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In pursuit of an infrastructure bill, lessons from Frederick Law Olmsted

Designer of the Capitol grounds understood the necessity of “green infrastructure”

Members of Congress should protect and expand our public parks when they finalize the infrastructure bill, Neal Petri writes.
Members of Congress should protect and expand our public parks when they finalize the infrastructure bill, Neal Petri writes. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

To tackle today’s challenges, we need look no further than some enduring lessons from the past.

Like water and electricity, public parks are essential. However, according to the Trust for Public Land, more than 100 million people in the U.S., including 28 million children, do not have a park or green space close to home. These spaces aren’t just vital for our quality of life; they are essential ecological, social, and cultural infrastructure — something Frederick Law Olmsted, the founder of landscape architecture and designer of the Capitol grounds, recognized nearly two centuries ago.

Long before the term was ever coined, Olmsted understood the necessity of “green infrastructure.” Facing regular pandemics, polluted air and deep social divisions — eerily similar to current challenges — he developed a few foundational principles that can guide leaders today:

Parks are essential public infrastructure 

In order to combat crowded, poorly ventilated urban housing, poor sanitation and bad air, Olmsted advocated and designed parks for all people — public spaces that would provide clean air and clean water, a place to come together in a restful setting. He understood that “green infrastructure” can improve health, as modern medical research, and the pandemic, have confirmed.

Parks are not luxuries

Parks are critical to making our cities more livable. Today’s cities were constructed of brick and concrete materials, which retain heat. Expanding our green spaces to reduce temperatures and sequester carbon can help reduce these deleterious impacts.

Park space is not empty space 

Olmsted regularly bemoaned public officials who viewed open green space as places to build. And yet in city after city — Chicago, Brooklyn and Boston, to name a few — our parks and green spaces are often diminished or threatened by structures for private purposes. As Olmsted knew, the value of a park is the absence of structure and its ability to reduce the stresses of city life by transporting urban dwellers to a cooler and restorative space. Once gone, open space is lost forever, and underserved communities are often the losers.  

Our cities need green engineering 

Headlines frequently highlight the challenges of rising tides and increased flooding. But hardscape is not the answer. More than 150 years ago, Olmsted embraced natural approaches to flood control. In Chicago, he created a park along the waterfront, Jackson Park — now listed on the National Register of Historic Places — that addressed periodic flooding by creating plant masses with native reeds, dune grasses, sedges and sages. In Boston, faced with raw sewage and a fetid swamp, Olmsted effectively constructed the first wetlands, now known as the Back Bay Fens, using green infrastructure to solve dual problems of flooding and sanitation. It’s time that we put an end to ill-advised construction in flood plains and on challenged shorelines.

Infrastructure must embrace ecology 

Olmsted also understood that we must respect nature and a changing climate. When, about 150 years ago, Sen. Leland Stanford, R-Calif., asked him to design the campus of his new university in Palo Alto, Olmsted balked at Stanford’s desire to recreate an Eastern landscape. He knew from his experience that the area’s semiarid climate required a more environmentally conscious approach. “The absurdity of seeking for good pastoral beauty in the Far West is more and more manifest,” he once said.

Olmsted believed we should show profound respect for natural scenery and topography. That means prioritizing maintenance and sustainable design — using native plant materials that thrive, are non-invasive and require less upkeep; promoting natural features; and working with the natural ecology of the site.

For these reasons and others, the National Association for Olmsted Parks and more than 200 organizations around the country are calling for $500 million in funding for urban parks to be included in the infrastructure bill. This investment would allow critical upgrades to our green spaces and help mitigate the effects of climate change. Parks improve community health and climate resilience by reducing flooding, absorbing air pollution and filtering storm water to keep rivers and lakes cleaner. Green, shady parks also protect people from rising temperatures and can reduce the deadly “urban heat island effect” by as much as seven degrees.

Frederick Law Olmsted’s legacy reminds us that the challenges we currently face are not unfamiliar, and neither are some of the solutions. We urge members of Congress to protect and expand our public parks when they finalize the infrastructure bill. 

Anne Neal Petri is the president and CEO of the National Association for Olmsted Parks. The NAOP is the managing partner of Olmsted 200, the bicentennial celebration in 2022 to mark the birth of Frederick Law Olmsted.