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Frederick Law Olmsted and the City Beautiful Movement

Frederick Law Olmsted (1822-1903), about 1860 Riverside Drive near Claremont, looking south

Riverside Drive Looking South. Stiles, William A. "Riverside Park." The Century: a popular quarterly, Vol. 30, Issue 6 (Oct 1885).

Frederick Law Olmsted was born in 1822 in Hartford, Connecticut.  As a social reformer, he felt that public parks should be democratic spaces where all classes of society could experience healthy recreation and the beauty of nature. His park designs emphasized a naturalistic style, using the contours of the land to create the best experience for all park users.

The United States was shifting from an agrarian to an urban country in the latter half of the nineteenth century, especially with the expansion of the railroads. There was enormous growth in the population of cities and the development of urban life. Crowded tenements, air pollution and city grime led to the idea of the city beautiful movement, an approach to urban planning that embraced the beautification of cities in order to promote positive social and moral behavior. Olmsted was one of the champions of this movement. He felt that urban parks would provide city dwellers the chance to experience nature and fresh air, enhancing city life for all its inhabitants.

After an accomplished career, Frederick Law Olmsted died in 1903, having made a significant contribution to urban parks across the country as well as to the profession of American landscape architecture. The firm he founded was continued by his heirs and successors until 1980. The National Park Service purchased his home and office and opened them to the public as a museum.

Olmsted’s papers are housed in the Library of Congress, while the Olmsted National Historic site preserves his drawings and plans. See:

Frederick Law Olmsted and the City Beautiful Movement