Monday, January 24, 2022

UMass Professor of Landscape Archtiecture Ethan Carr in collaboration with UVM adjunct professor Rolf Diamant has published their book that focuses on the historical context of the "National Park Idea" using Yosemite and New York's Central Park as case studies. Their book will be available in online bookshops starting March 10th, and Carr and Diamant will be giving a lecture surrouding the topics covered in their book as part of the Zube Lecture series in April at UMass Amherst in the Olver Design Building. Click here to go to the book's listing on Amazon where pre-orders are up now.


Olmsted and Yosemite: Civil War, Abolition, and the National Park Idea by Rolf Diamant and Ethan Carr, Library of American Landscape History 2022.

Are national parks “America’s best idea”? If so, what were its origins and how have its meanings changed over time? This book connects the 1864 congressional act that made Yosemite Valley a public park to the concurrent creation of urban parks in the U.S. and, above all, to the social and political transformations brought about by the Civil War. The authors place Yosemite in the larger framework of war-related legislative and constitutional reforms advancing freedom and improving public life. These momentous changes were contingent on extinguishing slavery and remaking the fatally fractured political system that had supported it. Without a Union victory—aided by the mobilization of nearly 180,000 Black soldiers and sailors — legislation for Yosemite, the basis for national parks that followed, might never have been enacted. The idea of making Yosemite Valley into a park drew inspiration from New York’s Central Park, which was still under construction through the war years. Both projects were guided by the anti-slavery journalist—and then landscape architect—Frederick Law Olmsted. Best known today as the co-designer of Central Park. Olmsted wrote a report in 1865 intended to guide the future management of Yosemite Valley. Olmsted hoped that abolition, reform of government, and the creation of public parks would all emerge out of the cauldron of civil war as foundations for a united and improved republic. It should be remembered, however, that if public parks symbolized a commitment improving people’s lives, not everyone was included. The creation of Central Park entailed the displacement of free Black and immigrant communities. And later, the establishment of a park in Yosemite Valley would follow the earlier dispossession of the Miwok, or Ahwahnechee, from their homeland.

Olmsted’s Yosemite Report laid the intellectual foundation for a system of national parks. Expressed in the rhetoric of the public park movement already underway in cities, Olmsted asserted that a republican government had a duty to make scenic places and natural landscapes accessible to everyone, not just the privileged. This meant not only creating systems of urban parks but also requiring public ownership of the nation’s greatest areas of natural beauty. Public ownership and broad accessibility to scenic and natural places, necessary for civic health and wellbeing, would fuel the creation of parks at every level of government for the next century.

The National Park Service, however, has been reluctant to recognize this history and the singular role the Civil War played in its development, preferring more anodyne founding narratives. After its creation in 1916, the agency promoted imagery of pristine Western landscapes, reimagined as national parks by rugged explorers. The origins of the “national park idea” were disassociated from Central Park, the Civil War, and the 1865 Yosemite Report. Marking the bicentennial of Olmsted’s birth, Olmsted and Yosemite offers a new interpretation of how the American park—urban and national—came to figure so prominently in our cultural identity. This more complex and inclusive story is particularly appropriate to consider today, as the public that the parks serve, like the country, grows ever more diverse.