"An artist, he paints with lakes and wooded slopes; with lawns and banks and forest covered hills; with mountain sides and ocean views," wrote Frederick Law Olmsted's friend and colleague Daniel Burnham in 1893. Olmsted and his firm Fairsted (pictured at right) were also responsible for designing huge open spaces in places like Chicago, Buffalo and Atlanta.
Although the first "public" open space in the New World would technically have to be the Boston Common, from 1634, Olmsted believed that green spaces should be public, and that everyone should have access to them. This may not seem so unusual to some of you, but to those of us who struggle to garden in the highly industrialized Northeast, or the smoggy West coast, having public gardens to enjoy from time to time keeps us all more sane. Having them look wild and natural without actually being totally impenetrable is an added gift Olmsted left us.
While Olmsted hired gardeners to work for him, he did not think of himself as a gardener. He considered himself an architect, using the outdoors instead of buildings, and was the first to call himself a professional "landscape architect". Many, if not most of the areas he worked with in Boston were previously considered unsuitable for human habitation. Marshy areas, called 'fens', were unbearably humid and muggy in the summer, as well as filled with mosquitos and the diseases they carried. Sometimes open sewage ran in the streets. [Interestingly, the word FENS is an English or Welsh word, from which we in Boston get our beloved Fenway Park!]
The visionary Olmsted filled in the Boston fens, creating sloping grass-lined boulevards through them. Thinking on a huge scale, Olmsted connected a series of small and large parks, one large pond and Harvard's Arnold Arboretum with green parkways, most including areas for vehicular traffic as well as pedestrians. The resulting park system spans 1,000 acres - in the middle of a city - starting at the Boston Common and ending at the Franklin Park Zoo.
Controversy exists today. While cleaning up and filling in the brackish unhealthy fens, Olmsted did destroy native wetlands. Still, in the 19th century, Olmsted was progressive even to think of the common person's need for open space in crowded cities. If he had not replaced boggy unhealthy areas with beautiful public gardens and parks, someone else would surely have stepped in with apartment buildings and shopping centers.
Boston's Emerald Necklace is truly one of our jewels. People from all walks of life encounter one another on its parks and paths. Every day, I drive past the field where my daughter attempted (unsuccessfully) to learn soccer as a four year old; at seventeen, she still treasures the tiny T-shirt. Nearby, adults practice Tai Chi in slow, graceful movements.
There is a "Lantern Walk" around Jamaica Pond every year on a Sunday night before Halloween. While local bands play world music and street vendors sell snacks, the area's children make lanterns from recycled soda bottles decorated with tissue paper and stickers. With adult help, they put a candle inside, hang their lantern from a wire coat hanger, and carry it on a stick. It sounds precarious and dangerous but the worst that happens is that the candle blows out and the best - oh! the best is when families parade around the mile-and-a-half long pond with their lanterns, so that the whole pond lights up with a ring of lanterns bobbing all the way around! Olmsted's necklace shimmers every day, but its gems glow particularly brightly that night.
For more information about Frederick Law Olmsted and Boston's Emerald Necklace, please contact The Emerald Necklace Conservancy at emeraldnecklace.org. They graciously allowed me to use photos from their archives, for which I thank them.