Jen Mergel on Frederick Law Olmsted’s indelible legacy at Boston Design Week 2022

The Director of Experience and Cultural Partnerships for Boston's Emerald Necklace Conservancy speaks on Olmsted’s ideals and highlights events for his bicentennial.

by Jerry ElengicalPublished on : Jun 22, 2022

April 26, 1822, marked the birth of Frederick Law Olmsted - a figure whose monumental influence on urban development within the United States of America is on a level that few can ever hope to match. Widely regarded as the "father of landscape architecture", Olmsted had a hand in innumerable projects that brought green public space to the fore of urban America during the 19th century, while also striving to make it equitable and accessible to people from all walks of life, for the betterment of society as a whole. Citing both the health benefits and the civic sense they help propagate, Olmsted's beliefs on the importance of urban green space are now embodied in a slew of America’s most coveted parks and gardens - including the likes of New York's Central Park that he designed alongside Calvert Vaux, and Boston’s Emerald Necklace, a massive chain of parks and waterways between Boston and Brookline, Massachusetts, alongside countless other landscape design endeavours. Revered for his masterful attention to detail and unique conceptualisation of spatial ebb and flow, Olmsted's naturalistic style emphasised both the scenic angle of place-making as well as preserving and harnessing the existing features of a site. Furthermore, his multidisciplinary approach to design was a product of the diversity of his lived experiences, as he was also a journalist for the New York Daily Times, a social critic, a public administrator who directed the US Sanitary Commission, and a fervent abolitionist, whose writings, ideas, and public initiatives transformed urban space and the very essence of how people inhabit it.

Frederick Law Olmsted | Interview with Jen Mergel | Boston Design Week | STIRworld
Frederick Law Olmsted Image: James Notman, Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons

Now, 200 years on, the Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site in association with the Emerald Necklace Conservancy - a private non-profit stewardship organisation committed to preserving Olmsted-designed parks in Boston - have commissioned a year-long series of events commemorating the man who shaped America's parks. The initiative, titled 'Olmsted Now', is both Greater Boston’s bicentennial and a coalition-led platform that seeks to reshape the city to be more inclusive, verdant, and filled with life - just as Olmsted himself had imagined. It is also part of Olmsted 200 - a larger program that extends to other cities throughout the US, hosted by the National Association for Olmsted Parks. Through exhibitions, lectures, guided tours, and other celebrations in Olmsted-designed parks, the programs aim to educate and memorialise the life of a man who made urban America a greener and more vibrant place to live.

Aerial view of the Boston Common | Interview with Jen Mergel | Boston Design Week | STIRworld
Aerial view of the Boston Common Image: AbhiSuryawanshi, Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons

Speaking to STIR, Jen Mergel, a curator, cultural leader, and the inaugural Director of Experience and Cultural Partnerships for Boston's Emerald Necklace Conservancy, reveals her impressions of a multifaceted individual who was far before his time in every respect, while outlining the series of events that celebrated his achievements both during this year's edition of Boston Design Week, and in the months following it.

  • Arnold Arboretum, Jamaica Plain, Boston, Massachusetts | Interview with Jen Mergel | Boston Design Week | STIRworld
    Arnold Arboretum, Jamaica Plain, Boston, Massachusetts Image: Daderot, Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons
  • Franklin Park, in Boston's Emerald Necklace | Interview with Jen Mergel | Boston Design Week | STIRworld
    Franklin Park, in Boston's Emerald Necklace Image: Sarah Nichols, Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons

Jerry Elengical: After working on this program and delving deeply into his life, what is your impression of Frederick Law Olmsted?

Jen Mergel: While I am not a historian of landscape architecture or urban planning, I am a curator of contemporary art, and do firmly believe Olmsted was one of the most important artists to define how Americans could understand and occupy green space, even today. In my writings on Olmsted Now's website, I have described Olmsted as a very "human humanist". While not perfect (no one is), Olmsted aspired to affirm people's sense of humanity, community, and freedom in American parks - from the smallest urban pocket park, front lawn, or train stop, to the largest neighbourhood, campus, or national park - using his unique attunement to nature's scale, palette, flow, and the unfolding of seasonal and geological time. Over the course of his lifetime during the 19th century, he not only witnessed but pioneered impactful change across a nation as it was transforming from agrarian to urban, from slave holding to (more) free, from folk traditions to scientifically informed, and from a culturally, economically, and sexually segregated society, to a more integrated cosmopolitan one. With the aspirational eye of an artist and practical eye of a problem solver, he keenly observed how to integrate the healing and connective qualities of greenspace into growing cities. My key takeaway on Olmsted is how he could anticipate that people from many walks of life could "come together" and "be seen coming together" to relearn how to simply “be” with each other and with nature's broader ecosystem, despite capitalist gears speeding the development of American society at a breakneck pace. Certainly, during the pandemic, when all other institutions were closed for learning, business, worship, commerce and culture, the parks - as Olmsted knew - could welcome us all to find respite just when we needed it. Olmsted Now invites us in this moment, to not just look back at his ideas and influence, but to grapple with our own present as we consider how to take his ideas forward for the next 200 years.

The Boylston Street bridge over the Muddy River in the 1890s | Interview with Jen Mergel | Boston Design Week | STIRworld
The Boylston Street bridge over the Muddy River in the 1890s Image: Detroit Publishing Company, Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons

Jerry: Could you elaborate on how this edition of Boston Design Week commemorated the life and work of someone who is arguably America’s most important landscape architect?

Jen: Because Boston Design Week chose "Boston Rethinks Design" as its 2022 theme, with a similar focus on looking back to look forward, Olmsted Now was very proud to be a programming partner. Special areas focused on 'Design' and 'Social Impact' - in today's terms on environmental concerns and on racial justice - related directly to Olmsted Now's explorations of environmental justice and spatial justice, harkening back to Olmsted's legacy work in what today we would call climate-responsive green infrastructure and democratic access to public space. Olmsted's designs were often multifunctional, with a greenspace like his Back Bay Fens, serving simultaneously as not only an ecosystem for many species, but also as beautiful public green space to convene, and as a new neighbourhood providing a cultural anchor for the city. Simultaneously, they would also serve as a transit connector and pleasure way for travel, as well as a flood protector and sanitary project to treat sewage. That Olmsted's practice operated at the intersection of so many design disciplines - the reason he invented the term and field of landscape architecture - means design week enthusiasts of almost all persuasions could appreciate his influence.

  • 'Parks as Platform' in Olmsted Park April 23, 2022 | Interview with Jen Mergel | Boston Design Week | STIRworld
    'Parks as Platform' in Olmsted Park April 23, 2022 Image: Tyahra Angus for the Emerald Necklace Conservancy
  • For this series of monthly park events, the Emerald Necklace Conservancy commissioned Culture House to engage park users to gather input about their perceptions and hopes for park experiences | Interview with Jen Mergel | Boston Design Week | STIRworld
    For this series of monthly park events, the Emerald Necklace Conservancy commissioned Culture House to engage park users to gather input about their perceptions and hopes for park experiences Image: Tyahra Angus for the Emerald Necklace Conservancy

Jerry: How have Olmsted’s ideals been embodied within the program of events?

Jen: For the full season of Olmsted Now from April through October, we have partnered with over 120 neighbourhood organisations, non-profit institutions, festivals, and civic departments to explore the themes of shared use, shared health, and shared power in parks and public space. The week of Olmsted's 200th birthday, April 26, included Boston Design Week programs that brought forward civic proclamations and awards for contemporary park advocacy and education at Jamaica Pond, the heart of Olmsted's Emerald Necklace Park system. Earlier in the week was a panel discussion on histories of design as well as political and cultural activism in parks co-hosted between the Conservancy, Garden Club of America's Boston Committee and Zoo New England in Franklin Park on the southernmost point of the Necklace, and later in the week there was a tour at the Necklace's northernmost point, Charlesgate, with the Conservancy and neighbourhood group Charlesgate Alliance that focused on revitalisation plans for the future of this vital link between Olmsted's designs, the Boston Common, Public Garden, and Mall. All of the Olmsted Now programs are meant to encourage collaboration across organisations and exploration for new audiences of ways to "rethink" Olmsted and public space for the 21st century and onwards.

  • The initiative sought to support community leaders by easing access and logistics to plan in-park events | Interview with Jen Mergel | Boston Design Week | STIRworld
    The initiative sought to support community leaders by easing access and logistics to plan in-park events Image: Tyahra Angus for the Emerald Necklace Conservancy
  • Boston urban planner and cultural producer Anita Morson Matra interviewing teens of the Emerald Necklace Conservancy's Youth Leadership Program in the Back Bay Fens about engagement strategies for a forthcoming program 'Baldwin in the Park' | Interview with Jen Mergel | Boston Design Week | STIRworld
    Boston urban planner and cultural producer Anita Morson Matra interviewing teens of the Emerald Necklace Conservancy's Youth Leadership Program in the Back Bay Fens about engagement strategies for a forthcoming program 'Baldwin in the Park' Image: Jen Mergel

Jerry: In your view, how revolutionary were Olmsted’s ideas during his lifetime and how has his thinking defined the urban landscape of Boston today?

Jen: In his lifetime, Olmsted developed ideas so forward thinking that the country is still working on keeping up with them. His direct observations of slavery (compiled in his abolitionist anthology The Cotton Kingdom) outlined for British readers not only why a more humane, humanising relationship to landscape was the morally just cause, but why the British should support the Union North instead of Confederate South in the American Civil War. Many argue his book was a convincing factor to the British support that impacted the outcome of what could have resulted in a very different United States. And yet the country still struggles to meet the ideals he set forth. Olmsted's conviction in fact-based, digested argument led him to co-found The Nation magazine, after his career as a journalist for the nascent New York Times. His attention to on the ground factual reporting could not be more relevant than now. Likewise, his experience as Secretary of the Union Army's US Sanitary Commission affirmed his instincts about the healing effects of fresh water, clean air filtered by tree leaves, and calming immersion in nature - especially for those cramped in tenements between six-day factory work weeks - well before the science proved his observations. And his instinct to ensure that those fresh off the boat as immigrants had just as much right to access nature as those who came over on the Mayflower, inspired him to design a diverse range of parks, parkways, waterways, and carriageways that connected Beacon Hill to over a dozen neighbourhoods further south through a seven mile green ribbon that everyone could enjoy without ever having to leave the city. When the nation was desperately in need of healing after the Civil War, his ideas that people could commune, not just with nature but with each other in these spaces, aspired to build bonds across society that we can still work toward today.

January 1894 map of Olmsted's plan for the Emerald Necklace | Interview with Jen Mergel | Boston Design Week | STIRworld
January 1894 map of Olmsted's plan for the Emerald Necklace Image: Olmsted, Olmstead & Eliot, Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons

Jerry: Do you see any contemporary application to new landscape spaces in urban areas?

Jen: A great example of Olmsted's design ideas still being applied today are in Charlesgate Park, where the team of Dan and Marie Adams of the firm LANDING STUDIO have innovated and updated Olmsted's ideas about the flow of both water and people after the site had been sliced and connections severed by the speedways of Storrow Drive and the Bowker Overpass. The Adamses are revitalising Olmsted's original vision for the Muddy River and non-car traffic to flow directly back into and along the Charles River, with green infrastructure solutions and community driven activations of the space that will strengthen the social and natural ecosystem once again. Other examples currently in the works include Chris Reed of Stoss Architecture letting Olmsted's designs for South Boston's Marine Park (now along Moakley Park) incorporate his ideas for multifunctional flood protection and recreation, and the firms of Reed Hildebrand, Agency, and MASS Design Group working on the Franklin Park Action Plan to reconsider the original transitways and edges of the park for "calmer" use.

Charlesgate Park's location within the Emerald Necklace | Interview with Jen Mergel | Boston Design Week | STIRworld
Charlesgate Park's location within the Emerald Necklace Image: Courtesy of the Emerald Necklace Conservancy

Jerry: With regards to how long some of these events have been in the works, what were some of the curatorial and logistical challenges of bringing such a diverse program of events to fruition while working in collaboration with the organisers of Boston Design Week, particularly under a post-pandemic scenario?

Jen: Like all non-profits and initiatives trying to navigate the pandemic, we had to shift collaborative planning for the bicentennial to online formats and work more intentionally with neighbourhood leaders in the process, as we were physically unable to meet and build trust in person. We held equity impact goals at a high level and had to work harder alongside some great facilitators, while also being flexible with partners, especially those in performance or theatre, who were simply unable to realise projects when they were still rebuilding programming, despite loss of revenue and rehearsal opportunities. The entire Olmsted Now effort became a mechanism to support and amplify great work and potential connections between colleagues, and a space to shine a light on others and cede central decision-making with grace and flexibility so many more voices could be involved.

  • Gerry Wright, founder of Olmsted 2022 and social advocate for the legacy of Olmsted and his parks in Boston, cutting a cake for the bicentennial as Olmsted at Jamaica Pond | Interview with Jen Mergel | Boston Design Week | STIRworld
    Gerry Wright, founder of Olmsted 2022 and social advocate for the legacy of Olmsted and his parks in Boston, cutting a cake for the bicentennial as Olmsted at Jamaica Pond Image: Chris McIntosh for the Emerald Necklace Conservancy
  • | Interview with Jen Mergel | Boston Design Week | STIRworld
    The Juventas Music Ensemble performing at Multicultural Arts Center, Cambridge, during the world premiere of 'The Emerald Necklace,' a composition by Oliver Caplan as part of the program 'Lungs of the City,' co-organised with Landscape Music as part of the national bicentennial Olmsted 200 and local Boston bicentennial Olmsted Now Image: Jen Mergel

Jerry: Are there any events under the bicentennial celebrations that you would like to highlight in particular?

Jen: Some great innovations and memorable highlights in the first third of our season include:

  • The March 30-April 2 symposium in Boston titled Olmsteds: Landscapes and Legacies, co-organised with Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site and NCPTT (the Park Service's National Center for Preservation, Technology and Training) and hosted at the Boston Public Library and Boston Society of Architects.
  • The Mayor of Boston's mural crew gathered green moss from Olmsted's Franklin Park into letters spelling out an Olmsted quote on the side of the boathouse pavilion overlooking Jamaica Pond. This gesture literally brought his ideas to life with materials he propagated over a century prior.
  • Juventas music program partnered with Landscape Music to commission eight new compositions inspired by Olmsted Landscapes for Lungs of the City which world premiered in Cambridge indoors - and a composition focused on the Emerald Necklace that was performed live outdoors at Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site on June 4.
  • First-time collaborations with other free live music performances, including Boston Arts & Music Soul Fest in Franklin Park in June, Fenway Porchfest in The Fens in July, and JP Porchfest on Jamaica Pond in August.
  • Online Public Dialogues with guiding community voices about parks as sites for food justice (edible landscapes), mental health, and spatial justice. The next dialogue on June 15 featured Stephen Gray, Ethan Carr, and Rolf Diamont in conversation about the "public" role of parks in the urban and national contexts, discussing the book Olmsted & Yosemite
Gathered and created by the Mayor of Boston's Mural Crew, moss forms the last lines of an Olmsted quote on the boathouse pavilion of Jamaica Pond | Interview with Jen Mergel | Boston Design Week | STIRworld
Gathered and created by the Mayor of Boston's Mural Crew, moss forms the last lines of an Olmsted quote on the boathouse pavilion of Jamaica Pond Image: Chris McIntosh for the Emerald Necklace Conservancy

Jerry: What impact do you hope this program will have on the future of Boston’s urban sphere, within the professional and educational realms, as well as in the wider community?

Jen: In the aftermath of COVID-19, we hope to first and foremost practice how to partner and partner differently, to program in and for parks in ways that no organisation can do alone. We also hope to have frank, critical, and healing dialogues on who parks are (and historically have not been) for and how to navigate issues of land stewardship taking into account and respectfully learning from the millennia of stewardship indigenous cultures have shown lands and waters long before and since Olmsted designed spaces. We want to continue asking questions such as: "How can green space be reparative, connective, and healing when we need it most?" Just like Olmsted did, but for our time.

Boston Public Garden | Interview with Jen Mergel | Boston Design Week | STIRworld
Boston Public Garden Image: FASTILY, Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons

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