Frederick Law Olmsted was one of the great creative figures of America, and his masterpieces are to be found not on the walls of museums but in the open air, in the public spaces he designed to provide “a specimen of God’s handiwork” for the whole population: New York’s Central Park, Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, Boston’s Emerald Necklace, and many other projects that brought a wholly new vision to urban planning, dedicated to encouraging “that which is most apt to be lost or to become diseased and debilitated among the dwellers in towns.” He was a man of extraordinary energies and wide-ranging concerns, with the fighting spirit to go up against forces of compromise and corruption; a reporter who traveled through the antebellum South to investigate the effects of slavery on economic conditions; an active participant in the Civil War as executive secretary of the United State Sanitary Commission; a campaigner for establishing national reservations at Niagara Falls and Yosemite. Summing up his concerns, he wrote: “The test of prosperity is advance in civilization; the test of civilization is delicacy. The test of delicacy in civilized progress, I may add, is whatever shows ability to finely see truth and to follow it in an exact way.”
Instructions to Central Park Gardeners (1872)Frederick Law Olmsted
It is not simply to give the people of the city an opportunity for getting fresh air and exercise; if it were it could have been maintained by other means than those to be provided on the park at much less cost. It is not simply to make a place of amusement or for the gratification of curiosity or for gaining knowledge. The main object and justification is simply to produce a certain influence on the minds of people and through this to make life in the city healthier and happier. The character of this influence is a poetic one and it is to be produced by means of scenes through observation of which the mind may be more or less lifted out of moods and habits into which it is, under the ordinary conditions of life in the city, likely to fall.