The Olmstead Brothers’ Gift to Birmingham

When designing their parks for Birmingham, brothers Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. and John Charles Olmsted must have used a crystal ball. The vision they had for the Birmingham of 1925 is being created almost 100 years later. Their park plans use existing stream corridors to connect neighborhood parks and allow for “neighborhood parks…within walking distance of every household.” They understood the need for outdoor spaces for physical and mental health. They thought cities should invest in parks because “…the creation of adequate parks adds distinctly to the amenities of life in a city and will tend to draw to the city wealth, through taxation, that will more than repay the original outlay.” The 1995 Jefferson County Greenway plan was followed in 2010 by a regional trail design plan called Red Rock Ridge and Valley that incorporates many of the original Olmsted parks, stream corridors, and connections to existing neighborhood parks.

The original 1925 plan suggested parks in Shades Valley and the Butler Mountain area for the protection of the domestic water supply. Today, the Olmsteds’ Shades Creek Reservation, which encompassed the valley of Shades Creek and the northwesterly face of Shades Mountain, has become Shades Creek Greenway and Homewood Preserve, where dense tree cover protects water quality. Butler Mountain, elevation 1,450 feet (area “Y” on the Olmsted map), near Pinson, includes Shadow and Cosby Lakes and is the source of headwaters for Gurley Creek, Turkey Creek, and the Cahaba River. The land around Butler Mountain forms the watershed for Turkey Creek Nature Preserve, home to the Vermilion Darter, Watershed Darter, and Rush Darter. An area designated “W” on Five Mile Creek and the Tarrant Spring Branch, once reserved as a drinking water source, is now part of a Five Mile Creek Conservation Area owned by the Freshwater Land Trust to protect water quality. A greenway trail – the aqueduct trail – from the conservation area to Tarrant EcoScape Park is in the works.

Birmingham’s best example of an Olmsted park, Green Springs Park, now known as George Ward Park, was built in 1925. The old oak trees growing in the park today are believed to be original to the forest community of Birmingham. Conservation of these historic oaks through propagating acorns and planting the seedlings back into the park was completed by the Birmingham Botanical Gardens, Little Garden Club, Red Mountain Garden Club, the Glen Iris Neighborhood Association, and Friends of George Ward Park in 2012.

Another designer of the time, Warren H. Manning, had a vision for Birmingham that was in opposition to the formal Lynn Park style of park design. Manning worked on the city plan for Birmingham in 1916 and planned Mountain Brook between 1926 and 1929 to fit the existing terrain.  Like the Olmsted Brothers, he designed lakes and stream connections into the park plans for stormwater retention ponds. The parks he designed with the Mountain Brook Land Company Plan include the current Birmingham Botanical Gardens, the Birmingham Zoo, and Jemison Park.

The Olmsted Brothers and Manning helped shape the park aesthetic of Birmingham. The core of their philosophy was resource-based planning carefully coordinated with engineers to lay out beautiful and useable open spaces. Here is a quote from a planning report that reflects their thoughts on the human need for parks and open spaces.

“It is well understood, by those who have studied the subject, that, public parks, while ostensibly undertaken for the pleasure which their beauty affords the people, are also very important aids to the improvement and preservation of the health of the people.

City life, with its confinement during long hours to stores, offices, factories, and the like, has a decidedly depressing effect on the general health and stamina of the bread winners. Even the home-keeping members of families living in the city are apt to be similarly depressed. This comes about mainly from the lack of invigorating exercise in the fresh air. Confinement and sedentary life tend to weaken the system to the point where it yields to diseases such as consumption, heart failure, apoplexy, and diseases of the digestive apparatus and secretionary glands. What is needed as a counteractive is not stimulants, which sooner or later still further weaken the system, but exercise out-of-doors. Parks constitute one of the best means of drawing people out-of-doors.

 

Mothers resort to parks with their little babies and children under the school age, because they can do so with a feeling of safety and pleasure. School children are attracted to parks mainly for active play. Young men and young women go to parks for tennis, baseball, sociable walking together, or even for solitary enjoyment of the beauties of nature.

 

It rarely is a sense of duty that leads young people to take exercise and fresh air in the parks, but they get the exercise and fresh air incidentally to enjoying themselves. Older men and women find an inducement to walk in the parks for golf or tennis or to watch others play, or to see other visitors and their clothes and horses, automobiles, and the like, or to study birds, flowers, or other attractive details of nature, or for the more refined and artistic satisfaction to be derived from the contemplation of landscape and of the sky and clouds.

Then again, city life involves a continual strain of the nerves, through the need of avoiding dangers of the factory and street and owing to the multitudinous harsh noises and the vivid and eye-tiring sights and through having to give attention to so many things and to talk to so many people.

Even to the well, this is tiring to the nerves, but to those who are delicate, it often becomes a torture. After all, it is to those whose nerves are tired – and they are a large proportion of the dwellers in a city – that the parks are most immediately beneficial.”

– Report to the Board of Park Commissioners, Spokane, Washington, Olmsted Brothers 1891–1913

 

Olmstead Brothers, A Park system for Birmingham, 1925

Principles for Park Development

  • Hand down unharmed from one generation to the next the treasure of scenery which you inherit.
  • Before spending money, develop a comprehensive scheme to work to.
  • In developing parks, take the character of the place and “work it up”
  • Natural wonders and vistas should be protected
  • “Parking” the banks of creek helps control flooding
  • Scenic drives are a good way to experience ridge-top and valley vistas.
  • Proper management and maintenance are essential to the long-term success of public landscapes

Contact the Birmingham Historical Society for more documents of the Olmstead Brothers plan for Birmingham.