The urban parks designed and built by Frederick Law Olmsted and his firm were described as the “lungs of the city” and as “public pleasure grounds.” Olmsted completed Central Park, his first project, in 1873, having begun it in 1857. One of his last park designs was Jackson Park in Chicago, which was constructed in 1893 for the Columbian Exposition. Although he began his landscape design career in the Victorian Era, he prefigured the Progressive Era through his concern for the welfare of the common man.
Because public transportation to rural areas was limited and because American cities of the increasingly industrial 19th century were dirty and crowded, it was difficult for urban dwellers to get to the countryside and experience the recuperative effects of being in the natural landscape. So Olmsted simulated natural landscapes in the city.
Olmsted’s first design, Central Park, is a mixture of formal and natural landscapes. Through his career Olmsted used fewer and fewer built structures in his designs and fewer formal features of any kind. In the latter part of this career he was essentially re-creating a pastoral landscape, a sort of Romantic vision of the countryside rather than an actual copy of Nature.
His trees were carefully spaced and his vistas carefully aimed. Each bend in a walking path or a road was intentional placed to created a series of new views for the pedestrian or carriage rider.
Olmsted used a mixture of native and exotic species to vegetate his landscapes. Some areas, like the Ramble in Central Park, are nearly all native species, but if he wished to get a particular effect with foliage color or texture, Olmsted would plant non-native species.
In the selection of plants … Olmsted generally called for “American trees of the stateliest character” and a liberal use of native shrubs. An examination of the lists he compiled for the [Central Park] commissioners, however, demonstrates a willingness to use whatever plant he thought would achieve a particular effect rather than plants suited to particular soil conditions or found together in natural associations. (Robert E. Grese, Jens Jensen: Maker of Natural Parks and Gardens, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1992.)
Jensen was a popularizer of the so-called “prairie school” of landscape design, which was developed by O.C. Simonds in response to Frank Lloyd Wright’s invention of that school in architecture.
But his chief inspiration came from Frederick Law Olmsted, who with Calvert Vaux imported the English meadow garden style to New York in the 1850’s, creating Central Park, the first of the great urban natural areas.” (“Native Grounds,” Jim Robbins, New York Times, May 16, 2004).
While Olmsted, as he traveled more widely and experienced more ecosystems, incorporated more exotic plants into his designs as his career progressed, Jensen became increasing devoted to the use of native plants to the point where it began to cross over into a nativist ideology that was unpleasantly chauvinistic.
Olmsted, however, held to his original intention of broadening the lives of urban dwellers of modest means through the experience of landscape. In addition to being places to recreate and convalesce, Olmsted landscapes were places where the common man could appreciate the beauty, variety and even the majesty of plant life.
For generations of children right up to the present day Olmsted parks are their first experience of something like a natural setting. A century and a half after construction of Central Park began, it is still providing a place for New Yorkers to encounter life forms other than their own species and the odd pet. The urban forest of Central Park is home to over 200 species of birds (both resident and migratory) and a surprising number of mammals, including a couple of coyotes.