Growing up in London, my mother was determined I and my sisters were outside as much as possible to reap the benefits of fresh air and exercise. Every day after school we went for a walk in one of the London parks: Hyde Park, Kensington Gardens or through Green Park to St James’s. Sometimes we went further afield, especially at weekends, to Battersea Park or Richmond Park to the south west or to Hampstead Heath to the north. London has so many options along with all the commons and garden squares in between.
Turning to the silver screen, so many films (James Bond, Mission Impossible and so on) begin with an aerial panorama over green cities like London or New York, panning across the open spaces and trees in between the historic building and skyscrapers. These cities grew from villages and these can still be found in the names of areas or streets today. Similarly, the film of Downton Abbey also began with an iconic sweeping shot of Highclere in its Park, placing it in its setting, giving it that intangible sense of place and thus anchoring the whole story line.
Highclere’s setting owes much to the 18th century landscape architect “Capability” Brown just as New York owes much to Frederick Law Olmsted, who much admired the earlier British landscape gardener or “place maker”. Some of the most coveted apartments in New York overlook Central Park.
This project was tendered as a competition in 1857 and won by the partnership of Calvert Vaux, a London born watercolourist, architect and experienced developer and his new protégée Olmsted. It was challenging because of the narrow space available and Olmsted was, above all, devoted to ensuring it became a “common” green space, accessible to all citizens. The two men formed Olmsted, Vaux and Company in 1865, the same year they were also commissioned to create Prospect Park in Brooklyn. Just like Capability Brown, their legacy was extraordinary and included Chicago’s Riverside Park, the park system for Buffalo, New York and the Niagara Reservation at Niagara Falls.
Capability Brown had followed a more formal career in terms of landscape architecture but like Olmsted was very adept at curating the goodwill of influential men in the 18th century. In each case their social skills were key to their advancement. Capability Browns’ parks were in the countryside, shaping our views and continuing the British love affair with the romance of rural life, whilst Olmsted brought the green space of Brown into crowded urban environments. Likewise, in each case the long view was essential and neither man would see the extraordinary legacy which so enriches our lives today.
Olmsted was also a far-sighted advocate of the conservation movement in the 19th century, a more industrialised time than that of 18th century England. He had visited Niagara Falls and was appalled by the industry and factories spilling around this astonishing landscape. Lobbying indefatigably with other influential people, the Niagara Reservation became reality in 1885, the first state park in the USA. Due to the efforts of Olmsted and his colleagues, visitors can still wander along a wooded path and view these extraordinary falls 150 years later. Conservation is not a new movement.
Olmsted had dabbled in a number of careers until the central park commission after which he found his calling and tended to work day and night for much of his life with an urgency which in the long run was detrimental to his health and his friendships. Interestingly, Olmsted not only created parks for cities, for exercise and peace of mind but entire systems of interconnecting parkways in certain cities to connect people to green spaces.
So much of what we take for granted has shuddered to a stop today, calling in to question our way of life, how we can travel safely, how we can meet up safely, how we can work safely. Despite all these current limitations, with imagination, and hard work Capability Brown and Frederick Law Olmsted amongst so many others left a legacy that still helps us even in these most unusual of times: we can still visit these green spaces, to walk in, to exercise in or to simply get away from enclosing walls.