Olmsted's Parks for the People

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IT'S hard to imagine our great cities without great parks. San Francisco without Golden Gate Park. New York without Central Park. Chicago without Lincoln Park. All designed by one man, Frederick Law Olmsted who, although credited with being the father of landscape architecture, knew little about design before he was commissioned to do Central Park. Olmsted, a traveler, writer, farmer, and social critic, was a man of vision who saw great parks as both democratizing and humanizing. Of Central Park he said, ``It is of great importance as the first real park made in this country - a democratic development of the highest significance and on the success of which, in my opinion, much of the progress of art and esthetic culture in this country is dependent.''

Brooklyn's Prospect Park, Philadelphia's Fairmount Park, the campus at the University of California at Berkeley, the Boston Common, the Washington Mall, and the US Capitol grounds - all were designed by Olmsted who defended his use of the word architecture in landscape design by citing no less an authority than Milton: ``Did not Milton use the word architecture for the working out of the divine design for the heavens? Architecture is not rightly to be limited to works of buildings.''

As a child, I was taken often to one of Olmsted's most beautiful creations, Belle Isle, an island park in the Detroit River. Growing up I played baseball there and listened to performances of the Detroit Symphony. Years later, I spent part of every day in another of Olmsted's parks - Lake Park in Milwaukee, Wis.

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Long before I knew the name of the designer, I loved Lake Park as an expression of imagination and intelligence in landscape design. No matter where I stood in the park the designer's signature was readable. I could see how he wanted me to look at Lake Michigan from different angles; how he wanted to make sure I saw the way the roads transecting the high lake bluffs seemed to spill down as if following the outwash of a ravine; or how, looking into a small wooded section I would feel on the edge of a dense copse.

Here was landscape design - nature tamed, methodized - that spoke of the philanthropy, in the best sense of that word, of the park's designer. Design that was full of messages from the designer to me and others about his understanding of the needs of the human spirit. Design that said something about the designer's feeling about that larger nature that lay beyond the confines of parks and cities. It was a place that invited recreation, contemplation, meditation; a place to feel harmony - even transcendence.

And I learned a lot of natural history there. One summer I identified over 25 species of edible plants. Dozens of birds lived there, countless others passed through. The mammal inhabitants included an occasional deer that had wandered in along one of the corridors of movement created by the network of county parks that flowed with the waterways through town.

There are nice parks in Tucson, Ariz., my adopted city, parks with names that memorialize the past or dedicate to the future places of great beauty - Fort Lowell, Sentinel Peak, Agua Caliente. But too often in the West, parks, and the cities that contain them, are dismissed as outside nature, fenced-in places suitable only for church socials and softball games, never for celebrating the outdoor life, for being in nature.

So it's heartbreaking to think of the parks that could have been, parks grand enough in concept to fit Olmsted's definition: ``I reserve the word park for places with breadth and space enough, and with all other needed qualities to justify the application to what you find in them of the word scenery, or of the word landscape in its older and more radical sense, which is much the same as that of scenery.''

And to think of the parkways and greenbelts that could have followed the banks of our rivers, the Santa Cruz and the Rillito, once perennial waterways meandering through galleries of cottonwoods, fed by creeks and drainages flowing down out of the surrounding mountains.

Places supporting not only the flow of water but also the flow of life, so that in our backyards, so to speak, we could keep company with deer, javelina, and coyote as they moved among us through halls of green. Places providing protective cover for birds and small mammals, and water for fish; places for wildflowers, and trees, and shade, and quiet - buffers, physically and psychologically, against steel and bricks, pavement and exhaust fumes, noise and haste.

Perennial water will never again flow in our rivers; nor is it likely that we can reclaim those parts of the Tucson basin lost to development. But it's possible to work with what's left.

To do so requires that we stop writing off city nature and city wildlife as inferior to nature and wildlife elsewhere.

I vote for more parks, arboretums, preserves, green belts, conservancies, buffer zones, linear parkways, herbariums, botanical gardens - whatever name anybody wants to give urban natural settings. I've learned a lot about nature in city parks, as much as I've learned on mountaintops or in wilderness forests - maybe more.

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