Known as the father of landscape design, Frederick Law Olmsted is perhaps best known for his work on New York City’s Central Park. Olmsted was hired as the park’s superintendent when one of the original designers died unexpectedly.
Left in dire need of assistance, Calvert Vaux recruited an inexperienced Olmsted to take his deceased partner’s place. Despite his limited education, Olmsted shaped the iconic park with scenic viewpoints, open spaces and winding paths—features that would later became his thumbprint. Throughout his long and acclaimed career, Olmsted sought to create oases where city dwellers could retreat into nature while preserving the land for future generations. Though he would one day accomplish this in Atlanta, landscape design wasn’t the reason for Olmsted’s first visit down South.
A 30-year-old Olmsted initially traveled to Atlanta in 1852 on assignment for The New York Times. The political aficionado had been asked to write about slavery’s effects on the Southern economy. After completing his assignment, Olmsted returned to New York, where he came to fame for his accomplishments in landscape architecture.
In 1892, Olmsted was once again Atlanta-bound—this time tasked with designing one of the city’s first planned suburbs, Druid Hills. Local businessman Joel Hurt was responsible for hiring Olmsted. Hurt knew of the designer’s extraordinary success and hoped to apply his singular talents to a rapidly sprawling Atlanta.
In Druid Hills, Olmsted incorporated large, open designs connected with nature to reflect the nation’s desire for unity as it recovered from a vicious Civil War. Today, Druid Hills remains an important example of urban planning. The historic neighborhood’s central street surrounded by pockets of green has since inspired the designs for Ansley Park and Morningside, two similarly charming Atlanta neighborhoods.
Likewise, Olmsted Linear Park became a model for future greenspaces. The six-segment design employs Olmsted’s curvilinear style in which small parks adorn both sides of a straight line, in this case Ponce de Leon Avenue, like wings. Each half-moon park has its own name and style—simpler designs on the north end lead into forested landscapes in the south.
Druid Hills turned out to be one of Olmsted’s last commissions, as the landscape visionary died in 1903. Luckily for Atlanta, Olmsted’s son, Frederick Jr., and stepson, John, were talented landscape architects who successfully brought his Southern endeavors to completion.
Through their late father’s legacy, the Olmsted brothers were commissioned to transform the rundown fairgrounds of the Cotton States and International Exhibition into a modern public park for Atlanta in 1912. They submitted a plan for Piedmont Park to the city, which was not fully realized due to budgetary restrictions.
The plan featured elements visitors may recognize today, including sloping hills and trails, which the City of Atlanta and Piedmont Park Conservancy added to the park in 1995 to reflect the original vision. “When you look at what the Olmsteds created around the country, to not honor that influence would be a missed opportunity,” noted Mark Banta, the president and CEO of the Piedmont Park Conservancy. Considered Atlanta’s Central Park, Piedmont Park now features curved paths, connected ovals and open areas reminiscent of its Northern sister park.
Today, Piedmont Park is the city’s most popular and recognizable greenspace. The park is home to myriad events such as the Peachtree Road Race, Dogwood Festival, Music Midtown, farmers markets and festivals almost every weekend during warm-weather.
Even modern developments share Olmsted’s vision of an urban oasis. Atlanta’s new penchant for transforming unused railroads into trails has greatly helped to improve the quality of life of the city’s residents. In 1998, the Silver Comet Trail transformed 33 miles of abandoned tracks into a multiuse trail from Georgia to Alabama.
The Atlanta BeltLine has done the same for a ring of unused tracks encircling the city. The BeltLine was born when former Georgia Tech student Ryan Gravel detailed the idea, originally envisioned as a light rail system, in his 1999 graduate thesis. According to Gravel’s thesis, the BeltLine could “change the way we experience and understand the city” while also “[improving] our quality of life.”
With work beginning in 2006, the BeltLine master plan now includes five components that either exist or are in the works: multiuse trails, parks (including a skate park), light rail transit, affordable housing developments and public-art installations. What’s more, the BeltLine has attracted an impressive number of new restaurants, bars, shops and galleries, all of which consider proximity to the trail a highly sought-after amenity.
The BeltLine’s trails have been influenced by Olmsted’s designs and his desire to connect people, offering an unlikely means of transportation and access to different neighborhoods. The 2.7-mile Eastside Trail alone was treaded on by over 2 million feet in 2014. On a nice day, this short trail gets packed with joggers, cyclists and strollers soaking in the sunshine.
“Olmsted’s style strikes a balance between nature and infrastructure, for he believed that urban parks and parkways should have multiple uses and a wide array of activities,” explains Sandra Kruger, director of the Olmsted Linear Park Alliance. “More and more projects are embracing that concept, the BeltLine being a great example—it is beautiful landscape with a variety of trees and shrubs, a wide path for walking, running or biking, but it also brings together a community that might not otherwise cross paths. Designs of such create social and cultural opportunities.”
What Frederick Law Olmsted sought to create was a space where people from all walks of life and all ranges of beliefs could come together. Despite Atlanta’s penchant for change, Olmsted would be pleased to know the city remains united by the natural beauty that, to this day, makes Atlanta “The City in a Forest.”