Design and (or versus?) Nature (Smithson, Frederick Law Olmsted and the Dialectical Landscape)

“This does not mean one is helpless before nature, but rather that nature’s conditions are unexpected, like Price’s hill torn by the flood. In another sense Olmsted’s parks exist before they are finished, which means in fact they are never finished; they remain carriers of the unexpected and of contradiction on all levels of human activity, be it social, political, or natural.” (Smithson, p. 119)

I lived in Manhattan for 4 years and Central Park is really quite a bizarre concept: a rectangle of green designed by humans to look as “natural” as possible before being plopped down in the middle of a crowded asphalt island. The city itself is a product of design with a well-coordinated grid system. Streets run east to west and avenues run north to south with most having logical, numerical names (that is, until you get downtown and everything turns into a diagonal, jumbled mess).

To what extent can humans design around nature? When do natural forces take over? Does nature design us?


@audrey that’s awesome you have four years of experience with Central Park and Manhattan! I agree it’s a strange concept. The questions you posed are really interesting. Reading this article definitely made me think more about the concepts of urbanity and nature in general. I thought about Central Park and Prospect Park in NYC and lots of little parks around Baltimore. What do we expect from our parks? What do we want, ideally, in a park? I thought more about the purpose of creating parks in urban spaces, whether it is to have something that represents what is not manmade in the middle of everything manmade (urbanity), to have representative elements from nature that we find inspiring or pleasing, to create some kind of specific experience or space? Maybe, as much as we can find a pleasing aesthetic in the industrial (perhaps it’s conditioned, if it represents to us “progress” and “prosperity”) natural forces take over --like you mentioned, Audrey-- and we find ourselves in need of something green, a planned park or some seeds that just spring up unplanned in the middle of urbanity.


I also have a lot of experience with Central Park! Growing up in Manhattan, Carl Shurz Park (a small park on the East River) and Central Park were the majority of my experience with green spaces growing up. I have also spent two summers working for the New York City Parks Department and got to see a lot of the behind the scenes on how New York parks are designed and maintained. What was most interesting to me is how much of our interaction with nature is curated. And not just the the manicured fields of Central Park: even in the more forested and “natural” parks like Van Cortlandt, people are cutting down broken branches, pruning thorny bushes, picking up trash, and planting more native flora.

In my Urban Ecology class last semester, we talked a lot about ideas like this, including the idea of remnant greenspaces (“untouched” land) vs. spontaneous greenspaces (urban land left untended and reclaimed by nature) vs. deliberative greenspaces (planned spaces like parks). One thing that surprised me was how little remnant land is left in cities. Stony Run, for example, feels like an untamed natural landscape, but was once a railroad line before the Olmstead firm came in and redesigned the park. In my mind, this highlights Olmstead’s dialectic – despite being built by humans the Olmsteads left room for nature to do its work, and the space has evolved into something that accommodates human and non-human life better than it would have had it been either bulldozed and or left completely untouched.


This idea of wilderness and nature untouched by humans has popped up in many of my classes over the years. I would argue that there is no land, no ecosystem, that has not been influenced by humans. Even the national parks that Theodore Roosevelt, John Muir, and others worked so hard to protect were once home to Indigenous peoples. These landscapes were carefully managed using controlled burns long before the concept of “wilderness” existed. My point in saying this is that I believe the dichotomy between humans and nature is a false one. We need to realize that we are a part of nature, not something outside of it. When we design, we should foster a harmonious relationship between the plants, animals, and ecosystems around us and ourselves.

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Good questions, Audrey. I think the point that stuck out to me in this article is that we tend to design our built world rigidly, expecting few changes to resilient architecture, whereas the natural world makes it clear that our environment is the result of a collaborative effort between human and extra-human nature. Surely it would be convenient to design, in this case, a park, build it, and call it a day. Unfortunately for our desire to skirt maintenance, extra-human nature thinks otherwise.

Not dissimilar to what Ally is saying, I read from this article that we should acknowledge the collaborative effort of design and maintenance shared by humans and extra-human nature. Our built environments - and by extension, we - are not outside the greater ecosystem’s sphere of influence, nor do our actions take place in a vacuum. We are very much a part of nature despite our rhetoric that sometimes leaves us in opposition.

Recognizing that our environment is not restricted to our control alone, I agree with Smithson in that “Olmsted’s parks exist before they are finished, which means in fact they are never finished” (119). We’re not talking about end products; we’re talking about processes.