Laura Solano, FASLA, principal at Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates is a self-professed “Olmsted geek.” She moderated the latest conversation organized by Olmsted 200, with three of the Landscape Architecture Foundation’s Olmsted scholars, who explained what Frederick Law Olmsted, the founder of the profession of landscape architecture, can offer the field today.
Over her forty years of practicing landscape architecture, Solano has continuously looked at Olmsted’s works and writings for inspiration.
Olmsted “believed that landscape architects don’t make nature, but provide the circumstances for nature to take hold. He viewed landscapes as therefore enduring and endurable.”
Some of his other key principles:
- Landscapes are “interconnected constructed natural systems that must work on multiple levels.”
- Nature is democratic. Given the opportunity, it will find space in cities to thrive and therefore urban nature can be restored.
- Landscape architecture is a “public health intervention.”
Solano invited Anjelyque Easley DeLuca, a landscape architect and planner based in greater Pittsburgh, to explain her approach and how it relates to Olmsted.
“I look at the layers of the landscape from the ground up,” she said, observing how people use the space, where vegetation grows, how wildlife lives on the land. She explores the connections between human and ecological systems. “Olmsted knew that people share the landscape and we can create interactions with nature.”
Bryce Donner, Student Affil. ASLA, a landscape architect and graduate student at the University of Florida, also approaches landscape as systems, like Olmsted did.
“Landscape architecture is about bringing together systems — hydrology, geology, wildlife, and people. Even a 1,500 square foot garden is an opportunity to reconnect with larger systems and support the food web, which is the infrastructure we all rely on.”
Donner starts every project with a series of questions in order to understand the systems at work in a landscape: “What would happen if we did nothing? What would happen to the people, animals, water, and plants? Where would the water go?”
Solano said Olmsted’s genius is he understood the underlying systems of landscape as well — engineering and drainage. “So much is hidden in landscape architecture.”
Olmsted also designed and advocated for democratic public spaces — places where “all classes and creeds could see and be seen,” Solano argued.
But since then, “landscape architects have made some mistakes. They haven’t created landscapes with a sense of place that appeals to entire communities.” To overcome past errors, how can landscape architects recognize people who have been erased and forgotten?
Jorge “Coco” Alarcon, a Peruvian landscape architect and architect pursuing a Ph.D in public health at the University of Washington, said that participatory design processes are key. “There is not a recipe for doing this. The approach needs to be customized for each community.”
For example, with indigenous communities in the Peruvian Amazon, Alarcon found typical planning and design workshops don’t work. “You don’t get straight answers.” Instead, encouraging communities to draw their ideas has yielded more meaningful participation.
This is about “meeting people where they are,” Solano said.
As she researched post-enslaved Black communities and post-WWII Jewish landscapes and communities, Easley DeLuca has learned to listen in order to empower communities.
“I am interested in finding out what happened, the whole story, and how that is reflected in the design of landscapes. It’s important to speak with people instead of at them, seeing how they react to sharing information that will provide you, the designer, with personal benefits, which may eventually provide them with benefits.”
Many of the sites she visited throughout Europe now recognize past atrocities. There are often contemporary markers for the Jewish cemeteries that were destroyed. But she said the same recognition hasn’t happened for Black cemeteries and other important sites in the US, which in too many communities have been paved over and forgotten.
“Preserving Black cemeteries is about who has the right to the land and telling stories. Olmsted was also interested in telling stories through the landscape by either visual means or a mixture of elements that guide interaction with spaces.”
Olmsted also believed parks and green spaces were critical to public health. He understood the physical and mental health benefits of nature. His values were never more important that during the pandemic, Solano argued.
He may have been influenced by psychologist William James, a contemporary who came up with the concept of “soft fascination,” which is what humans experience in nature, a kind of indirect, non-taxing form of attention. This fascination allows the mind to wander in a way that restores our cognition and mood. “That was unfortunately lost in the pandemic, as we were frightened and stayed indoors.”
During the pandemic, public space became even more crucial to a “healthy body, mind, and soul,” Donner said. “Landscapes provided the ability to say to hi to someone you know safely. Parks and playgrounds allowed interaction or to go solo. They were critical to maintaining spiritual, mental, and physical health and well-being.”
For many communities, landscape also provided more than physical and mental health benefits but also a means of survival. Alarcon noted that during the height of the pandemic, when transportation systems and markets ceased to function, rural Peruvian communities he partnered with increased production of food through their gardens. This enabled them to trade or buy other food.
Another Amazonian community used large gazebos they co-designed with architects and landscape architects as Covid-safe meeting spaces to share health information. “Landscapes became a platform for mediating issues. They were never more important.”
Lastly, Solano asked: What can young designers learn from Olmsted today?
For Easley DeLuca, Olmsted teaches the importance of “being observant. You are not the only person interacting with a landscape; hundreds or thousands are. It’s important to verbalize what you are seeing to discover if others have the same opinions or interests.”
“Olmsted saw landscapes as an entire system.” Applying this approach is “what makes someone a landscape architect,” Donner argued.
“Olmsted teaches you that zooming in and zooming out are both necessary. Zooming out is needed even more these days” to understand the broader social systems that shape a landscape, Alarcon said.