Culture

The Man Who Designed Where You Run

A tribute to Frederick Law Olmsted, the father of landscape architecture, who designed great running spaces from Central Park to Stanford University's campus.

Here’s a tribute to an individual who had a huge influence on running, yet never donned a pair of running shoes, was not in the running industry, and died nearly 120 years ago: Frederick Law Olmsted. Known as the father of landscape architecture, Olmsted, along with his partner the British architect Calvert Vaux, are responsible for designing places and spaces that are enjoyed by millions of runners every day.

Olmsted is most famous for designing Central Park in New York, plus several other signature parks such as Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, Boston’s Emerald Necklace, San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, and Mount Royal Park in Montreal. His commissions also included some of the world’s most beautiful university campuses, bucolic residential neighborhoods, grand private estates, and other civic spaces, so many of which are wonderful for running. 

Olmsted's Golden Gate park in San Francisco

Golden Gate park in San Francisco Photo: Getty Images

In recognition of Olmsted’s outsized influence on our running enjoyment, Great Runs has designated a special ‘Olmsted’ tag, which illustrates more than 60 recommended routes in areas that he designed.

Green Space

What are some of the marks of Olmsted’s influence? Remember that Olmsted was alive during the height of the Industrial Revolution. Cities were dense, crowded, and polluted. It was also the pre-automobile era. Olmsted believed that cities need large green spaces for people to walk, recreate, breathe clean air, and appreciate nature. You can see this in the design of some of his signature parks, which include wide paths around grand allées, for walking (influenced by some of Europe’s iconic parks), large meadows and fields for picnicking (the frisbee was not invented yet!), and smaller, slightly rugged secluded spaces for reflection and quiet conversation.

Some of the more important Olmsted-designed parks that show these traits include Piedmont Park (Atlanta), Bell Isle (Detroit), Schenley Park (Pittsburgh), Washington Park (Seattle), Forest Park, (St. Louis), Audubon Park (New Orleans), and several parks in Chicago, Milwaukee, and Louisville.

Piedmont Park run in Atlanta

Piedmont Park, Atlanta Photo: Getty Images

Necklaces, Campuses and Suburbs

Olmsted’s vision extended beyond specific parks. For several cities, he designed a linear park system, envisioned as an ‘emerald necklace’ weaving through the urban landscape, so that a pleasant green space would be accessible to residents throughout the city. The most famous of these (and still largely intact) is Boston’s Emerald Necklace, which stretches for 10 miles from the State House to Franklin Park. Similar linear parks were designed in Buffalo, Cleveland, Louisville, Chicago, Rochester (N.Y.) and Portland (Maine). Unfortunately, in some cities such as Buffalo, the parks deteriorated from neglect and the influence of the automobile, though there has been an effort in recent years to restore their glory.

As Olmsted became known for his parks, he was also commissioned to design several university campuses. While each of them reflects their local environment, they bear Olmsted’s influence in having a park-like feel, with windy, tree-shaded paths, grand lawns, and water features. These campuses, today, are some of our favorites for running, among them Wellesley College, Stanford University, UC Berkeley, Yale University, Smith College, the University of Chicago, and Washington University of St. Louis.

University of Chicago campus designed by Olmsted

University of Chicago Campus Photo: Getty Images

Olmsted also designed some of the first planned residential neighborhoods, known for their curved, shaded streets with grassy medians and set back homes, interrupted by pocket parks and other traffic calming features. Close-in suburbs that he designed, such as Roland Park in Baltimore, heavily influenced the legion of historic neighborhoods designed between 1870 and 1930 that today remain among the most desirable places to live and which are typically beloved by runners.

National Parks

Olmsted also had commissions in some wonderful national parks and other public spaces we enjoy today. He had a hand in the design of the grounds of the National Mall and Tidal Basin in Washington, D.C., Rock Creek Park, Acadia National Park, Great Smoky Mountain National Park, Yosemite National Park (where there’s an Olmsted Point!), Niagara Falls State Park, and Palos Verdes south of Los Angeles.

Acadia National Park's Carriage Trails, Maine

Acadia National Park’s Carriage Trails, Maine / photo: Shutterstock

Some of the other Olmsted-designed spaces that are wonderful for running include Shelburne Farms (Burlington, Vt.), Worlds End (Hingham, Mass.), and the Biltmore Estate (Asheville, N.C.).

In one sad, ironic twist, Olmsted also designed the grounds of several ‘insane asylums,’ as they were known then. He became senile and spent the last five years of his life at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Mass., a well-regarded institution for whose grounds he submitted a design but was not ultimately selected.

The next time you run through a lovely linear park, a beautiful university campus, or historic neighborhood, think of Olmsted. It likely bears his influence in some way. And when next in Boston, take a run by or visit Fairsted, Olmsted’s homestead in Brookline (miles 22–25 of the Boston Marathon), which is now administered by the National Park Service.

Mark Lowenstein is Chief Running Officer at Great Runs, the ultimate guide to the best places to run in cities and destinations worldwide. For a list of all Olmsted-designed areas covered by Great Runs, click here.