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Parks celebrate famed designer Fredrick Law Olmsted's 200th birthday

SHANNON BOND, HOST:

Parks across the country are celebrating the bicentennial of the birth of Frederick Law Olmsted. He designed New York Central, Park. And today, Olmsted's legacy can be enjoyed in parks around the U.S., including a small village in upstate New York. North Country Public Radio's Emily Russell reports.

EMILY RUSSELL, BYLINE: The village of Saranac Lake, N.Y., looks like it's straight out of a postcard. There's a quaint main street that leads down to a beautiful lake. You can see mountains in the distance. And today, in a downtown park, 7-year-old Violet Moran steps up to a makeshift baseball plate.

RANDY HILL: OK. Are you ready, Miss Violet? Get her ready, grandma.

RUSSELL: Violet's grandpa, Randy Hill, throws an underhand pitch. Violet swings with everything she's got.

HILL: Woohoo. Homerun derby.

RUSSELL: Violet drops the bat and takes off running. This moment here, a family playing in a downtown public park, was the kind of thing dreamt up by Frederick Law Olmsted. He was born 200 years ago and designed dozens of parks across the country.

SARA ZEWDE: Our idea of what a public park looks like is, in large part, a function of Olmsted.

RUSSELL: That's Sara Zewde. She's a landscape architect who teaches at Harvard and is writing a book about Olmsted. He's best known for his designs, like Central Park and Prospect Park in Brooklyn, as well as park systems in Buffalo, Boston and Milwaukee. These massive green spaces feel both pastoral and wild. Zewde says Olmsted was driven by a kind of democratic ideal.

ZEWDE: Something that he fought for from the beginning was to keep landscapes from being designed for specific programs.

RUSSELL: Like tennis courts or ballfields.

ZEWDE: Which he himself thought was a - kind of an approach to segregation, in a sense.

RUSSELL: If you leave a park open without adding a bunch of buildings or barriers, more people can use it however they want. Zewde says that kind of design still pays off today. She lives in New York City, where folks flooded to the parks during the pandemic.

ZEWDE: I witnessed Central Park become a field hospital, you know? It became a mental health facility. It is so important to stormwater management and all of these kind of performances that this landscape offers.

RUSSELL: And Olmsted's legacy isn't just in massive urban parks. His landscape firm eventually designed a long list of green spaces, from university campuses to residential neighborhoods in places like Seattle and Los Angeles. They pitched their designs even to small, remote communities.

Down in the basement of the Saranac Lake Free Library, I meet Mary Hotaling. She used to run the local historical society. We're here to look at a big blue map of the village from 1909. It's part of what the Olmsted firm proposed for Saranac Lake.

MARY HOTALING: So all along here, there were buildings. See the outlines of them? And the plan was to acquire that property and tear down those buildings, which the village did, ultimately.

RUSSELL: That work took decades. The village actually originally passed on the Olmsted proposal. It was too expensive. And then a group of women got together and formed a local village improvement society to turn the plan into a reality with a few tweaks. Hotaling says because of the contemporary landscape, Saranac Lake will never look exactly like the Olmsted firm had envisioned.

HOTALING: Some things will never be done. This is built up along here. There are houses there. That's not going to become parkland. All plans change. You do what you can and watch and see what becomes of it.

HILL: OK, here we go. See if we can do it again. Strike one.

RUSSELL: Back at the park downtown, Violet's brother, Murphy, steps up to the pitcher's mound.

HILL: Big brother's going to show us. Woohoo. There we go. That just makes perfect.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Good job.

RUSSELL: On a patch of public land inspired by one man's vision of a greener America, Violet smiles as she runs around the park and heads for home plate. For NPR News, I'm Emily Russell in Saranac Lake, N.Y. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Emily Russell, NCPR