As we prepare to vote here in the United States next week, it certainly feels like the country is the most divisive and divided it’s ever been. But there was an even darker time in our history, during the run up to and following the Civil War. I live on Sumner Street, named for a Massachusetts Senator, who was nearly bludgeoned to death at the Capitol, by a member of the House, after a rather fiery abolitionist speech. Post civil war healing and recovery is incredibly challenging work for any nation. Some may argue we never really finished it. However, dark times can spark ideas and inspiration.
Leading up to the war, Frederick Law Olmsted was a political reporter covering the slave states of the South for the New York Daily Times. He also experienced the “brutish and fractured” frontier societies of the American West. He wrote several books about his experiences. But he also had a “side gig” helping with the design and development of Central Park. After the war, he turned his attention full-time to landscape design with a vision that “universal access to nature and beauty in designed landscapes would help elevate community health and in turn social discourse. He was guided by the belief that public spaces should be accessible and inclusive. He believed public parks would serve as a democratizing force, bringing many communities together to forge a new American society.”
Olmsted went on to introduce and design some of the most iconic public parks in cities and states around the US and is considered the founding father of landscape architecture. Forty-seven out of fifty states have an Olmsted firm-designed property. In addition to Central Park, they include Prospect Park, the Emerald Necklace in Boston (a series of parks that include the Common and Public Garden) and the parks of Louisville, Rochester, Milwaukee, and Buffalo. There are 37 Olmsted parks in Seattle alone. He designed the campuses for several University of California campuses. He did the grounds for the US Capitol. He was instrumental in the creation of the National Park Service and even did the initial report on Yosemite.
The guiding theory behind his work is “communitiveness” or the role that landscape architecture could play in improving the human condition. According to Olmsted Now, his philosophy was that communitiveness required persons “to serve others and to be served by others in the most intimate, complete and extended degree imaginable.” In pursuit of communitiveness, a landscape was not just beautiful, it was essential. Parks and open space allowed beleaguered city dwellers to be restored so that they might devote themselves to the welfare of others. Parks contributed to mental and physical health, and by doing so, helped to develop the web of connections that make community possible. They were, said Olmsted, “the most valuable of all possible forms of public places.”
Sadly, parks have been neglected financially over the past 15 years, particularly at the state and local level. The Report Card for America’s Infrastructure, from the American Society for Civil Engineers, cites a $5.6B deferred maintenance backlog at the state level and a staggering $60B at the local level. Spending on state parks has fallen $500M since 2008, let alone kept up with inflation. At the federal level, funding gaps were large, although recently the bipartisan Outdoor Recreation Act has allocated more funding to the National Park Service. But overall funding is still well below what’s needed just for maintenance and repair. Access to parks also varies widely. Only slightly more than half of Americans in the top 100 urban areas have a 10 minute or less walk to a park. They are less prevalent in lower income city neighborhoods, but those with the least access are people in new suburbs and exurbs.
If we believe that part of what healed us, physically and emotionally after the civil war, was the creation of natural, common places, where people of all backgrounds could come together for fresh air, exercise, and community, we should reconsider the role of the park in healing us now. If there is a neglected park in your town, press officials to fund better maintenance. Join one of the many citizen committee’s sprouting up to raise funds for parks. Encourage the development of new parks and community gardens, especially in congested areas devoid of green space or suburban developments. Join a conservation organization that encourages public use of their property.
Most importantly, go visit the parks around you. It is good for your heart, your soul, and can be part of the work needed to bring your own community back together.
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