April is World Landscape Architecture Month (WLAM). Established by the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), WLAM is a month-long international celebration of landscape architecture and designed public and private spaces. This year’s theme will be “Growing Together.” ASLA’s core vision statement is “healthy, beautiful, and resilient places for all.”
At Farmside Landscape & Design, we are committed to the continuing education and development of landscape professionals and the role landscaping and its design plays in serving individuals, businesses and their shared communities. We’re proud to share in this month’s celebration of Landscape Architecture.
The Connection Between Nature and Wellbeing
The idea that nature and its beauty play an important role in the health and wellbeing of people is one that reaches back centuries and throughout the world. Here in the U.S., Andrew Jackson Downing (October 31, 1815 – July 28, 1852), regarded as the founder of American Landscape architecture, was an American landscape designer, horticulturist, and writer as well as the editor of The Horticulturist magazine (1846–52).
Andrew Jackson Downing
As a boy, Downing worked in his father’s nursery in Newburgh, New York, where he developed his interest in landscape gardening and architecture. He started writing on botany and landscape gardening and educated himself on these subjects in great depth. In Downing’s philosophy, the pride people had in their country was connected to the pride they had in their own homes and that the look of these homes should be designed to embody their values, hopes and aspirations for prosperity, education and love of country. He believed:
“A good house will lead to a good civilization.”
“The individual home has a great value to a people.”
“There is a moral influence in a country home.”
“A good home will encourage its inhabitants to pursue a moral existence.”
Downing believed every American deserved a good home, so he created 3 basic design styles: villas for the wealthy, cottages for working people and farmhouses for farmers. He felt that Americans benefited from good taste and beautiful architecture. He held that country residences should blend in with the natural landscape, and that architecture should be both functional and beautiful. Downing considered landscape gardening and architecture to be an art, and in his Architecture of Country Houses, Downing wrote, “…in perfect architecture, no principle of utility will be sacrificed to beauty, only elevated and ennobled by it.”
Downing is credited with popularizing the front porch, which he saw as a link to nature. With the advent of the railroad, as people began moving from the city to the countryside, he felt the porch was a good way to encourage people to interact with their natural surroundings, which he believed had a healing effect on individuals and wanted all people to be able to experience its benefits.
Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux
As publisher of The Horticulturist magazine, Downing became both a friend and mentor to Frederick Law Olmsted (also credited with being the “Father of American Landscape Architecture”!). Downing introduced Olmsted to the English-born architect Calvert Vaux, whom Downing invited to the U.S. as his architectural collaborator. Vaux and Olmsted would eventually collaborate to enter – and win – a design competition for what would become New York City’s Central Park. Downing had been one of the first people to propose developing New York City’s Central Park, but a steamer accident in 1852 resulted in Downing’s early and untimely death.
The Creation of Central Park
Olmsted had a broad and varied career path, which led to his development of a rich collection of skills and insights garnered from his travels as a journalist. Vaux had been impressed with Olmsted’s theories and connections, and invited him to participate in the design competition for Central Park with him. This would be Olmsted’s first landscape design, known as The Greensward Plan.
The Greensward Plan incorporated a depth of research, foresight and scope that other submissions couldn’t come close to. Olmsted took into account the city’s robust population growth, and understood that if this area (what we now would call “green space”) wasn’t properly preserved, protected and thoughtfully developed for all of the city’s inhabitants to enjoy, it would soon be lost to business developers and the cost of the land too prohibitive to purchase for a park. Design specifications for competition submissions required that the plans include four transverse roads through the park to carry crosstown traffic. Greensward was the only plan to include these transverses below ground, preserving the integrity, beauty and cohesiveness of the park space, not slicing it into four unrelated segments.
Specifications also required a “Parade Ground” which Olmsted and Vaux uniquely envisioned as “…a great open common, a place where children may run about and play until they are tired, in nobody’s way and without danger of being run over or injured.” This was to become Central Park’s, Sheep Meadow. Sheep Meadow takes its name from the Southdown and Dorset sheep that were kept there from 1864 to 1934. Olmsted and Vaux believed that the sheep enhanced the Romantic English quality of the park and served a practical purpose as well, trimming the grass and fertilizing the lawn.
Greensward was visionary in its focus, noting that all buildings be of “modest dimensions, entirely subordinate to the main idea” of creating beautiful scenery. The border plantings, sunken transverses and open green area enabled Olmsted and Vaux to focus on the park’s landscape, including a carefully structured “circulation system” for pedestrians, riders and carriages that would allow those using one mode of moving through the park to enjoy its scenery without interfering with the views of others, including winding pathways that ensured a picturesque view was always in front of the park’s inhabitants as they moved through it.
Landscape Architecture and Urban Planning
Olmsted’s talent for landscape architecture was recognized and evidenced by the sheer volume of prestigious commissions he was granted. Olmsted’s friend and architect colleague, Daniel Burnham said of Olmsted, “An artist, he paints with lakes and wooded slopes; with lawns and banks and forest-covered hills; with mountainsides and ocean views…” His work set a standard of excellence that grew throughout the United States. His signature style of well-designed parks with large amounts of green spaces around city buildings became a standard.
In 1865, Vaux and Olmsted formed Olmsted, Vaux & Co. Landscape Architects, “…for the business of furnishing advice on all matters of location and designs and superintendence for buildings and grounds and other architectural and engineering works, including the laying-out of towns, villages, parks, cemeteries and gardens.”
Olmsted created numerous city parks around the country while also conceiving of entire systems of parks and interconnecting parkways to connect certain cities to green spaces. In 1883, Olmsted established what is considered to be the first full-time landscape architecture firm in Brookline, Massachusetts, known as Fairsted, and in 1899 founded the American Society of Landscape Architects in New York. In 1902, Urban Planning became its own degree program apart from Landscape Architecture, however, Landscape Architecture still plays a large role in both Urban Design and Planning.
After Olmsted’s retirement and death, his sons John Charles Olmsted and Frederick Law Olmsted Jr., continued the firm’s work, doing business as the Olmsted Brothers, which lasted until 1980. In New Jersey, you can find the Olmsted Brothers’ works in the Essex County Parks system (the first park system established in the United States), Fairleigh Dickinson University, Lawrenceville School, North Princeton Developmental Center, Grover Cleveland Park, High Point Park, Memorial Park, and the Union County Park system.