Chances are, if you’ve been to a popular US park, Frederick Law Olmsted and his family had a hand in designing it. Olmsted was a pioneer of public green spaces across North America and his legacy lives on today—even in some Birmingham parks! Keep reading for more on his life’s work.
Allow me to introduce you
This year marks the 200th anniversary of Olmsted’s birth. To celebrate, Olmsted 200 is partnering up with organizations across the country to host events honoring his life and legacy.
On Feb. 16th, historian, filmmaker and Portland, OR native Laurence Cotton came to the Birmingham Botanical Gardens to share the work of Olmsted and his family with us.
In the lecture, Cotton highlighted many places that Olmsted designed including:
- Central Park, NYC, NY
- Prospect Park, Brooklyn, NY
- Emerald Necklace, Boston, MA
- Jackson Park, Chicago, IL
- US Capitol Grounds, Washington DC
- Niagra Falls State Park, Niagra Falls, NY
…and much more. As if being a visionary for famous US greenspaces isn’t impressive enough, Olmsted had many different fascinating roles in his career.
Cotton revealed that in 1843, Olmsted was an apprentice seaman, sailing across the Indian Ocean to deliver dry goods for trade. Shortly after, in 1845, he began his journey pursuing scientific farming as a profession.
For years, he traveled to many different farms, studying several types of agriculture and farming techniques, which he later used to help him design drainage systems for his parks.
Later, he would go on to write and publish many works, including several books and even a brief stint as a special correspondent for the New York Daily Times—now known as the New York Times—to report on the system of slavery in the south.
According to Cotton, Olmsted’s writings inspired many famous visionaries, including Malcolm X and even Charles Darwin.
It’s all in the family
In his lecture, Cotton showed that for the Olmsted’s, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Olmsted’s sons Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. and John Charles Olmsted went on to form The Olmsted Brothers firm, where they designed an astounding number of projects themselves.
The brother’s imprint on North America comes out to 700 parks and 6000 commissions including:
- Entire park systems for Cleveland, Portland and Seattle
- Piedmont Park, Atlanta GA
- projects in Acadia, Everglades, Great Smoky Mountains and Yosemite National Parks
- National Mall and Jefferson Memorial in Washington DC
and much more. They also designed the Essex County Park system in New Jersey, which is rumored to be the inspiration for their Birmingham park system plan!
A park system for Birmingham
In the presentation, Cotton illustrated the Olmsted vision, in which parks would be within walking distance of all city dwellers, since they have such a positive impact on people’s physical and mental health.
That vision certainly succeeded in Birmingham. Their plan included a civic center that would be surrounded by major public buildings, parkways and large parks. They also wanted to protect waterways and develop projects along Birmingham’s valleys.
“Sometimes, you don’t even know that you’ve been experiencing an Olmsted park. If you think of those little experiences multiplied over thousands of parks, this really is a huge impact on the human experience in America.”Laurence Cotton
Learn more + support
The fact that even after hundreds of years, the work of Olmsted and his family remains intact, admired and constantly evolving, is astonishing.
If you’re interested in learning more about Olmsted, there are plenty of local resources to dive into.
The Birmingham Historical Society along with Marjorie White published several works on Olmsted’s life + legacy, including The Olmsted Vision: Parks for Birmingham, Hand Down Unharmed: Olmsted Files on Birmingham Parks, 1920-1925 and A Park System for Birmingham.
Cotton was a consulting producer on the PBS film, Frederick Law Olmsted: Designing America, which has the Historical Society’s stamp of approval as an excellent resource on Olmsted’s work.
Both presentations of “Celebrating Olmsted” were fully booked ahead of time. To stay updated and reserve your spot at future events like this one, visit the Birmingham Botanical Gardens website and follow them on Facebook.
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