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Setting the Stage

In the mid-19th century many urban centers saw their population double within a few decades, mostly through a huge influx of European immigrants. The cities were ill prepared to absorb such large numbers. Without a proper sanitation system to handle trash and human waste, epidemics raged unchecked. Mental health suffered as groups of people, many from agrarian cultures, tried to adjust to these new conditions.

Frederick Law Olmsted (1822-1903), widely recognized as America's premier landscape architect, believed that overcrowding in cities made people nervous and wary of one another as well as susceptible to disease. He suggested that while many people may have had to live in claustrophobic urban neighborhoods, planned parks and open spaces could serve as a respite by providing beautiful, tranquil, and healthy environments. He felt that parks would improve the health, disposition, and morals of city dwellers, and in particular, the poor and the sickly.

These views, steeped in the Romantic and Transcendental beliefs that nature was a necessary element in psychological and physical survival, were first fully realized in the United States between 1857 and 1863. Olmsted and his partner, architect Calvert Vaux, designed and oversaw construction of New York's 800-acre Central Park, the first large open urban space set aside for recreational use. Central Park served as the catalyst for other parks in cites such as Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Boston. In the 1870s, the City of Boston hired Olmsted, whose expertise was much in demand at the time, to develop plans for a park system.

 

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