In 1930, Olmsted Brothers – the firm started by the sons of Frederick Law Olmsted, who designed New York’s Central Park, created the field of landscape architecture, and was passionately committed to equal justice through the abolition of slavery – and Bartholomew & Associates published a report called Parks, Playgrounds and Beaches for the Los Angeles Region. If that report were published for the first time today, it would be considered a best practice of insight and creativity.
According to the Olmsted Report:
Continued prosperity will depend on providing needed parks, because, with the growth of a great metropolis here, the absence of parks will make living conditions less and less attractive, less and less wholesome. . . In so far, therefore, as the people fail to show the understanding, courage, and organizing ability necessary at this crisis, the growth of the Region will tend to strangle itself.
So how are we doing today in relation the recommendations put forth by the Olmsted Report?
- The Olmsted Report proposed a web of parks, schools and transportation to serve diverse green needs, including active and passive recreation. Today L.A. has the best chance ever to implement part of this vision. Plans are underway for greening the L.A. and San Gabriel Rivers; the San Gabriel national monument and national recreation; the Rim of the Valley from the Santa Monica Mountains to the Angeles National Forest; and expanding Transit to Trails. But there is no unified plan like the Olmsted plan.
- The Report recognized that low-income people often live in less desirable areas, have fewer leisure opportunities, and should receive first consideration in access to parks and recreation. Equal access to parks and recreation remains an unrealized dream, with displacement and gentrification threatening progress made.
- The Report proposed integrating forests and mountains as part of the park system. President Barack Obama has dedicated the national monument in the San Gabriel Mountains. A national recreation area there, and expanding the Rim of the Valley, remain the subjects of major organizing efforts.
- The Report recommended greening the Los Angeles and San Gabriel Rivers. Over 80 years later, plans to revitalize those and other urban rivers are under way – but there is no money yet to implement those plans. The US Army Corps of Engineers has a $1.3 billion to restore 11 miles of the river, for example.
- The Report called for the shared use of parks and schools, with five acres or more of playing fields to make optimal use of land and public resources. Today shared use between cities and school districts remains mostly just a good idea, while green space agencies and advocates are often at odds about allowing soccer and other sports in public parks.
- The Report advocated doubling public beaches. Today efforts continue to keep public beaches open for all to overcome privatization in wealthy beach front communities.
- The Report advocated multi-benefit projects for park, water, and flood control purposes. Today these ideas are holding sway.
- The Report envisioned transportation to reach parks, school fields, rivers, beaches, mountains, and forests. Today there is virtually no way to reach mountains and forests without a car — but Transit to Trails and Every Kid in a Park offer hope!
- The Report recommended the creation of a regional park authority with power to raise dedicated funds to acquire and develop parks and other natural public places. Today budget cuts often threaten parks. Billions of dollars in bond measures are slated to be on the ballot in 2016.
Each of the Olmsted recommendations remains valid today – but largely unfulfilled.
Implementing the Olmsted vision would have made Los Angeles one of the most beautiful and livable places in the world. Powerful private interests and civic leaders demonstrated a tragic lack of vision and judgment when they killed the Olmsted Report. Politics, bureaucracy, and greed overwhelmed the Olmstedian vision in a triumph of private power over public space and social democracy.
The people of Los Angeles today have the best opportunity ever to restore a part of the Olmsted vision. Whose dreams will come true?
See ParkIndex Los Angeles County Green Access and Equal Justice for All. Click on the image to enlarge.