Tuesday, September 9, 2008

What would Olmsted do?

Once again we have been reminded about the staggering import of the work of F.L.Olmsted, his sons and the landscape architecture firm he established and ran from his home and workshop here in Brookline. Luckily for us, Olmsted's handiwork is abundantly present in our own environment. On Sunday, September 7th the National Park Service and the Organization of American Historians hosted a stimulating panel discussion at the Arnold Arboretum featuring four scholars: Charles Beveridge, Editor of the Olmsted Papers Project; Ethan Carr, Landscape Historian, University of Virginia; Alexander Garvin; Architect and Planner, Yale University and Delores Hayden, Urban Historian and Architect, Yale University.

Their charge had been to discuss ways to better utilize the vast archives of materials currently being cataloged as part of the Fairsted renovation project, as well as envision ways to engage the public both on and off site to engender a better understanding and appreciation for Olmsted's vision, values, skills, and perspective. They had many fascinating ideas. Not surprisingly, a rallying call was raised to digitize the plans and photos, etc. relating to all 6,000 projects. Ethan Carr suggested a Wiki style gathering of feedback on all those projects whose fate or status remain unknown.

Charles Beveridge spoke eloquently about the shear genius of Olmsted's talents. How his attention to detail and understanding of human perception, psychology, everyday life, patterns of behavior and their relation to landscape and spatial relationships all coalesced to help him create not landscapes but rather forms that built a structure for the life of the city to fill in around them. Olmsted's designs incorporate a deep understanding of what humans find beautiful in nature and offer a variety of experiences and views, paced at a perfect rhythm. Even just one of his well thought out ideas, such as the separation of modes when designing pathways, still have lessons for us today.

Delores Hayden wanted to give visitors to Fairsted an understanding that this was the "Place where their place was created" A kind of Meta understanding. Could the site somehow communicate the transformation that occurred as Olmsted's parks were being built? An era that saw our cities go from crowded, dirty, fetid places to more spread out and breathable habitats. Could we explain the massive and cascading impact on the development of the American landscape and our suburbs that Olmsted had. What was the actual site work like while the parks were being created? The hundreds and hundreds of men with shovels it took to move the earth. How about the technologies of the office. The hand drawing and model building, the pace of life, the hand correspondence. All evoke the cultural gestalt and bring to life the realities of Olmsted's achievements.

But Delores really grabbed my imagination when she raised the challenge of finding ways to interpret and communicate Olmsted's work in both the political and social context of its day and to encourage visitors to consider how current day political attitudes and realities differ. What do these differences say about us as a people and our views about public benefit vs. private gain? While there seems to be universal admiration, gratitude and enjoyment of Olmsted's parks, why is it so hard to make public investments today?

Ethan Carr spoke about Olmsted's ideological legacy and also called for interpretation. Our modern world is much more crowded. It is not necessarily a given that green space or access to nature is a necessity. Is there a "Public" for which to speak and plan for in the same way it was conceived of in Olmsted's time? He opined that government could no longer be counted on to provide parks or maintain them, thus the rise of multitudinous "Friends of " groups and stellar groups like the Central Park Conservancy.

There seems to be a lack of understanding in the fact that, when done well, public projects such as parks, civic spaces, public transportation, art, infrastructure, civic buildings of grand eloquence, and a cohesive well designed public realm, elevate the culture, spirit, energy and economy of the entire enterprise of the city. Despite the fact that over and over again we see the beneficial effects, in both direct (escalating property values near new transit lines or parks, etc.) and less direct ways (increased cultural activities, in-migration of young new talent, attraction of more creative property developers and employers, etc.).

Coincidentally enough, an intriguing article appeared in the Ideas section of Sunday's Boston Globe, entitled "Growth Factor: How Big Government Helps the Economy Take Off". A carefully documented presentation of the evidence that, despite the commonly held belief to the contrary, the size of government and high taxes do not slow a nation's economic growth. In depth study of other rich, high-tax countries revealed a higher standard of living as well as robust and growing economies. A cursory reflection on our health care crisis and lack of affordable day care to take two items will illustrate why this might be so. In fact, the article states that, "contrary to the romantic claims about the nation's laissez-faire past, American history is a story of government intervening, time and again, to support growth." But I digress.

After the panelists made their presentations members of the audience were invited to respond, making comments or asking questions. A lively flow of ideas followed. When I spoke, I first described my personal experience of being a researcher at the archives and what a thrill it was to view the actual plans in the very place they were created by the Olmsted firm. The totality of the experience was truly awe inspiring. It was a privilege. Then, I stated my interest in the challenge of interpreting Olmsted's legacy in a wider context of landscape history and planning, politics and public policy. I suggested that as we face planning and design questions we should ask ourselves, "What would Olmsted do?"

I am quite sure that his thinking would have evolved and he would have new and ingenious solutions to the modern concerns of climate change and non-renewable energy dependence. Of course we can't really know what he would do today, it's a bit like speculating on what Jimi Hendrix's music might sound like today had he lived. We know it would have been original and musical, but what would it sound like?

I do know that had Olmsted not grown disillusioned or cynical, he would still believe in the benefits of access to nature and the cultural benefits of public gathering places. He would have advanced his thinking in terms of environmentally sensitive site design. Transportation would have become more of an issue. The devastating environmental, social, health and economic impacts of suburban sprawl were not something Olmsted foresaw. How would his designs have evolved to adapt? His was a holistic perspective and I am sure he would have sought ways to engender life that better integrated people with their environment and each other along with ways to meet their daily mobility needs without automobile dependency.

In the current era, public investment for the civitas is made evident in those places that respond to the challenge of climate change by adopting innovative policies to encourage/mandate energy efficient building and design, alternative transportation, support for renewable energy, etc. will be the places that prosper. It is a feedback mechanism. These types of initiatives insure the ability to adapt and survive into the future and offer a roost for those looking for an optimistic place to pursue their own contribution to society.

To begin the process of interpretation of the archives, I asked the panelists if Olmsted every expressed concern or dissatisfaction with the shift of his work from large scale public projects to wealthy private estates. Their answers differed. Charles Beveridge talked about the purity of Olmsted's design objectives and his belief that they were worth doing as examples of "good design and techniques" for their illustrative status which could be adapted and copied by homeowners across the country. Delores Hayden said that Olmsted definitely had regrets and was greatly concerned about the shift in focus of his work, preferring instead to see a broader public have access to the product of his efforts.

In speaking to Delores Hayden afterwards, I was able to convey my admiration for her work to her. She told me she wanted to get a tee-shirt that said "What would Olmsted do?"

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