Landslide 2022 shines the spotlight on imperiled Olmsted sites

Safeguarding a Landscape Legacy

Landslide 2022 shines the spotlight on imperiled Olmsted sites

While a scenic Rhode Island parkway, a small city located smack dab in the middle of peninsular Florida, the leafy boulevards of suburban Seattle, and the entire California State Park system may not appear to have much, if anything, in common, you needn’t need to dig too deep to discover the commonality between these disparate sites: Olmsted.

The four landscapes mentioned above joined by eight other diverse sites are the focus of Landslide 2022: The Olmsted Design Legacy, the latest edition of The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF)’s annual thematic report that draws attention to the various threats faced by American parks, gardens, horticultural features, working landscapes, and “other places that collectively embody our shared cultural heritage.” First revealed back in February with a call for nominations, this year’s theme needs little explanation, especially during a year when communities from coast to coast are celebrating their own unique Olmstedian heritage in observance of the bicentennial of Frederick Law Olmsted, Sr.

Much emphasis is being placed on the elder Olmsted, a Connecticut-born journalist and social reformer affectionately dubbed as the Father of Landscape Architecture, during the Olmsted 200 festivities—and deservedly so. Landslide 2022, however, extends its focus to his successor firms, which have had just an outsized impact on American landscape architecture and planning. All 12 imperiled Landslide 2022 sites have a direct link to Olmsted Sr. (1822–1903), his son, Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. (1870–1957), and/or his nephew/adopted son, John Charles Olmsted (1852-1920). (Together the two younger Olmsted men established the Brookline, Massachusetts–based landscape architecture firm, Olmsted Brothers, following the retirement of their father.)

grafitti-covered remnants of an old structure
Andrew Jackson Downing Memorial Park, Newburgh, New York. (© Barrett Doherty/Courtesy The Cultural Landscape Foundation)

One of the at-risk sites, the 35-acre Andrew Jackson Downing Park in Newburgh, New York, is a rarity that not only involved collaboration between two generations of Olmsteds (Frederick Law, Sr. and John Charles) but also the involvement of famed Olmsted codesigner and (short-lived) business partner, the London-born architect Calvert Vaux and his son, the landscape architect Downing Vaux. The stunning neighborhood park, which was inaugurated in 1897 and today suffers from neglect due to prolonged underfunding, honors the memory another formidable figure in the history of American landscape architecture: the Newburgh-born horticulturalist, writer, and landscape designer Andrew Jackson Downing, whose tragic death at the age of 36 in 1852 cut short a budding professional relationship with Calvert Vaux. The historic Hudson Valley park is one of three New York–based Olmsted sites included in Landslide 2022, joined by Genesee Valley Park in Rochester and Long Island’s Planting Fields.

In addition to a one-of-a-kind multigenerational Olmsted and Vaux effort, a small number of other sites featured in Landslide 2022 involved all three Olmsteds. One is the erosion-plagued Deepdene Park, a 22-acre woodland that stands as the largest of six parks anchoring the bucolic planned community of Druid Hills in suburban Atlanta. Famed for its stock of stately mansions and for being home to Emory University, Druid Hills is the only subdivision of its kind that all three men collaborated on and was one of the final projects of Frederick Law Olmsted Sr.

view of a scorched building in a hazy, smoke-filled landscape
Big Basin Redwoods State Park, California. (Alex Tabone)

Other endangered sites on the list contain multiples, such as the California State Parks System, which was shepherded in its early years by Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. following the 1927 formation of the California State Park Commission. Olmsted, working in collaboration with local landscape architects and community members, is credited with establishing a comprehensive blueprint for the system’s development and expansion; today, California State Parks, the largest state park system in the United States, administers 279 park units spread across 1.4 million acres of land. Many of these parks are threatened by the dire impacts of climate change, including intensified wildfires and coastal erosion.

Landslide 2022 also includes a rare Canadian entrant in the form of the Sunalta Addition, a Picturesque residential community in Calgary that’s contemporarily known as Scarboro. Realized during the Alberta city’s early 20th-century Boom Era as one of only two Olmsted-helmed neighborhoods in Canada, the John Charles Olmsted–designed Scarboro is currently threatened by historical insensitive overdevelopment.

homes lining a leafy residential street
Scarboro, Calgary, Alberta. (James Reid/Courtesy The Cultural Landscape Foundation)

Climate change, funding struggles, and unchecked development are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the myriad threats faced by Landslide 2022’s featured sites. Others face disease, parkland confiscation, lack of recognition, deferred maintenance, and “outright erasure.”

Landslide 2022 shows us that while the appreciation and value for Olmsted-designed landscapes in general continues to increase, some landscapes have been less fortunate,” explained Charles A. Birnbaum, president and CEO of TCLF. “Our intent with this report is to foster greater awareness and curiosity about this exceptional legacy, and to encourage a stronger shared responsibility for its future.”

Below is the full list of this year’s selected sites, each linked to their respective profile pages in the Landslide 2022 report:

California State Parks System

Deepdene Park at Druid Hills | Atlanta

Andrew Jackson Downing Memorial Park | Newburgh, New York 

Franklin Park | Boston

Genesee Valley Park | Rochester, New York

Lake Wales, Florida

Olmsted Woods at National Cathedral | Washington, D.C.

Planting Fields Arboretum State Historical Park | Oyster Bay, New York

Seattle Parks and Boulevard System 

Sunalta Addition (Scarboro) | Calgary, Alberta 

Veterans Memorial Parkway | Providence, Rhode Island

Washington Park | Milwaukee

Landslide 2022 is organized in a similar manner as past cycles of the TCLF’s flagship stewardship program, which first kicked off in 2003 and has recently focused on at-risk landscapes designed by women and sites with deep connections to African American, Hispanic American, and Indigenous communities. Accompanied by a digital exhibition, the report features an in-depth introduction, a breakdown of themes defining common threats and challenges, and comprehensive histories of each site illustrated by historic, contemporary, and newly commissioned photography. The profiles also go into detail as to why each site is at-risk while providing information as to how people can become involved in safeguarding the respective futures of these unique, sometimes overlooked Olmsted landscapes.

Lake Washington Boulevard, Seattle. (Scott Smithson/The Cultural Landscape Foundation)

The Olmsted bicentennial has certainly kept the TCLF busy in 2022. In April, the Washington, D.C.–based nonprofit released the 20th entry in its popular What’s Out There digital landscape guide series. Deviating from the usual city- and region-based format of previous What’s Out There guides, this year’s edition, naturally, focuses on Olmsted sites. A total of 325 are included, ranging from parks and parkways to cemeteries and subdivisions. A hefty 300-page guide to more than 200 Olmsted landscapes from TCLF entitled Experiencing Olmsted: The Enduring Legacy of Frederick Law Olmsted’s North American Landscapes was also published earlier this month by Timber Press.

What’s more, TLCF is hosting the Oberlander Prize Forum II: Landscape Activism this Friday, October 28, at the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas. Inspired by the activism of the Olmsted clan, this second major public engagement program associated with the Cornelia Hahn Oberlander International Landscape Architecture Prize features participants including, among others, Gina Ford, principal and cofounder of Agency Landscape + Planning; Lee Pivnik, founder of the Institute of Queer Ecology; Marc Miller, president of the Black Landscape Architects Network; Sierra Bainbridge, senior principal and managing director with MASS Design Group; and Chelina Odbert, CEO and founding principal of Kounkuey Design Initiative. More information about the forthcoming Oberlander Prize Forum including registration details and a full list of featured speakers can be found here.