Frederick Law Olmsted, the founder of the profession of landscape architecture, was designing nature-based solutions 150 years before the term came into favor. He designed with nature, conserved landscapes and ecosystems, and incorporated native plants — all of which are now contemporary approaches to increasing resilience to climate change.
But now, many of Olmsted’s parks, and those of his sons, are being tested like never before. “Olmsted parks are on the front lines of climate change,” said Dede Petri, CEO of the Olmsted Network, during an online discussion as part of Olmsted 200. And his parks are also increasingly test-beds for new solutions, too.
In a discussion moderated by Dinah Voyles Pulver, national climate reporter at USA Today, Erin Chute Gallentine, public works commissioner with Brookline, Massachusetts, said her city’s Olmsted parks are dealing with climate impacts such as flash flooding and drought. Parks’ trees are now “increasingly vulnerable to pests and diseases.” And across the city, climate change is reducing biodiversity and causing “less robust nature.”
In Manhattan, Central Park has seen record rainfall, more extreme weather events, and mass flooding brought on by climate change. Other impacts include “erosion, pathogens, and the spread of invasive plants” and an “erratic planting calendar,” said Steven Thomson, director of thought leadership at the Central Park Conservancy Institute for Urban Parks. Climate change is also causing milder winters, which means more visitors in the park year-round. “The park doesn’t have time to rest; it is trodded on more during its restoration phase.”
Looking nationally, ASLA CEO Torey Carter-Conneen highlighted how increasing temperatures and urban heat islands are putting pressure on Olmsted’s parks. “This in turn threatens the health and safety of communities,” he said.
As the climate continues to change, Olmsted’s parks will take on an even more important role. Olmsted understood the value of ecological health and believed it was central to human health and well-being. As cities deal with flooding, drought, extreme heat, and sea level rise, Olmsted’s urban respites will be needed even more.
In his books that comprise the Cotton Kingdom, Olmsted focused on the injustices of slavery in the South. He made the case for healthy, natural, and democratically accessible escapes from urban poverty. “Today, climate change would be his crucible. Climate justice would be his cause,” Thompson said.
Central Park is now advancing research on the effects of climate change on urban parks, perhaps, as Thompson suggests, just as Olmsted would have wanted.
The Central Park Conservancy, Yale University School of the Environment, and Natural Areas Conservancy created the Central Park Climate Lab with the goal of “preparing urban parks for disruptive climate events.”
Ecological conditions in Central Park are now being monitored by remote sensors. And the “lived experience” of those who work in the park day in and out are also a focus of research. Together, quantitative and qualitative data will inform policy recommendations that will help other parks adapt.
In the Boston and Brookline, the Emerald Necklace, a 1,100-acre chain of 12 parks, was originally designed by Olmsted to provide multiple benefits. It was simultaneously designed for flood control for the Muddy River, sanitation, scenic beauty, and wildlife habitat.
But in recent years, the park system has been impacted by development and climate change. Invasive plants and stormwater have deteriorated Olmsted’s flood control mechanisms. During storms, the Muddy River has regularly flooded surrounding neighborhoods. One severe storm caused “devastating flooding” and more than $60 million in property damages.
The Muddy River Restoration Project, formed out of a broad partnership, has been daylighting culverts, dredging, and removing invasives in order to speed the flow of floodwaters, increase the capacity of the Emerald Necklace to store water, and restore ecosystems. As Olmsted envisioned, “banks will swell, but we’ll be able to naturally manage the flooding,” Gallentine said.
The Central Park Conservancy is also bolstering Olmsted’s ingenious natural infrastructure so it can better withstand future changes. To support a range of species, the conservancy is daylighting streams and creating riparian habitat. It’s replacing lawn with grasses. And it’s also creating more spaces designed for birds and other pollinators.
And at a national level, ASLA is building on its Olmstedian legacy of fellowship, advocacy, and democratic engagement to advance climate action, explained Carter-Conneen. (Two of Olmsted’s sons were among the society’s co-founders).
ASLA launched its Climate Action Plan last year, and its goals include investing in nature-based solutions, focusing on equitable development, and restoring ecosystems on a global scale, which we can imagine Olmsted Sr. would have supported.