Celebrating 200 years of Olmsted’s American landscape architecture

Highlighting the beauty of landscapes, gardens, and the outdoors

April 26, 2022 marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Frederick Law Olmsted, known worldwide as the father of modern American landscape architecture. His designs and green oases dot cities across America, including in the backyard of the MIT Press; the lauded Emerald Necklace string of parks meandering through Boston offers notable examples of his vision.

To mark the occasion, we’ve gathered a selection of books covering topics in landscape architecture—including an anthology of Olmsted’s own writings. If you’re looking for more, explore all of our books on landscape architecture.

Civilizing American Cities: A Selection of Frederick Law Olmsted’s Writings on City Landscape by Frederick Law Olmsted, edited by Stephanne Sutton

In the 1800s, Frederick Law Olmsted recognized the need for extensive planning if American cities were to become civilized environments for humans. The selections in this book demonstrate his understanding of urban spaces and how, when politically unobstructed, he was able to manipulate them. While Sutton has concentrated on Olmsted’s contributions to the theory and practice of city planning, her anthology reveals a broad and comprehensive cross section of his career. At the end of his career, Olmsted could look on 17 large public parks as well as numerous smaller works and comment: “I know that in the minds of a large body of men of influence I have raised my calling from the rank of a trade, even of a handicraft, to that of a liberal profession, an art, an art of design.”

“The works and influence of Frederick Olmsted were so great that it takes a carefully edited work such as this to bring his mind, social conscience, and artistic gift into focus.” —Arizona Architect

Mapping Boston edited by Alex Krieger and David Cobb

To the attentive user, even the simplest map can reveal not only where things are but how people perceive and imagine the spaces they occupy. Mapping Boston is an exemplar of such creative attentiveness—bringing the history of one of America’s oldest and most beautiful cities alive through the maps that have depicted it over the centuries. The book includes both historical maps of the city and maps showing the gradual emergence of the New England region from the imaginations of explorers to a form that we would recognize today. Each map is accompanied by a full description and by a short essay offering an insight into its context. The topics of these essays by Anne Mackin include people both familiar and unknown, landmarks, and events that were significant in shaping the landscape or life of the city. 

“Every major city needs a book like this to document its geographic memory.” —David Woodward, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Conflicted American Landscapes by David E. Nye

Amber waves of grain, purple mountain majesties: Americans invest much of their national identity in sites of natural beauty. And yet American lands today are torn by conflicts over science, religion, identity, and politics. Creationists believe that the biblical flood carved landscapes less than ten thousand years ago; environmentalists protest pipelines; western states argue that the federal government’s land policies throttle free enterprise; Native Americans demand protection for sacred sites. In this book, David Nye looks at Americans’ irreconcilable ideas about nature.

“A well-argued account of how different constituencies view landscapes differently, making agreement on their conservation and use nearly impossible.” —Kirkus Reviews

Rebuilding Central Park: A Management and Restoration Plan by Elizabeth Barlow Rogers

Open Access edition available provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities/Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Humanities Open Book Program

Central Park’s legacy is unique. It was America’s first great open space designed specifically for public use by Frederick Law Olmsted, inspiring the creation of hundreds of other municipal parks across the nation and spawning the profession of landscape architecture in the United States. Illustrated throughout with 2-color and tinted maps and drawings and numerous photographs, Rebuilding Central Park was the first close examination of these invaluable 843 acres in more than a century when it was first published in 1987. It unfolds a masterful design and management plan to overcome the effects of years of city budget cuts, natural aging, and human use and abuse and offers a path forward for one of the most iconic public spaces in the world.

Overgrown: Practices between Landscape Architecture and Gardening by Julian Raxworthy

As a discipline, landscape architecture has distanced itself from gardening, and landscape architects take pains to distinguish themselves from gardeners or landscapers. Landscape architects tend to imagine gardens from the office, representing plants with drawings or other simulations, whereas gardeners work in the dirt, in real time, planting, pruning, and maintaining. In Overgrown, Raxworthy calls for the integration of landscape architecture and gardening. Each has something to offer the other: Landscape architecture can design beautiful spaces, and gardening can enhance and deepen the beauty of garden environments over time. Growth, says Raxworthy, is the medium of garden development; landscape architects should leave the office and go into the garden in order to know growth in an organic, nonsimulated way.

“This provocative, important, and original book is required reading for landscape architects and for all who care about plants and design.” —Anne Whiston Spirn, author of The Language of Landscape

What Is Landscape? by John R. Stilgoe

Landscape, John Stilgoe tells us, is a noun. From the old Frisian language (once spoken in coastal parts of the Netherlands and Germany), it meant shoveled land: landschop. Sixteenth-century Englishmen misheard or mispronounced this as landskep, which became landskip, then landscape, designating the surface of the earth shaped for human habitation. In What Is Landscape? Stilgoe maps the discovery of landscape by putting words to things, zeroing in on landscape’s essence but also leading sideways expeditions through such sources as children’s picture books, folklore, deeds, antique terminology, out-of-print dictionaries, and conversations with locals. (“What is that?” “Well, it’s not really a slough, not really, it’s a bayou…”) He offers a highly original, cogent, compact, gracefully written narrative lexicon of landscape as word, concept, and path to discoveries.

“Mr. Stilgoe does not ask that we take his book outdoors with us; he believes that reading and experiencing landscapes are activities that should be kept separate. But, as I learned in his book, the hollow storage area in a car driver’s door was once a holster, the ‘secure nesting place of a pistol.’ I recommend you stow your copy there.” —The Wall Street Journal

The Meaning of Gardens edited by Mark Francis and Randolph T. Hester, Jr.

Gardens reveal the relationship between culture and nature, yet in the vast library of garden literature few books focus on what the garden means—on the ecology of garden as idea, place, and action. The Meaning of Gardens maps out how the garden is perceived, designed, used, and valued. Essays from a variety of disciplines are organized around six metaphors special to our time—the garden muses of Faith, Power, Ordering, Cultural Expression, Personal Expression, and Healing. Each muse suggests specific inspirations for garden and landscape design.

“[The Meaning of Gardens] is thought-provoking on almost every page. It will help us to understand the why of gardening.” —Christopher Reed, Horticulture

Site Planning: International Practice by Gary Hack

Cities are built site by site. Site planning—the art and science of designing settlements on the land—encompasses a range of activities undertaken by architects, planners, urban designers, landscape architects, and engineers. This book offers a comprehensive, up-to-date guide to site planning that is global in scope. It covers planning processes and standards, new technologies, sustainability, and cultural context, addressing the roles of all participants and stakeholders and offering extensive treatment of practices in rapidly urbanizing countries.

Site Planning will be the new go-to book for those wishing to advance sustainable, ethical urban design and development without sacrificing crucial causes or value.” —Eran Ben-Joseph, MIT

DIRT edited by Megan Born, Helene Furján and Lily Jencks

Dirt presents a selection of works that share dirty attitudes: essays, interviews, excavations, and projects that view dirt not as filth but as a medium, a metaphor, a material, a process, a design tool, a narrative, a system. Rooted in the landscape architect’s perspective, Dirt views dirt not as repulsive but endlessly giving, fertile, adaptive, and able to accommodate difference while maintaining cohesion. This dirty perspective sheds light on social connections, working processes, imaginative ideas, physical substrates, and urban networks. Dirt is a matrix; as a book, it organizes contributions from architecture, landscape architecture, urban planning and design, historic preservation, fine arts, and art history.

Fresh Pond: The History of a Cambridge Landscape by Jill Sinclair

Fresh Pond Reservation, at the northwest edge of Cambridge, Massachusetts, has been described as a “landscape loved to death.” Certainly it is a landscape that has been changed by its various uses over the years and one to which locals have felt an intense attachment. In Fresh Pond, Jill Sinclair tells the story of the pond and its surrounding land through photographs, drawings, maps, plans, and an engaging narrative of the pond’s geological, historical, and political ecology. Fresh Pond has been a Native American hunting and fishing ground; the site of an eighteenth-century hotel offering bowling, food and wine, and impromptu performances by Harvard men; a summer retreat for wealthy Bostonians; a training ground for trench warfare; a location for picnics and festivals for workers and sporting activities for all. The parkland features an Olmsted design, albeit an imperfectly realized one. Sinclair’s celebration of a local landscape also alerts us to broader issues—shifts in public attitudes toward nature (is it brutal wilderness or in need of protection?) and water (precious commodity or limitless flow?)—that resonate as we remake our relationship to the landscape.

“Sinclair’s richly illustrated study traces the shifting cultural meaning of Cambridge’s most important public landscape through generations of use and abuse. Well researched and eloquently written, this is landscape history at its best.” —Robin Karson, author of A Genius for Place

Explore more of the MIT Press’s books on landscape architecture