Frederick Law Olmsted’s Iconic Green Spaces Are Under Threat

Though hundreds of parks designed by Frederick Law Olmsted are listed on the National Register of Historic Places, a new report published by the Cultural Landscape Foundation to commemorate his bicentennial spotlights a dozen of his landscapes throughout North America that face existential threats from the climate crisis and lack of human care.

Andrew Jackson Downing Memorial Park in Newburgh, NY. Photography by Barrett Doherty, courtesy of The Cultural Landscape Foundation

Frederick Law Olmsted is considered the father of landscape architecture in the United States, but his prestigious name doesn’t guarantee invincibility to the hundreds of parks nationwide that bear his design pedigree. Some of Olmsted’s most famous creations, such as Central Park and Prospect Park in New York City envisioned alongside partner Calvert Vaux, are landmarks that undergo meticulous preservation efforts to stay in pristine shape. Others are less fortunate and faced with existential threats such as damage from climate disasters, lack of maintenance, and new construction. 

These issues caught the eye of The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF), a nonprofit that raises awareness about threatened parks, gardens, and landscapes across the U.S. through its annual Landslide report. Given that 2022 marks the bicentennial of Olmsted’s birth, his work is a timely theme for this year’s report. The publication also encompasses endangered landscapes built by his son, Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., and his older half-brother John Charles Olmsted, who maintained a prolific family firm throughout the 20th century and played a key role in creating the nation’s first state parks system in California before the firm ultimately dissolved in 2000.

Big Basin Redwoods State Park in Santa Cruz County, CA. Photography by Alex Tabone, courtesy California State Parks

Most projects under the Olmsted name are success stories and beloved by the public—more than 200 are listed on the National Register of Historic Places or designated as National Historic Landmarks, and feature in Experiencing Olmsted (Timber Press), a new volume that chronicles how those green spaces came to life. Many others await rediscovery and revitalization, and TCLF’s report zeroes in on 12 such designs in particular. They range in scale from neighborhood parks—including Andrew Jackson Downing Park in Newburgh, New York, and Washington Park in Milwaukee—to expansive boulevards in Seattle and California. 

One of the biggest threats to Olmsted’s parklands involves climate change’s adverse effects, ranging from coastal erosion and drought to wildfires. High temperatures, for example, are stressing the tree canopy at Andrew Jackson Downing Memorial Park, leading to algae blooms that create low levels of dissolved oxygen and release toxins that can harm fish, birds, and people. Severe erosion caused by record rainfall is afflicting Deepdene Park in Atlanta and the Olmsted Woods at the Washington National Cathedral. Storm surges, meanwhile, have destroyed tree plantings in Florida’s City of Lake Wales.

Franklin Park in Boston, MA. Image: Sarah Nichols, courtesy of The Cultural Landscape Foundation

Other landscapes are at risk due to negligence and new development. Genesee Valley Park may lose acres of densely wooded land because the nearby University of Rochester wants to replace it with warehouses. Washington Park in Milwaukee and Andrew Jackson Downing Memorial Park are both suffering from overgrown vegetation, an aging tree canopy in decline, and degrading bodies of water. Pushing off maintenance in a park can accelerate the decline, whether by erosion, aggressive growth of invasive species, infestation, and crumbling pedestrian paths. 

“Landslide 2022 shows us that while the appreciation and value for Olmsted-design landscapes, in general, continues to increase, some landscapes have been less fortunate,” Charles A. Birnbaum, president of the Cultural Landscape Foundation, said in a statement. “Our intent with this report is to foster greater awareness and curiosity about this exceptional legacy, and to encourage a stronger shared responsibility for its future.” Given that Olmsted played a pivotal role in the conservation movement and the preservation of natural wonders like Niagara Falls and Yosemite, a critical look at his underappreciated gems seems long overdue.

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