Magazine article Newsweek

Scenic Overlooks: Frederick Law Olmsted's Landscapes Have Taught Us How to Think about Nature for 100 Years

Magazine article Newsweek

Scenic Overlooks: Frederick Law Olmsted's Landscapes Have Taught Us How to Think about Nature for 100 Years

Article excerpt

Frederick Law Olmsted's landscapes have taught us how to think about nature for 100 years

IF A NOVELIST MADE UP A CHARACTER like Frederick Law Olmsted, no one would believe it. One of those aimless young men of promise who never finish what they start, Olmsted was a 36-year-old farmer on Staten Island, N.Y., when his blueprint for Central Park, designed in collaboration with the architect Calvert Vaux, won the city's competition for a design in 1858. Magically, inexplicably, the commission transformed him into a man of purpose obsessed with the democratic ideal of making nature accessible to all. Begin to catalog his works, and it sometimes seems that he invented more than Edison. A partial list of his designs would include Central Park and Prospect Park in New York, the Niagara Reserve, Jackson Park in Chicago, the Druid Hills subdivision in Atlanta, the Biltmore Estate in North Carolina, Mountain View Cemetery in Oakland, Calif., and the U.S. Capitol grounds. Olmsted not only designed the nation's most famous public spaces, he introduced America to the whole idea of public parks--before Olmsted, Americans used graveyards for greenspace. You might say that Americans--city folk in particular--take their idea of nature from Olmsted.

The danger, of course, lies in taking his work for granted. Visitors to Central Park are often surprised to learn that it is not natural landscape but was completely man-made by workers who moved nearly 5 million cubic yards of stone, earth and topsoil and planted more than 500,000 trees, shrubs and vines. …

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