Genius of Place: The Life of Frederick Law Olmsted

Reviewed by: Stephanie Sodero
Categories: Activists - Innovators
Genius of Place book review A\J Genius of Place: The Life of Frederick Law Olmstead \ Justin Martin

Of the site selected in 1857 for New York’s majestic Central Park, designer Frederick Law Olmsted lamented, “It would have been difficult to find another body of land…which possessed less of what we have seen to be the most desirable characteristics of a park.” Olmsted went on to transform the scraggy, rocky land into a naturalistic park, and a playground for his democratic ideals: “… the park is intended to furnish healthful recreation for the poor and the rich, the young and the old, the vicious and the virtuous.”

In his book Genius of Place: The Life of Frederick Law Olmsted, author Justin Martin sets out to give Olmsted due recognition as a pioneering environmentalist. In lush detail, Martin walks the reader through the chapters of Olmsted’s life: sailor, farmer, journalist, abolitionist, park superintendent, Civil War medical commissionaire and gold mine manager. Olmsted’s account of slavery in the southern states, The Cotton Kingdom, was read by such notable figures as Charles Darwin and Charles Dickens, Karl Marx and Malcolm X. Martin considers him to be “the most important American historical figure that the average person knows the least about.”

With the fine grain research skills of an experienced biographer, Martin succeeds in shining light on the combination of vision and accident, values and necessity that led to Olmsted’s career in landscape architecture. Olmsted’s colleague, Calvert Vaux was guided by the motto, “Nature first, second, and third – architecture after a while.” Martin makes clear that Olmsted, too, embraced such ecocentrism.

When a design competition was launched, Vaux approached Olmsted as a partner, not because of any experience he possessed as a landscape architect, but hoping to benefit from his familiarity with the park’s topography as its superintendent. At the time, a New York citizen observed that “There are no lungs on the island. It is made up entirely on veins and arteries.” The pair won the competition. Through the liberal use of drainage and detonation, and the planting of a quarter of a million trees over four years, they forged Central Park.

While the arc of the book is fascinating, time limited readers with an interest in landscape architecture and urban design can plunge into easily identifiable chapters describing signature Olmsted projects. Olmsted’s Boston’s Back Bay Fens were a first for wetland restoration in the United States, and North Carolina’s Vanderbilt Estate, intended to showcase managed forestry, is now one of the largest woodland preserves east of the Mississippi.

The descriptions of the principles and politics that guided such projects are thorough and illuminating, but none more so than for Central Park. The skating pond was the first element to open in 1858. During the first week, 300 people visited. The next week, 10,000 New Yorkers flocked to the park. “Build it and they will come” is a truism of urban design. Lungs created, the city came to life and the career of an environmentalist was set in motion.

Genius of Place: The Life of Frederick Law Olmstead, Justin Martin, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Da Capo Press, 2011, 496 pages

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Reviewer Information

Stephanie Sodero volunteers for the Ecology Action Centre, a sparkling Nova Scotian environmental non-profit organization, and drinks Halifax tap water.

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