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June 30, 2022

A Garden History & Design Minute from the Archives of American Gardens

Many gardens included in The Garden Club of America Collection at the Archives of American Gardens hold a proud distinction: they embody design principles developed by renowned landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted (1822-1903). In addition to establishing a firm that had a hand in the design of more than 6,000 landscapes and gardens for over a century, Olmsted published influential theories about landscape design that transformed how people organized and maintained the outdoor space around them. Olmsted scholars have distilled Olmsted’s ideas down to a list of six design principles (‘ODP’s’). Here is Principle Six.

Humphry Repton, a writer on English landscape art, said that "all rational improvement of grounds is, necessarily, founded on a due attention to the character and situation of the place to be improved." Olmsted adopted Repton’s theory, believing that public parks should reflect and influence the lands and communities they surrounded. In his work, Olmsted expanded the reach of parks by connecting them via greenways and boulevards. Probably the best example of this is Olmsted’s design of Boston’s famous “Emerald Necklace” which includes a series of parks (including Franklin Park, pictured below) linked with greenways.

Today, community activists want their gardens to reflect their wider neighborhood, especially the experiences of the people who live there. For instance, the Norris Square Neighborhood Project sought “an educational center that was culturally relevant to and protective of children” growing up in West Kensington, a Philadelphia neighborhood with rich Latinx cultural heritage. Grupo Motivos, a Puerto Rican women’s organization, converted six vacant lots into gardens in 1980, including Las Parcelas. That garden includes beds for vegetables and herbs and a classroom, “La Casita,” that resembles apres-World War II Puerto Rican home. It exhibits Puerto Rican crafts, and adults use the outdoor kitchen there for cooking demonstrations. The classroom, plus a stand where gardeners can sell produce, ensure that Las Parcelas imparts a healthful benefit beyond its gates.

The ubiquity of community-based gardens embodies just one of Olmsted’s lasting legacies: seeing the bigger picture when designing a landscape.

Beveridge, Charles. “Olmsted—His Essential Theory.” National Association of Olmsted Parks.

“Design Principles.” National Association for Olmsted Parks.

“Our Gardens.” Norris Square Neighborhood Project.

“Our History.” Norris Square Neighborhood Project.

Images from The Garden Club of America Collection and J. Horace McFarland Company Collection at the Archives of American Gardens. By Alanna Natanson, GCA Garden History & Design Intern at AAG. July 2020.

MA047 Franklin Park, Boston, MA. 1900. J. Horace McFarland Company Collection.

PA354 Las Parcelas, Philadelphia, PA. 2007. Ann L. Reed, photographer.


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