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The country in the city

In the centennial of Olmsted's death, the vision of America's greatest landscape artist lives on -- but just barely

"OLMSTED: NOW MORE Than Ever," announced one of many recent anniversary events celebrating the work, the man, and the firm. And celebrate they should: Frederick Law Olmsted is the father-figure of the greening of American cities, including Boston. The seminal landscape architect, politician, writer, and ecological thinker who died 100 years ago this August has become a cultural hero for his fusion of grid and green. Since surfacing from decades of neglect a generation ago, Olmsted has become the model urban planner for an environmental age.

Olmsted pioneered the idea of an urban life enhanced by green spaces and the Olmsted Brothers firm he founded created superb parks and green networks that have transfigured cities from Boston to Chicago to Seattle. In celebrating the 150th birthday of Central Park, the centennial of the Seattle system, and the renovation of Brooklyn's Prospect Park and Boston's Emerald Necklace, city dwellers have paid homage to the designer.

It's about time. By the 1950s and `60s, this city had slighted Olmsted's work, let his groomed open spaces languish, and even misspelled his name -- Jamaica Plain's Olmstead Street is an example. Fairsted, the spacious Brookline home and office from which Olmsted and his partners shaped Boston's 2,000-acre park system, had become dilapidated, and its priceless documents were crumbling. Like the phragmites that clogged the Fens, poor maintenance and misuse had obscured the founding father's work. Olmsted's vision of an Emerald Necklace linking Boston's parks and parkways into a green chain was tarnished by neglect and automobile exhaust. Olmsted masterpieces from New York to Louisville to Atlanta also languished in disrepair, unrecognized as "signed" pieces.

"Anonymous was a landscape architect," as the saying goes.

. . .

But not forever. Today, Fairsted has been restored as a National Park Service historic site. As park ranger Mark Swartz walked and talked me through a visit last summer, the Olmsted vision of rus in urbe -- the country in the city -- became clear. The two-acre park is an Olmsted miniature: a sketchpad where greensward, dell, rockery, and wooded surround create "rooms" aimed at refreshing the eye of the tired city dweller. As Olmsted explained in 1870, "We want a ground to which people may easily go after their day's work is done, where they may stroll for an hour, seeing, hearing and feeling nothing of the bustle and jar of the streets."

Olmsted realized this vision on a grand scale in Boston's Franklin Park, a large site -- with a country meadow devoted to scenery, walkways, and a place for sports -- which was started in 1886 and finished 10 years later. The park, which later added a golf course (on the site of the country meadow) and zoo, was intended to restore the spirit of weary city dwellers: Newcomer and long-timer, rich and poor could escape the crowded, industrialized city to enrich their spirits with natural scenery.

But even as we celebrate and build on Olmsted's legacy, we must confront the sorry state of Boston's parks system today. "With funds that are continually declining, the public should be concerned about its ability to maintain the extraordinary spaces that we all love," says Patrice Todisco, director of the Boston Greenspace Alliance. Amid budget shortfalls, the absence of a park commissioner, agency shakeups, and pressing needs for stewardship, many local park activists feel the candles on the centennial cake need dimming.

True, Franklin Park has come far from its previous state of shabbiness, outlawry, and the occasional stray animal carcass. A generation ago, the Franklin Park Coalition, empowered by its zealous founder Richard Heath, began to turn the place around. Carribean and other festivals attracted thousands this summer. You can almost see the sheep grazing on the pastoral curves of the park's country meadow, despite the golf balls that terrify walkers traversing the splendid landscape.

Unfortunately, upkeep remains a worry. "When you look at investing $20 million in a clubhouse and golf course . . . how about the woodlands, the general plantings, the maintenance?" asks one Olmsted activist. The zoo (no Olmsted favorite) languishes and its future, in the aftermath of the gorilla incident, looks precarious.

Meanwhile, those who live near Olmsted's parks can't agree on how they ought to be used. Some residents of the Longwood neighborhood of Brookline have blocked the rebuilding of the Carlton Street Bridge, an 1894 footbridge designed as a key entrance into the Emerald Necklace, out of fear that undesirables might use it to cross over from Riverway Park. And Pinebank, the gothic manor on the Jamaicaway that Olmsted spared with dreams of creating a "refectory" where parkgoers could get food and drink while enjoying Jamaica Pond, has been left in neglect by those who prefer it as a "historic ruin."

Beyond the Emerald Necklace, Boston's park needs are daunting. The list of sites to fill and build ranges from the 30-acre Rose Kennedy Greenway that will replace the Central Artery to the Harbor Islands to the Bremen Street park in East Boston to Chinatown's Lincoln Street. But the new designs for the Greenway displayed by city and Massachusetts Turnpike Authority officials at John Hancock Hall 10 days ago seem vague and unfundable. And the city lacks a single proficient agency to coordinate or plan its new open spaces.

"This may be heresy, but in the 19th century people thought when they built something they should fund it," says Eugenie Beale, chairwoman of The Boston Natural Areas Network. She and other advocates fret about park department cuts and misguided privatization efforts. Boston also boasts fewer and less generous merchant-givers in this era of conglomeration. "The public ends up paying much more than they wanted for `gifts,"' says urban designer and local activist Shirley Kressel. "Donors get development rights and tax breaks and change the open character of the space. The public loses control."

The search for benefactors led to the creation, earlier this year, of the state's new Office of Public-Private Partnerships, under the direction of longtime Emerald Necklace advocate Betsy Shure Gross. Her mandate, says Gross, is to "rebuild public trust in the public realm" by funding Citizen Action Committees (CACs) that can close the maintenance gap while preserving the parks as a public realm. "We need taxes to do this," insists Eugenie Beale, not givers with an agenda. One suggestion: Use the existing Community Preservation Act, which allows communities to impose a property tax surcharge matched by state funds to pay for open space, among other things.

Grandly enough, the subtitle of Mayor Menino's "Open Space Plan 2002-2006" boasts of "Renewing the Legacy . . . Fulfilling the Vision." But even as New York City feted Olmsted this summer, Menino was rejecting a slate of able candidates for parks commissioner. The Mayor still hasn't replaced Justine Liff, the much-admired commissioner who died last September. Boston's parks are currently managed by "an empty chair," says Patrice Todisco.

At the state level, two of the agencies that steward our parks -- the Metropolitan District Commission and the Department of Environmental Management -- are in transition, and turmoil, as they merge into the Department of Conservation and Recreation. Governor Romney named longtime conservationist Kathy Abbott to head the new agency. She says, "We have a world-class park system," but keeping it that way will be an uphill battle.

. . .

Is the Olmsted model alive or has it been abandoned? Whatever the state of his creations, it is clear that Olmsted's energy, his ecological artistry, his political talent for turning politicians into believers, and his own belief in providing city dwellers with the virtues of scenery remain essential. In Boston, his final home, Olmsted pushed the city to purchase land, conserve Jamaica Pond, and clarify new needs. In this era of endless sprawl, his political acumen and his commitment to urban greening and streetcar suburbs remain models for our time.

Still, at the national level, signs of deference to the Olmsted model are too few. The landscape profession he founded is fragmented, as ephemeral as the gossamer web of schemes spun by Boston's would-be Greenway landscape architects. Both the restoration of his work and the creation of new designs on his model are threatened by federal disdain and local development.

Nonetheless, many cities are showing promise. In New York, Mayor Bloomberg proposed cutting park funds, but was forced to backtrack after a public outcry. Elsewhere, Detroit is building a waterfront park along the Detroit River. Chicago is restoring its Lake Michigan shoreline. Even Los Angeles is returning to a 1930s Olmsted Brothers/Bartholomew plan for a 70,000 acre "Eden by Design."

You can see the Olmsted model here and there. It is in the slow revival of the parks mentioned above, in this year's Olmsted celebration, and in the far-flung park-making labors that in 2002 led to the creation of a national coalition of city parks leaders, the City Parks Alliance. With growing awareness of parks as the soul of the city, this could be a moment of opportunity.

As the young Olmsted put it: "What artist, so noble . . . as he, who with far-reaching conception of beauty and designing power, sketches the outline, writes the colours, and directs the shadows of a picture so great that Nature shall be employed upon it for generations."

It is this generation's turn to follow Olmsted's noble tenets.

Jane Holtz Kay (jholtzkay@aol.com), author of "Lost Boston" and "Asphalt Nation," is architecture critic of The Nation and a contributing editor to Landscape Architecture.

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