Defining a City by its Parks

Olmsted water tower at Volunteer Park, Seattle.

Frank Lloyd Wright once said, “space is the breath of art.” Broader than just a piece of art or a building, this might be considered in terms of a city, that conglomeration of buildings, roads, and park lands. Parks are essential. They are not only the breath the city, but are art in their own right. And yet they are not superfluous. Their existence is at once opposite to and necessary for the city. A deep chasm exists between our ideas of cities and our ideas of green spaces: man vs. nature, civilization vs. wilderness. Despite these clashing ideas, the best cities are arguably those that have green spaces woven through them.

Frederick Law Olmsted may be best known for designing Central Park, the large rectangle of green in the United State’s largest city, filled with curving paths, hills, and lush foliage. Olmsted’s work, however, was often larger than the isolated park: among others, Olmsted designed the campuses of Yale, Stanford, Wellesley, and Cornell. Even larger, Olmsted was crucial in city designs, creating strings of parks that have come to define the cities in which they are located. The Emerald Necklace, for example, is a famous 1,100 acre chain of parks linked by parkways and waterways in Boston (the complete 1894 plan can be seen here!).

Conservatory at Olmsted’s Volunteer Park, Seattle.

Olmsted’s work–and the work of his predecessors, his sons (the Olmsted Brothers)–was extensive and can be found across the United States, from Niagara Falls to Seattle. The Olmsted park plans for Seattle have defined not only the individual park designs but the city, itself.

The Olmsted Brothers designed 37 parks and a number of boulevards in Seattle over the course of 34 years (1903-1937). Frederick Law Olmsted, himself, wrote in Seattle’s 1903 comprehensive plan that, “[the] primary aim should be to secure and preserve for the use of the people as much as possible of these advantages of water and mountain views and of woodlands, well distributed and conveniently located.” This was crucial to the Olmsted designs and defines what Seattle is, today. Parks are found at regular intervals in much of Seattle. Some occupy real estate with such stunning views that, were it not for Olmsted’s insight and Seattle’s quick acting, all the hills and coastal regions would be inaccessible due to private development.

Last weekend I visited Volunteer Park in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood and walked south to Cal Anderson Park, a reasonable walk on a nice day (this gives you a sense of the accessibility of parks in many of Seattle’s old neighborhoods).

Conservatory at Olmsted’s Volunteer Park, Seattle.

Volunteer Park is a gem of a park for its size and location. It offers a picturesque and in-use conservatory; curving, wooded walkways; and a water tower that looks like it fell out of a storybook. My favorite aspect of Olmsted’s designs is visible here: Olmsted, ever aware that landscapes grow and change naturally, designed his parks for how they would look decades later. He planted trees for what they would grow into, not what they were. He planned so far ahead, in fact, that I have heard his work would not reach its best until after his death. That makes us a lucky generation, indeed: Olmsted’s parks are now becoming what he planned them to be.

(Compare the photographs of the Volunteer Park water tower to get a sense of how Olmsted’s parks have grown: top, my 2015 photo; below, 1915 historic photograph.)

Volunteer Park before the trees grew tall (compare to my photograph of the water tower a century later, top!). See below for photo credit.


Want a little more information about Olmsted’s work in Seattle? Head over to the website of Friends of Seattle’s Olmsted Parks.

More on Olmsted more generally? Check out the National Association for Olmsted Parks.

I personally just can’t get enough of Central Park. You either? Quench your thirst and head over to the Official Guide to Central Park NYC created by the Central Park Conservancy.

Photo credits: all photos in this post are my own except for the 1915 photograph of Volunteer Park. The original of this historic photo can be found here.


5 thoughts on “Defining a City by its Parks

  1. Warning: Sorry for the bummer anecdote.

    Olmsted’s park system in Boston–once upon a time I lived in Jamaica Plain and frequented regularly the Arnold Arboretum. From Bussey Hill, I could see all the way to downtown Boston–and I tell you it was a non stop sea of green tree canopies–absolutely beautiful to the eye. But the truth on the ground, JP to Back Bay was danger, human danger for muggings, purse snatchings…the green by itself did not change human behavior. Humans have to do that.

    Nevertheless, I had so many great days in the Arnold Arboretum with its fantastic collection of hardy plants from around the world. And lastly thank you, I really enjoyed your post!


    1. Thanks for the thoughts! This is sad but interesting. There is a whole other side to many of these wonderful parks. I don’t know if you’re familiar, but a village was evicted and plowed over to create Central Park. A sad but fascinating part of history!

      Liked by 1 person

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