Was Frederick Law Olmsted a Conservation Leader?


On a visit to the nearby Patuxent Wildlife Research Refuge, I stopped to read the signage about America’s “Conservation Leaders” and was surprised to see Frederick Law Olmsted right there, with Audubon, Thoreau, Jacques Cousteau and Morris Udall.  The sign described his work pioneering Yosemite Valley before it became a park, and many other parks, and noted that his primary principles of design were natural beauty and accessibility to all.

Good to know, because while I’m aware that he made his mark designing parks, I remember what Michael Pollan had to say about him back in ’89.

America has made essentially one important contribution to world garden design: the custom of “uniting the front lawns of however many houses there may be on both sides of a street to present an untroubled aspect of expansive green to the passer-by.” France has its formal, geometric gardens, England its picturesque parks, and America this unbounded democratic river of manicured lawn along which we array our houses.

IF ANY INDIVIDUAL CAN BE said to have invented the American lawn, it is Frederick Law Olmsted. In 1868, he received a commission to design Riverside, outside of Chicago, one of the first planned suburban communities in America. Olmsted’s design stipulated that each house be set back 30 feet from the road and it proscribed walls. He was reacting against the “high dead-walls” of England which he felt made a row of homes there seem “as of a series of private madhouses.” In Riverside, each owner would maintain one or two trees and a lawn that would flow seamlessly into his neighbors’, creating the impression that all lived together in a single park.

But in England, lawns were usually found only on estates; the Americans democratized them, cutting the vast manorial greenswards into quarter-acre slices everyone could afford. Also, the English never considered the lawn an end in itself: it served as a setting for lawn games and as a backdrop for flowerbeds and trees.

It’s when it comes to residential landscapes that I take issue with old Frederick, and I think of him whenever I see acres of turf where it doesn’t belong – in unused, resource-intensive front yards.  Great Lawns like the one above in Central Park belong in parks, where they’re needed for play.  In front yards they serve what purpose exactly?

Olmsted was the subject of a recent article in Landscape Architecture Magazine with the provocative title “Frederick Law Olmsted is Holding Us Back.  (There.  I Said It.)” so I was eager to see what bone the author had to pick with Olmsted.  Overuse of lawns, right?

Hardly.  His complaint is that Olmsted is the only landscape architect known to the public and is mentioned far too often, even in professional journals.

So given that we don’t have anyone else with Olmsted’s kind of public brand identity to throw out there the way architects name-drop Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier, Philip Johnson, and others, we make every effort to keep Olmsted in the conversation. The fear seems to be that if people stop talking about him, they stop talking about landscape architecture. I hate to say it, but there is some truth in that paranoia.

The author goes on to lament that even the much-praised High Line, a masterpiece of the profession, hasn’t got people talking about landscape architecture, that incredibly, the architect for that project is getting all the attention.

The only mention of Pollan’s issue with Olmsted is this:

By linking our image so closely to the archaic legacy of a man best known for creating bucolic 19th-century landscapes, we look rather irrelevant in that regard.

Exactly!  Because we’re SO over the bucolic thing, which only made sense with the help of grazing animals.


  1. I had no idea Olmstead was responsible for the suburban front-yard lawn blight I grew up with. Thanks for sharing that. One doesn’t think of the historical context behind current landscaping decisions.

    I will say, though, that in my neighborhood growing up, we did use those front lawns for play quite a lot. But that was back in the day when kids were allowed to roam free through the neighborhood for hours, and I don’t know if that’s the case so much anymore.

  2. I am so glad to hear I am not alone. I heard this in school but never looked to far into it. I looked a little into Frank Lloyd Wright’s help in making suburbia what it is today.
    I guess I now know why, as a Landscape Architect, I am asked if I mow lawns…because it was the ‘most famous’ LA that invented them.

  3. There is a residence with an Olmsted designed landscape near me. http://www.dunngardens.org/#

    According to the staff at the Dunn garden, Olmsted incorporated many of the large native trees existing on the site into his plans. The site includes a couple of modestly sized lawn areas, but is mostly layered plantings, with many native woodlanders, under the big trees. There are several parks in the Seattle area designed by him. Also, the state capitol grounds in Olympia. Yes, there are lawns, but the trees dominate. The man clearly had a thing for trees.

    I’m guessing Olmsted designed different landscapes for different purposes. Is it fair to judge him by one project; Riverside? If his plan for the Dunn garden is typical of his private commisions, I’d say, yes, Olmsted was ahead of his time. And anyone advocating green space in the city is a conservator in my book.

    • I’m mistaken. The landscapes I described were designed by his sons. The Olmsted brothers. Feel free to delete my post.

      I still think anyone for green space in the city is a good guy.

  4. Actually, I don’t think Dierdre is mistaken. I think FL Olmsted deserves credit for designing a variety of landscapes for different purposes, though there are certainly unifying themes and preferences in all of his work. He definitely liked trees and expansive vistas that displayed those trees in the distant perimeter. He preferred green to other colors, so flower beds were to be avoided though his clients frequently demanded them, as they did at the Chicago World’s Fair.

    Having taken a course in American Landscape Architecture, read his biography, and visited many of this properties around the country, I don’t think he is at all over-rated. He is essentially the creator of the field of landscape architecture as an art form and he should remain in that role, even though our tastes have changed and the lawn is now out-dated and we have a new concern about conserving resources.

    However, I agree with Susan that he was more interested in aesthetics than in conservation.

    Tastes may change, but history should remain intact, IMO. Thanks for this thoughtful article.

  5. Tonight Downton Abbey returns. The lawn of Downton [really Highclere Castle] came from the Capability Brown design of the landscape in the 18th century. Americans love that show, but also that lawn. Presidents Washington and Jefferson included that English lawn as part of their garden. We’ve been doing the same ever since.
    I think the lawn is deep in the American psyche.

  6. Okay…I so agree with you comments about Olmstead and the lawns of America…his bad!

    However, have you ever visited the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, NC. The landscape there will take your breath away!

  7. You’ve got to be kidding right ? To think that there was only one landscape designer laying out lawns in a landscape in 1860’s ?
    I suppose there was only one caveman discovering the wheel too .

    The concept of lawn in the United States was not unique to Olmstead or his partner Calvert Vaux or even their predecessor and contemporary peer Andrew Jackson Downing. They just happen to be the men most written about in American landscape architectural history.

    Survey sez… delve a little deeper – there were botanists, horticulturists, nurserymen, statesmens and newly arriving nostaglic English persons planting their image of the English country manor house with lawn as a greensward.

  8. “. . . acres of turf where it doesn’t belong – in unused, resource-intensive front yards. Great Lawns like the one above in Central Park belong in parks, where they’re needed for play. In front yards they serve what purpose exactly?”

    When I was a kid, they served as places to play (well, most of the neighborhood’s lawns did; there were a couple people with ornamental front yards). Especially for the kids under 12 or so, when the park and the baseball diamond were a mile, plus, distant.

Comments are closed.