Wildflower is published quarterly by the Wildflower Center. Its content is national in scope with articles about the conservation and use of native plants as well as news from the Wildflower Center. A subscription is provided to Wildflower Center members as a benefit of membership.
The Face Of The Landscape by Katie Ford - Summer 2003
Many people who live in Manhattan view Central Park - 150 years old this year - as the best way to enjoy the serenity of the countryside without leaving the city limits. The park's winding, tree-lined paths and wide-open green spaces serve as an antidote to the rows of towering buildings, endless miles of concrete, and all things man-made.
The irony is that Central Park, from its leafy treetops down to its fertile soil, is entirely synthetic. Two men created the respite for the city weary: Calvert Vaux (1824-1895), an established architect, and Frederick Law Olmsted (1822-1903), a former civil servant and scientific farmer who these days is considered by many to be the founding father of landscape architecture.
Olmsted perhaps didn't realize it at the time, but his involvement with Central Park planted the seeds for his professional legacy in American landscape architecture. During his Civil War-era career, he designed and carried out more than 550 private and public green spaces, which included the campus at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif.; the Capitol Hill grounds in Washington, D.C.; Mount Royal in Montreal, Quebec; and the Vanderbilt family's palatial 120,000-acre Biltmore Estate in Asheville, N.C.
In Olmsted's time, around the dawning of the Industrial Age in America, the country's landscape was changing dramatically. On the East Coast and spreading westward, family farms transformed into commercial agricultural outfits, and businesses and factories sprung up where rolling pastures once flourished. Entrepreneurial spirits and ambitious laborers flocked to the newly formed metropolitan areas in droves, seeking opportunity and fortune.
As these centers of commerce grew, so did the congestion, making the cosmopolitan environments increasingly inhospitable for the people living there. For years, city planning had catered mostly to the needs of the industrialists; little thought had been given to making urban environments resident-friendly.
Out of this dilemma a city beautification movement was borne, and Olmsted found himself at the forefront. According to Dr. Frederick Steiner, dean of the School of Architecture at The University of Texas at Austin, Olmsted had a social agenda when it came to landscape design.
"It's what differentiated him from the landscape designers who came before him," Steiner says. "Cities like Boston, New York, and Philadelphia were getting very crowded with immigrants, and there was a lot of pollution. Olmsted saw urban parks and landscape architecture as ways to improve the lots of people, giving them a place to be outdoors. There were public parks before Olmsted came along, but he took it to another level."