America’s National Parks

Their principles, purposes, and prospects

Yellowstone National Park

Visitors at a hot spring in Yellowstone National Park, 1904

O.W. Dean, National Park Service Historic Photograph Collection
Rather than merely picking over the sterile fragments of official history that have been left us, we should turn our attention to the aspirations of those who devoted their lives to persuading the American public of the efficacy and importance of parks. Within that small but influential group, one figure, Frederick Law Olmsted, stands out above all others. It would be impertinent to insist that Congress must be charged with having mandated Olmsted’s beliefs into legislation, and it must be noted, with sadness, that Olmsted’s ideas have been substantially betrayed in each of the places he worked to save—Yosemite Valley, Niagara, Central Park. But it is not too much to suggest that the values he sought to advance in his professional life provide an appropriate background against which to test our national parks policy.

The key to understanding Olmsted’s thought is the recognition that he had more than merely a theory about recreation—he had a philosophy of leisure. His writings reveal that he held the same view of urban parks as of the national parks and, indeed, the same view of suburban residential developments as he did of urban and national parks. Every important idea in his 1865 Yosemite Report also appears in his work on Central Park, Niagara Falls, and the other places to which he turned his formidable talents.

Olmsted was not just a builder of parks; he was the author of a distinctive theory about the role parks ought to play in a democratic society. Nothing was further from his view than the now widely held idea that in a democracy the sole acceptable park policy is to facilitate access for the greatest number of people that can be accommodated and then to establish whatever activities the popular sentiments of the hour appear to demand. Instead he held to what might elaborately be called an intertemporal theory of democratic legitimacy: that the justification for the use of the parks must be sought in the long-term judgment of the people and that there was a legitimate role for leadership in a democratic society.

Olmsted never had the slightest doubt that he would be vindicated by history. In what was probably the most revealing statement he ever made, he reflected late in his life that there were “scattered through the country seventeen large public parks . . . upon which . . . I have been engaged. . . . They are a hundred years ahead of any spontaneous public demand.” To the charges, made repeatedly during his career, that he was what we would call an elitist, Olmsted had a two-word reply—Central Park. The great achievement of his life was the design of a park that met no extant public demand because no such park had been conceived of until he created it. He said of Central Park, “A large part of the people of New York are ignorant of a park, properly so-called. They will need to be trained to the use of it. . . .”

When a question arose in Central Park’s early days about its remote location from the great bulk of the populace, so that it was accessible mainly to the affluent, Olmsted coolly responded that the park had been designed to be in the middle of the city when New York doubled its size. Long before Manhattan became a treeless vista of vast towers that dwarfed the individual, Olmsted had the dazzling idea that the New York resident of the future would appreciate nothing so much as a rural vista. And in 1865, writing about then virtually unknown Yosemite, he could calmly and confidently talk about visitors in the “millions” that the next century would bring.

His vision, however, was not merely an exercise in prophecy. He saw the popular demands of the moment as being principally the product of self-interested manipulation by those who had much to gain by a determined shaping of public opinion to their own ends. In his Yosemite Report, he observes that the governing classes of Europe had preempted the great scenic resources to their own exclusive use not simply out of selfishness but because they had persuaded themselves that the masses were incapable of rising above a brutish existence. Thus they thought it was pointless to make available a form of leisure designed to elicit from the ordinary citizen the exercise of the “esthetic and contemplative faculties.”

The product of such a view was a policy that treated ordinary people as passive objects to be entertained at the most superficial level. The mass recreation that existed was not, in Olmsted’s view, a response to popular demand, but rather the calculated provision by those in control of a program of “bread and circuses.” The governing elite, Olmsted complained, think it desirable “so far as the recreations of the masses of the nation receive attention from their rulers, to provide artificial pleasure for them, such as theatres, parades, and promenades where they will be amused by the equipages of the rich and the animation of the crowds.” Of course, those who profited from the provision of mass entertainment were more than happy to make such passive “artificial pleasures” available.

The great test case for Olmsted was Niagara, for the campaign to “save” Niagara was, after all, a battle in service of a place that was the single most popular tourist attraction in the United States. Four years before the New York legislature authorized acquisition of the land bordering Niagara Falls, Olmsted responded to criticisms from those who had been making money providing tourist attractions and who thus opposed the park. According to them, Olmsted said, the flow of tourists had continued to grow despite all the developments that he and his associates so vigorously condemned.

Were all the trees cut away, quarries opened in the ledges, the banks packed with hotels and factories, and every chance open space occupied by a circus tent, the Falls would still, these think, draw the world to them. Whatever has been done to the injury of the scenery has been done, say they, with the motive of profit, and the profit realized is the public’s verdict of acquittal.

Just as fourteen years earlier, in the Yosemite Report, he had attacked those who condescended to the public by providing them with passive entertainments, here he made explicit his conviction that the public is perfectly capable of being led and can be induced to acquiesce in that which is put before them. His response was that “the public has not had the case fairly before it. The great body of visitors to Niagara come as strangers. Their movements are necessarily controlled by the arrangements made for them. They take what is offered, and pay what is required with little exercise of choice. The fact that they accept the arrangements is no evidence of their approval.”

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