Good afternoon. My name is Bronwyn Nichols Lodato, and I’m a member of the Board of Trustees of the Olmsted Network. We are thrilled to be co-hosting the screening of Landscapes of Exclusion and the subsequent panel featuring Dr. William O’Brien, Mr. Arthur J. Clement and Dr. Wairimü Njambi. Thank you to the National Building Museum, the American Society of Landscape Architects and the Library of American Landscape History for co-hosting today’s event. Dede Petri, President and CEO of the Olmsted Network, sends her regards from the UK where she is tracking Frederick Law Olmsted’s steps.
Frederick Law Olmsted’s work with the first state park, Yosemite and Mariposa Big Tree Grove, fundamentally transformed American ideas about parks.
In the 1865 Yosemite report, commissioned by the State of California, Olmsted talked about the right of all Americans to scenic reservations. This was really the seed of the national and state park idea and an extension of the urban park idea he first developed in New York City and extended to many urban areas across the country, including Chicago, where I serve as President of the Midway Plaisance Advisory Council, Detroit, Milwaukee, Louisville, Seattle, and, yes, here in Washington D.C., to name a few.
In a nod to form serving function, Olmsted’s objectives with his state parks’ planning centered the need to repair the country’s national identity and civic culture that were in shambles after the civil war. He also understood that state parks would be in need of protection from interests that ran counter to a higher ideal of public, democratic spaces. In writing the Yosemite report, Olmsted understood the “eternal base of equity and benevolence” that needed to undergird government protection of public parks. He stated in the Yosemite report:
It is the main duty of government, if it is not the sole duty of government, to provide means of protection for all its citizens in the pursuit of happiness against the obstacles, otherwise insurmountable, which the selfishness of individuals or combinations of individuals is liable to interpose to that pursuit.
As O’Brien shares in his landmark book, the official and de facto adherence to the separate-but-equal doctrine borne of the Plessy v. Ferguson decision was sewn into the foundational soil of state parks in the Jim Crow South. O’Brien thoroughly documents how state parks were separate but never equal and were used as weapons of suppression against African Americans by denying equal access that they were fully entitled to as citizens. Accompanying this travesty was the intention to deny access to the sense of freedom, wonder and possibility that could be found in beautifully maintained state parks. Thankfully, this regime did not triumph, as African Americans fought to assert their rights to be seen and take up space in public parks.
We must not forget this history and remain vigilant. Indeed, we face new challenges to equitable access to our public parks through privatization, “development”, and environmental injustices. Olmsted was prescient when he stated:
For the same reason that the water of rivers should be guarded against private appropriation and the use of it for the purpose of navigation and otherwise protected against obstruction, portions of natural scenery may therefore properly be guarded and cared for by government. To simply reserve them from monopoly by individuals, however, it will be obvious, is not all that is necessary. It is necessary that they should be laid open to the use of the body of the people.
Olmsted understood the power of public parks as critical infrastructure in a democratic society, and this idea is more important now than ever. The Olmsted Network’s mission to advance Olmsted’s principles that parks and landscapes enrich people’s lives motivates our championing of inclusive park spaces that reflect the racial and ethnic diversity of our country. The Olmsted Network is proud to be a part of our collective efforts to ensure inclusion and equity in our public parks for years to come.
Debra Hammond is currently an officer of Promontory Point Conservancy. She has always been tall for her age