“to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein . . . and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations”). In 1882 he moved his firm from New York City to Brookline, Massachusetts, where it operated until 1979, when the grounds and collections became part of the National Park Service. Olmsted died in 1902 in Belmont, Massachusetts.
Today, Olmsted’s legacy is part of the larger conservation movement. Arbor Day, founded in 1872 in Nebraska by tree-advocate J. Sterling Morton, likewise holds a prominent place with environmentalists. It is not surprising, therefore, that Olmsted societies across the nation celebrate Arbor Day by sprucing up their parks and that the Arbor Day Foundation annually presents the Frederick Law Olmsted Award to a person dedicated to trees and conservation. This year (in addition to planting a tree, of course), celebrate Olmsted’s birthday/Arbor Day by keeping his spirit alive. For those in the Boston area, join the Emerald Necklace Conservancy’s cleanup of the Muddy River or attend their discussion Climate Change: What Would Olmsted Do? On Sunday, roam through the Arnold Arboretum with the National Park Service’s Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site. Or help advocate for the preservation of Olmsted’s parks and landscapes by becoming a member of the National Association for Olmsted Parks.
To learn more about Olmsted and his ideals, read George L. Scheper’s “The Reformist Vision of Frederick Law Olmsted and the Poetics of Park Design” from our September 1989 issue and Andrew Menard’s “The Enlarged Freedom of Frederick Law Olmsted,” published in September 2010. But be sure to access them online so you’ll save a tree!