April 26, 2022 marks the 200th anniversary of Frederick Law Olmsted’s birth, and UB faculty member Adam Rome offers his insights into Olmsted’s life, legacy, and innovations in an upcoming Audible Original course.
Olmsted is best known for his work as a 19th century landscape architect. But the audio course, which begins April 21, offers insight into his work beyond that profession.
While Rome discusses many of Olmsted’s iconic projects, particularly New York’s Central Park, the three-hour Audible Original also details Olmsted’s role as a journalist, management pioneer and social reformer.
The course reflects on common themes that have shaped Olmsted’s work in these positions. In an introductory lecture, Rome tells listeners that the content is divided into sections regarding Olmsted’s commitment with big questions: “How can people develop a sense of community in a highly mobile and individualistic society? ? What is the future of the city? How can we avoid destroying our environment? What is the role of government in society?
Olmsted’s endeavors outside of landscape architecture have varied. He not only designed Central Park in partnership with Calvert Vaux, but also oversaw its construction as the park’s superintendent. Other management roles included heading the United States Sanitary Commission, which provided medical assistance to Union troops during the Civil War. Prior to all of this, Olmsted was a journalist. As Rome recounts, Olmsted’s press work included antebellum Southern dispatches for The New York Times that “strengthened support for the abolition of slavery” and formed the basis of the influential book. “The Cotton Kingdom”.
“Throughout his life, Olmsted asked big questions about the sustainability of society,” said Rome, professor of environment and sustainability at the College of Arts and Sciences, in an interview. “Olmsted’s life tells us a lot about the great challenges of his time — and ours. His way of thinking about what makes cities sustainable is incredibly relevant. It would also have a lot to say about the present, especially how we might deal with climate change and social divisions.
The idea that cities need to plan for the future and that green spaces are integral to the sustainability of cities is rooted in Olmsted’s work on public parks, Rome says. Parks could improve health and well-being. People needed somewhere to go to escape the busy streets, congestion, noise and stress. The trees purified the air.
These ideas remain relevant today. Olmsted and Vaux designed a system of parks in Buffaloand it was during a walk in one of these parks – Delaware Park – that Rome decided to create its audio trail.
It was early in the COVID-19 pandemic, and the park provided respite from the pressures of the day. The temperature had dropped below zero, but despite the cold, Rome stood in the snow, watching the sunset. The beauty of the moment inspired him.
“The park is 150 years old. It has survived many changes, and it always helps me to have hope that our society will endure, that we will find ways to overcome all of our problems,” Rome says.
In addition to Buffalo Parks, Olmsted’s work in Western New York included playing a leading role in a late 1800s campaign to restore the natural landscapes of the American side of Niagara Falls. The fight was successful, leading to the removal of structures near the cataract. Olmsted and Vaux were appointed to design the landscape.
After preparing a script, Rome traveled to a studio in Virginia in January to record the course on Olmsted. This is his second Audible Original. His first, “Earth Day genius”, discussed the first Earth Day in 1970 and the vast legacy of this event.
The development of these courses gave Rome the opportunity to explore teaching in a new medium. He had to think about how to connect with an anonymous audience of people who could be multitasking while listening. It encouraged him to find a more intimate voice and to think about pacing and ways to signal the important points ahead.
The Earth Day course was based on a book that Rome had written, but Olmsted’s course was the opposite. “I was fascinated by him for years,” Rome said, “and it was a beta test of everything I had to say about the continued importance of his life. And the answer is a lot.