Monday, June 22, 2009

Olmsted's Green Ribbon . 4

Olmsted's life work, in all its varied phases, was informed both by his deep humanistic impulses and an intense sense of connection to the natural world.

American cities enjoyed explosive growth throughout the entire nineteenth century. A country of farmers - as all the founding fathers and citizens were - was rapidly becoming a nation of city dwellers. The modern technologies and infrastrucure which allow large cities to function were only just being invented and introduced. Cities could barely cope with the rapid rise of their populations and many urban pathologies developed. For example, here's how the Back Bay (which was still a tidal saltmarsh) was described at mid-century, just before the Civil War.

... the foulest marsh and muddy flats to be found anywhere in Massachusetts without a single attractive feature, a body of water so foul that even clams and eels cannot live there, and a place that no one will go within a half mile of in the summertime unless it was absolutely necessary ... a nuisance, offensive and injurious to the large and increasing population residing upon it ...

The city's raw sewage and trash were dumped directly into Back Bay in the absence of the infrastrucures that we now take totally for granted - municipal sewage treatment and solid waste management systems.

Nineteenth century cities were often dirty and dangerous places. They were overcrrowded due to successive waves of immigration, subject to epidemics bred in the filthy conditions, noisy, smelly, crime-ridden, sharply divided between rich and poor, suffering chronic unemployment and lack of jobs, psychically very stressful for many residents and ... lacking in parks and other public outdoor amenities.

Olmsted attempted to address all of those urban problems with his massive Green Ribbon project, to cure both the practical and the psychic pathologies. The practical involved infrastrucure that, as noted, we now take for granted because it is mostly hidden away and invisible. But his take on the psychic effects of parks on the urban population of all classes certainly still resonates today.

We want a ground to which people may easily go after their day's work is done, and where they may stroll for an hour, seeing, hearing and feeling nothing of the bustle and jar of the streets, where they shall, in effect, find the city put far away from them .... We want, especially, the greatest possible contrast with the restraining and confining conditions which compel us to walk circumspectly, watchfully, jealously, which compel us to look closely upon others without sympathy.

To promote psychic, as much as physical, health, he proposed to transform the reeking Back Bay Fens into ...

... a scenery of a winding, brackish creek, within wooded banks; gaining interest from the meandering course of the water.

And he accomplished both beautifully over the course of twenty years.