Film Pays Homage to Early Urban Park Visionary

When we look around at our city parks and the contributions they make to our lives, our community and our overall wellbeing, we have Frederick Law Olmsted to thank. This 19th century visionary urban planner and landscape architect played a key role in developing famed Central Park in New York City – still today a world-class example of a natural haven in an urban setting.

Beyond New York, Olmsted brought parks and green spaces to Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, Atlanta, Louisville and dozens of other U.S. cities – including Charleston where he had a hand in creating our own Hampton Park.

The parks, Olmsted held, were to be vital democratic spaces in cities, where citizens from all walks of life could intermingle and be refreshed, according to

Learn more about Olmsted and his contributions to public parks at a free screening of the documentary “Olmsted and America’s Urban Park.” Presented by the Charleston Parks Conservancy and The Speedwell Foundation, the film will be shown at 5 p.m. June 1 near the lake at Hampton Park. The event is open to the public; bring a blanket or chairs.

Executive producer Mike Messner, a long-time Wall Street investor, and his wife, Jenny, founded The Speedwell Foundation. They are spearheading a nationwide initiative to bring more green space into cities. Locally, they purchased an 87-acres piece of property on the Stono River in Charleston and earlier this year donated it to the Charleston County Park and Recreation Commission for future park development.

Rebecca Messner, the Olmsted film’s producer and writer, will introduce the documentary at the upcoming event. Messner said before working on the film she didn’t know anything about Olmsted and had never stopped to look at parks in a critical way.

She said most people don’t notice the design that goes into a park, especially if just appears to be a section of green space. Studying Olmsted she realized what goes on behind the scenes in creating a park.

“I realized how much work went into the building of these parks,” she said. “Every tree is perfectly placed. Basically down to the blade of grass, it’s all very intentional.”

Messner, who has worked in journalism and now mostly film, said she’s most proud of how this documentary tells the story of Olmsted the man.

“He’s an incredible character … this tragic character,” she said. “He really worked himself to death.

“He was so good at what he did that he was in demand at end of the 19th century,” Messner added. “Everyone wanted an Olmsted park in their city and he did his best to step up and do that.”

Olmsted worked to create a piece of natural beauty that was open to anyone. He believed in the psychological effects of green space – that it calms people down, makes them happier and refreshed, Messner said.

And while Olmsted took those principles seriously, Messner said she can’t help but wonder if he really found solace for himself. He mother died when he was young and some of his children died at an early age.

“He had a rough life and really worked himself hard in the latter part of his life,” Messner said. “That is what I think is really interesting as someone who works with characters.”

Join us for the film screening and let us know what you think of it. Share your comments here, on our Facebook page or via Twitter using #olmstedfilm.

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