Olmsted's 200th... It's Complicated
As a New York native, Central Park was one of my favorite hangout spots. It was easy to get to and one of the few nature escapes I had.
Since falling in love with Connecticut, I didn’t find it surprising that the culprit behind the design of my favorite childhood spot was a Connecticut native, Frederick Olmsted, the Father of Landscape Architecture. I also didn’t find it surprising the complicated history behind what used to be my favorite childhood spot, Central Park.
Olmsted’s fingerprints are on projects that stretch from coast to coast, from our nation’s capital to our next door neighbor, Canada. Olmsted was born and buried in Hartford. He was a conservation activist, an artist, and a journalist.
Like many men of our nation’s history, Olmsted’s history and contributions are… complicated. Olmsted lived during the period of chattel slavery. Although he was “anti-slavery”, he was by no means an abolitionist. Not to mention the creation of Central Park involved the displacement of Seneca Village, a Black middle class community, by the New York City government. Olmsted also documented black burial grounds, headstones, and stories of enslaved people and abolitionists that have since been erased from our present history. Sara Zewde, Founder of Zewde Studios & Assistant Professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, explores this in the Cotton Kingdom, Now course.
Photo: Seneca Village from Map of Central Park by Viele 1856
Zewde retraced Olmsted steps from his 1861 book, Journeys and Explorations in the Cotton Kingdom, and notes, “...that the socio-economic conditions Olmsted witnessed remain persistent 165 years later, but the physical conditions have changed. The landscapes of slavery have been ‘recast, obscured, and erased.’” (Green)
Over the past few years in our advocacy as a Chapter, we have seen how the effects on the environment have had an impact on frontline communities. And although we are dealing with different nominal issues, they are still topically similar to what Olmsted witnessed and noted. Particularly for Connecticut and other states in the north, natural spaces and landscape have been used as a tool of segregation and access denial.
However, there are many ways in which our conversations as a Chapter can set a different precedent, particularly for our state. For example, our campaign to #SaveRemingtonWoods has the propensity to become a beacon; particularly because of the wood's history with Native People of this land, and the unique history of Bridgeport as a safe haven for freedmen and women. Remington Woods can be used as a legacy symbol; a rectified version of Central Park that does not displace its people but rather is stewarded by marginalized community members.
It is possible to glean and learn from the contributions of Olmsted in ways that center contrition and lament, followed by equity, wholeness, healing, and reconciliation. According to the National Association for Olmsted Parks, “ Olmsted believed that thoughtful landscape designs should:
(A) promote community;
(B) advance democracy;
(C) provide recreational opportunities in urban environments;
(D) nurture and invigorate public health; and
(E) encourage the development of livable communities.”
As far as design, he believed that there should be a focus on design that does not call attention to itself; design that works on the unconscious to produce relaxation; and utility or purpose over ornamentation, and has a minimal effect on the environment focused on ecological health, conservation and sustainability. He championed the thought that “restorative places that could help individuals be more inclined to “serve others and to be served by others” — what he called “communitiveness.” He believed that healthy civil societies bring people together. Additionally, he championed what we echo: that green spaces are the “lungs of the city,” offering spaces that could foster physical and mental well-being. With his influence, doctors in the 19th century began to prescribe “walks in the park” to promote faster recuperation for their patients.
As we look towards preserving Remington Woods, it has been important to recognize the harm that has been done to the communities (both humans and wildlife) that have benefited from its existence and have been harmed throughout the history of human ownership. We believe that this lines up with Olmsted’s vision. As we contemplate Olmsted’s history, contributions, and complications and grapple with how far we have come from his time and how we still strive to actualize his dream, let’s center on our 21st Olmsted challenge in our backyard, Fairfield County’s last lung, Remington Woods.
Jhoni Ada is Sierra Club Connecticut’s Community Outreach Coordinator on Save Remington Woods project in Bridgeport, along with other outreach and projects within the city and Fairfield County.
If you haven’t already, don’t forget to Sign The Petition To Save Remington Woods!