Frederick Law Olmsted and the Nature of Sustainable Communities


Ed Lyons
n Boston, Olmsted's design for the Back Bay Fens turned a threat to public health into a park of refreshing beauty.

In the mid 19th century, many Americans began to fear that modern civilization might not be sustainable. They were not worried about climate change or nuclear war or species loss. Instead, they debated whether the United States could thrive as an urban nation. The explosive growth of cities in the 19th century was unprecedented—a vast experiment—and, no one knew whether the modern metropolis would become a shining achievement or a polluted, socially divided, ungovernable disaster. As The Nation argued in 1866, “The immense proportions which great cities are assuming in all civilized countries promises to make the arrangement and management of them the most important of all the problems of social science. It is a problem, too, which the experience of mankind offers little or no help in solving.”

This concern about the future of the metropolis is strikingly similar to the challenge of sustainability today. Like the predicaments of our time, the problem of the city was multi-faceted. It was partly an environmental issue, but it also was a social issue, an economic issue, a political issue, and a moral issue. The complexity of the problem often seemed overwhelming.  How did 19th-century Americans respond?

Frederick Law Olmsted did more than anyone to make American cities livable in the 19th century, and we can learn much about sustainability by reexamining Olmsted’s career. Though now known primarily as a designer of urban green spaces, Olmsted was much more than a landscape architect. Indeed, he did not focus on landscape architecture until he was in his forties. Even then, in the 1860s, Olmsted refused to define himself as a park maker.  He was a writer, a social reformer, and a pioneer in the field of management. He thought deeply about the pressing issues of his day.

Before the Civil War, Olmsted traveled to the South to report on the effects of slavery on southern society, and his reports caused a sensation. During the war, he ran the U.S. Sanitary Commission, which labored to care for the wounded and to prevent illness in military camps. The commission helped to inspire both the Red Cross and the first government public health agencies. He then moved to California to manage a vast mining estate.  There, he directed a state commission to decide the future of Yosemite. The rawness of life in the West led him to write about the relationship between “barbarism” and “civilization” in American history. He helped to found The Nation in the hope of nurturing a new kind of politics. He was nominated for vice-president by a faction of liberal reformers who had defected from the Republican Party, though he declined the nomination. The nomination acknowledged Olmsted’s reputation as a manager: in addition to directing the sanitary commission and the Mariposa mining company, he had supervised the construction of New York’s Central Park, which was one of the great public-works projects of the age. In all his administrative positions, Olmsted had to deal with class and ethnic conflict.

Despite the many twists and turns of his professional life, Olmsted kept returning to one fundamental question: what are the requisites of a sustainable community? His early career allowed him to explore the workings of a community in various forms. At age 18, he joined the crew of a ship in the China trade, and his first published essay was a reflection on the tyrannical rule of the ship’s captain. His work as a writer and a manager allowed him to study the plantation system, the military, and the boomtowns of the frontier. He dealt with unions and political machines. While head of the sanitary commission, Olmsted surveyed the social background and attitudes of 7,500 Union soldiers. In the mid-1860s, despite the demands of a rapidly growing landscape architecture practice, he tried to write a magnum opus on the evolution of American society. Even after he abandoned that project, he continued to ponder the challenge of community building in a mobile, highly individualistic society.

New York Public Library
In Buffalo, Olmsted conceived a system of parks and parkways that tied the growing city together.

Olmsted’s thoughts about community were critical to his argument for urban parks. Though we now think of parks as amenities, Olmsted saw them as forces for social change. He predicted that parks would have a “harmonizing and refining influence” on the urban population. He argued that pastoral expanses were antidotes to the physical and mental poisons of modern life. He also suggested that the construction of parks would encourage a desperately needed expansion of municipal power. To be sure, parks did not accomplish all that Olmsted promised. In New York City, for example, many people refused to accept Olmsted’s gentlemanly conception of the proper uses of Central Park. But, Olmsted was more right than wrong about the transformative effect of parks. They remade the landscape, they changed urban politics, and they reshaped perceptions of the city.

In addition to designing parks, Olmsted worked in many other ways to protect and improve the environment. For several years in his 20s, he tried to become a model “scientific” farmer. He was convinced that the waste of resources could imperil society, and his writings on the South argued that slavery encouraged abuse of the land. His 1865 report on the future of Yosemite offered powerful and pioneering arguments for the preservation of natural scenery. He later drew on those arguments in a successful campaign to create a federal reserve at Niagara Falls—the first organized preservation effort in American history. In several ways, Olmsted promoted forest conservation, especially by persuading George Vanderbilt to make his Biltmore estate a showplace for scientific forestry. He worked to counter environmental threats to public health.  Far more than John Muir, Olmsted was the prototypical environmental reformer of this formative period. He was not interested in preserving nature for its own sake, and he never spoke about the “rights” of animals or plants. Like the vast majority of environmental reformers at the time, he sought to sustain the nation. He was concerned that the environmental consequences of urbanization, industrialization, and immigration threatened the nation’s material and moral well-being.

Olmsted’s work continues to inspire professionals keen on green cities. But, his relevance for our time goes beyond his ideas about landscape architecture. Because he appreciated the multi-faceted challenge of community building, his career draws attention to important questions that we have neglected.

Olmsted thought a lot, for example, about the importance of planning for the long term. Central Park was his favorite example. To protect the public’s investment, the park’s overseers needed to nurture plantings for years, foresee surrounding development, and plan for a growing population. Olmsted thought the key to farsightedness was entrusting decisions to broadly educated civil servants who could see beyond the next election. He himself served as superintendent of Central Park for more than a decade. He envisioned The Nation as a way to help the managerial elite to meet the increasingly technical demands of policy making. As mistrust of bureaucracy has become deeply rooted in the United States, Olmsted’s faith in far-seeing civil servants now goes against the grain. Yet, he was asking a critical question for anyone concerned about sustainability: how can democracies take the long view?

New York Public Library
With partner Calvert Vaux, Olmsted envisioned a park for New York City that would be a focal point for residents decades into the future. The site was far from “central” when construction began in 1858.

Olmsted also thought hard about the role of government in building enduring communities.  In the 1860s and 1870s, he challenged laissez-faire economics. His Yosemite report argued that government needed to prevent the wealthy from monopolizing the nation’s natural beauty. Unless government acted to keep scenic wonders “from the grasp of individuals,” he wrote, “all places favorable in scenery to the recreation of the mind and body will be closed against the great body of the people.” That would be as harmful to society as allowing “private appropriation” of the nation’s rivers. Olmsted also attacked laissez-faire policies in general terms. In a world of farms and small towns, he argued, people might believe that the best government governs the least, but that conviction did not square with “the facts of life” in an urban age. In the late 1870s, however, the corruption of Gilded Age politics led Olmsted to question the potential of government as a force for reform. Reluctantly, he concluded that he needed to follow a back-up plan. The great projects of Olmsted’s final years—the Biltmore estate and the White City grounds at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago—were efforts to change society without the help of government. In each case, Olmsted sought to model a better way of managing society. Olmsted thus grappled with a question that has become more pressing today: are private efforts sufficient to overcome the failures of the market?

Unlike many environmentalists today, Olmsted always acknowledged that society was divided into classes. As the Yosemite report made clear, he worried that the selfishness of the rich would destroy the foundations of community. He also worried that the working classes might drag society down. Accordingly, many of his arguments for parks were appeals to the haves to recognize that their future was tied to the condition of the have-nots. Though the upper classes could escape the ill effects of the city by summering in the country or moving to the suburbs, Olmsted argued that seeking escape was short-sighted; the well-to-do would not be able to sustain their comforts if they failed to lift up the lower classes. Again, that argument seems too patrician now. But, Olmsted was again asking a vital question: how can people of different classes come to feel that they have a shared future?

For Olmsted, the issue of class was tied to a fundamental question about the nature of place. Olmsted saw rootlessness, shiftlessness, and restlessness everywhere. The American dream was a dream of mobility. The creative destruction of capitalism also destabilized society. Even the oldest communities were not truly settled, Olmsted concluded, because the dynamism of cities ensured that the urban landscape changed constantly. Olmsted brilliantly expressed the impermanence of commercial civilization after his first visit to Chicago. “It seems useless to describe Chicago,” he wrote a friend. “What it was when I saw it, it will not be by the time this is read.” What could counter the unsettling flux of the modern world? Olmsted argued that parks could provide a sense of permanence in cities. Indeed, a well-designed park might seem eternal.  Olmsted also hoped that cultural institutions would tie people together. What else might root a community? That question still begs for good answers.

Ultimately, Olmsted pushes us to take a more capacious view of sustainability. Though the concept is rooted in concern about the fate of the earth, building a sustainable civilization requires much more than a new environmental ethic. Sustainability also cannot be solely the province of scientists and engineers. As Olmsted understood, the way forward requires fresh thinking about many subjects, including governance, political economy, and social relations.

Of course, no one can consider all the requisites of sustainability. Even Olmsted eventually focused on one field. But, Olmsted never lost sight of the prize. In a rapidly urbanizing world, the foundation of sustainability lay in healthy, prosperous, cohesive, well run, aesthetically pleasing, and emotionally fulfilling communities. That is even more true today.