Sustainable Site Planning, Design and Landscape Architecture


finding Olmsted's theory of design

One of my hardest tasks when I teach landscape design is explaining how to design. Is there a method or is it just innate talent? Are there guiding principles to the design of a landscape? I decided to look to the original master, Frederick Law Olmsted, and I asked my intern, Leo Abreu, to help. Leo spent hours researching all websites and available literature about Olmsted and specifically his process and theory of design. Leo uncovered several outlines of Olmsted’s beliefs that translated into his work. Especially interesting was how much Olmsted’s time in Connecticut and his father’s love of scenic landscapes guided him to a deep-seated belief that the scenic landscape is a necessary place for all people to spend time and take respite.

Olmsted was born and grew up in Hartford, CT.  While riding horse-back with his father through the countryside surrounding Hartford, Olmsted experienced the 19th century agrarian Connecticut landscape. He was impressed by its vistas, rolling hills, rock outcroppings, streams, and charming structures. This early landscape experience became the lens through which Olmsted would view his future designs.

Olmsted was also influenced by books he read at the Hartford Young Men’s Institute. One was Solitude by Johann Georg Zimmermann. The premise of the book is not that we should live entirely in solitude, but that we should occasionally take respite in nature to balance one’s body and mind. Olmsted read books on landscape art that helped develop his aesthetic viewpoint and opened his mind to the power of scenery. Uvedale’s An Essay on the Picturesque  and Gilpen’s Remarks on Forest Scenery were in Olmsted’s library.

Another influence on Olmsted were the writings of Horace Bushnell from Hartford, whose treatise stated that The most important and constant influence that people exerted on each other … was a silent emanation of their real character that showed in their habitual conduct and made itself felt at a level below that of consciousness. Olmsted realized that his designs could be the places to which people would go to appreciate and be a part of the scenic landscape. Importantly, the habitual experience could become part of visitors’ character and could even shape their foundational beliefs.

After pursuing other professions, Olmsted settled into landscape design (architecture) and through his career designed iconic places that still have context today. His writings also contributed to the American landscape as a set of design principles that, as described by Charles E. Beveridge in his essay for the website of the National Association for Olmsted Parks, were and are “a blueprint for the creation of beautiful and enduring works of landscape architecture.” Beveridge outlined Olmsted’s principles, and the keywords alone describe how he approached every project in order to create unique places that are still embraced by their communities.


The Olmsted principles are:  

  • A Genius of Place
  • Unified Composition
  • Orchestration of Movement
  • Orchestration of Use
  • Sustainable Design and Environmental Conservation
  • A Comprehensive Approach


What a legacy!

As we continue our journey to Finding Olmsted, I will discuss how Olmsted integrated these principles into each of his Connecticut designs, how Olmsted’s legacy continued after his death, and how his principles are still viable for modern landscape architecture. 

Official logo of dala - Didona Associates Landscape Architects, LLC
Official logo of dala - Didona Associates Landscape Architects, LLC