Issue 67 • Week of April 30, 2023

A few US calendars still mention Arbor Day at the end of April, but its popularity has waned here considerably since more than a century ago when farmers planted a million trees in Nebraska alone. Now that 83% of Americans live in urban areas, perhaps a more apt commemoration would be to instead observe the birthday of Frederick Law Olmsted.

Born on April 26, 1822, he was a staunch abolitionist and the father of American landscape architecture known best for his role in the creation of Central Park. However, he also designed 99 other public parks during his career and influenced an incomparable 6,000 terrains through the work of his sons (including at least 70 notable campuses). Few families have made such a lasting impact on the United States in terms of our scenery as well as the substantial health, economic, and environmental benefits of parks.

Olmsted and his partner developed Central Park (not without controversy) when Uptown Manhattan was still sparsely populated. He knew the limited space on the island would eventually force people to live closer and closer together, amplifying the existing need for more trees and city parks. His vision could not have been more accurate.

Sadly, these urban oases gradually fell out of favor last century as the automobile accelerated suburban sprawl and downtown decay. After our society's return to cities, local parks are no longer a luxury but a critical infrastructure alongside public trails to fight the obesity epidemic as well as increasing temperatures and flooding due to climate change.

Tourists might believe that we are living in a renaissance of park development after decades of neglect. Yet the high profile projects now making headlines are prolonging historic inequity to city park access. For instance, Little Island in Manhattan was just completed at a cost of $250 million only a block away from the $185 million barely decade-old High Line. Meanwhile, New York City employs fewer than 50 Urban Park Rangers to cover 30,000 acres of public land. Small neighborhood parks attract no wealthy donors and suffer from continued budget cuts despite that community boards rank their importance second to only affordable housing.

How can we restore the legacy of American city parks?

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