Left: Crowded conditions inside a New York tenement house, 1883. [via Library of Congress
] Right: Rudolf Virchow (seated) attends an operation, 1904. [via Wikimedia
In 1857, several events propelled Olmsted away from his role as an editor and public intellectual, which required that he report and reflect on these conditions, to a new role, which required that he play a central part in changing them. In the summer of 1857 his publishing venture failed (although his vision for Putnam's Monthly
would live on in the Atlantic Monthly
and Harper's Magazine
, both founded that year). That same summer Manhattan erupted in riots, as street gangs in overcrowded neighborhoods clashed with police; and the first public health convention convened in Philadelphia. Also that same year, Olmsted became the superintendent of Central Park, then being planned, and less than a year later, in April 1858, the Greensward Plan that he and the architect Calvert Vaux had prepared won the design competition for the Park.
Echoing the miasma theory, still in popular circulation, Olmsted argued that great public parks, such as his proposed Greensward, would function as the "lungs of the city" — green open spaces where city dwellers could breathe clean air. More accurate, in hindsight, was the emphasis Olmsted and Vaux placed on good sanitation — on well-drained land, well-circulating waterways and well-designed sanitary facilities — which reflected their knowledge of the sanitary movement and the connection the nascent field of public health had made between polluted water and disease.
Olmsted served as the chief architect of Central Park up until 1861, when political tensions with the Park's comptroller and board of commissioners led him to resign the position. Meanwhile, the reform-minded Unitarian minister, Henry Whitney Bellows, had been observing and admiring Olmsted's managerial skills in overseeing the construction of Central Park. Bellows, along with a group of prominent physicians, was advocating for the formation of an American Sanitary Commission, patterned after one formed in Britain, with the intent of improving the sanitation of the Union Army camps. Bellows asked Olmsted if he would serve as the general secretary and chief executive officer of the new Commission, which had been authorized by the War Department and created by legislation signed by President Abraham Lincoln in June 1861, two months after the start of the Civil War. Olmsted agreed.
Public health entered an epidemiological phase after the Civil War for another reason as well: the growing efficacy of the medical and pharmaceutical fields in ameliorating chronic diseases and epidemic outbreaks. Through the development of new drugs, the public health community managed to control once serious threats ranging from smallpox and measles to polio and diphtheria. And through the application of environmental chemicals, diseases such as malaria and yellow fever virtually disappeared from North America. Improved living standards certainly helped to curb such diseases, but the physical environment became, at best, a secondary concern for public health.
That has changed in recent years. The public health community continues successfully to curb the incidence of the diseases that respond to drug or chemical interventions. But today we face public health challenges very different in nature from those of earlier generations.
Today millions of people on the planet, especially in the rapidly growing cities of the developing world, endure living conditions much worse than what Olmsted witnessed in Lower Manhattan, and almost a billion lack easy access to clean water
. We confront as well — perhaps for the first time in history — the public health challenges of prosperity. We now identify diseases like cancer, heart failure, diabetes, emphysema and even obesity as "lifestyle diseases," resulting from individual and social behaviors, from personal choices and cultural patterns; indeed the Centers for Disease Control have been studying "urban sprawl and public health" for several years now.  We understand the problem: the increasingly sedentary, high-calorie lifestyle that's become common in wealthier countries has made obesity an epidemic, with all of the attendant malignancies and infarctions that come with it. Here, the causes lie even closer, no farther than the car-dominated cities we build, and the corn-syrup-laced beverages and high-fat foods we produce and market so aggressively.
Landscape Architecture and Public Health
And so, almost a century and a half after Olmsted left the U.S. Sanitary Commission, we find ourselves, once again, in an era when the larger issues of public health intersect the practices of landscape architecture, architecture and urbanism. And we might well wonder: What would Olmsted do, were he alive today, and facing such paradoxical threats, arising from scarcity in some places and from abundance in others? We might hazard a few guesses, as guides to what we might do now.
First, he would write and speak out about these issues. Olmsted achieved lasting fame as a landscape architect, but he began his career as a public intellectual, and he remained one to the very end of his career. As we can see from his collected papers, Olmsted wrote well and persuasively, and we need to do the same today. Landscape architecture, like all of the design disciplines, has become extremely dependent upon what others — clients mostly, but also communities — deem important; for this reason landscape architects more often than not implement the visions or policies of others. In an era of great change, such as ours, we need to adapt the methods Olmsted used in another turbulent time: defining the discourse, identifying the problems, and proposing the strategies and policies needed to resolve them. Some of that can happen through design, but nothing can replace the power of persuasive writing and speaking. We need more often to put aside the mouse, and take to the keyboard.
Second, Olmsted would partner with a wider range of disciplines than designers typically do now. At the Sanitary Commission, Olmsted's colleagues included an architect, Alfred Bloor, and an engineer, Bridgham Curtis, but they also included physicians, theologians, philanthropists and financial analysts. Olmsted needed such radically interdisciplinary teams to do the varied work required of the Commission, and the same is true today. The causes of homegrown lifestyle diseases and of global pandemics are complex and interwoven; it will take many disciplines, working together, to devise solutions. And of course Olmsted's example suggests that the landscape architect can function not only as an expert in how we inhabit and steward the land, but also as a manager of diverse teams of people. Olmsted knew something about sanitation — but just as important, he knew how to organize and operate a complex commission and oversee the work of a large multidisciplinary staff. This may in fact be among the more important skills landscape architects can offer today, as the field studies how settlement patterns, transportation modes, water quality, etc., relate to the ramifying problems of public health in an urbanizing world.
Finally, Olmsted would bring a sense of high professional purpose to the work; throughout his life he pursued larger social goals, regardless of cost, as opposed to the politically expedient or personally beneficial course. His conflicts with the Board of Commissioners at Central Park or with the Executive Committee of the Sanitary Commission arose out of his insistence that they authorize the money necessary to do the job right. (To a lesser extent, the conflicts also followed from his resistance to playing political favorites, something that, particularly in the case of Central Park, alienated him from the New York political bosses.) Surely a similar politics is at least partly responsible for the environments we have created for ourselves. The low-density development that contributes to our obesity, the air and water pollution that contributes to our cancer rates, and the systemic impoverishment that contributes to our pandemics — all are traceable to political decisions and cultures that favor property owners, developers, and landlords, and the banks and shareholders who benefit as well. We will never confront our contemporary public health problems in any meaningful way unless we question the prevailing power structures — unless we make a powerful case for long-range social good and challenge those who skew the rules in favor of short-term gain for an increasingly remote elite. It will take professionalism and political will, but the price of ignoring our contemporary public health crises — pandemics that will endanger billions, chronic diseases that damage lives and by extension the whole society — will be steep, and we will all pay it.
Frederick Law Olmsted's career as a landscape architect foretold where the field would go for its first century and a half in America. His career as the leader of the Sanitary Commission may foretell where the field needs to go in the next century. The health of all of us may depend on it.