The World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 (also known as the World’s Fair of the same year) was a spectacle unlike anything America had seen. Over twenty-five million people (more than 40% of the U.S. population at the time) visited the fair in six months — that’s 146,000 people per day on average.
When designing the fairgrounds, landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted insisted on creating an environment “to establish a considerable extent of broad and apparently natural scenery, in contemplation of which a degree of quieting influence will be had, counteractive to the effect of the artificial grandeur and the crowds, pomp, splendor, and bustle of the rest of the Exposition.” (1)
One feature he successfully lobbied for was a largely wooded island accessible by footbridge where fairgoers could physically remove themselves from said bustle. If they preferred, they could also arrive on the island via electric launches, another Olmsted flourish.
I think about Olmsted’s genius a lot these days. Particularly regarding how green space contributes to our collective sanity, creativity, and overall health. Fortunately, I’m not alone. Over the past few years, there have been a number of studies linking green space with significant health benefits. A 2022 study by two NC State professors found that,
People who spend more time in nature enjoy enhanced cognitive functioning and attention and reduced stress. They are also less likely to display anxiety disorders and depression and more likely to report high levels of happiness and well-being.(2)
In addition, some medical practitioners are beginning to prescribe time in nature as an alternative to prescription drugs.
There are also social benefits. Parks are a source of community identity and spirit, places where people can gather to walk, play games, or simply enjoy the surroundings with neighbors, who may also become friends.
It’s satisfying to see more champions of nature coming to the party. The ability to spend time in nature has been the most significant influence on my life. I spent most of my first six decades seeking out rural hiking trails and backcountry peaks. Mostly wild times — in every sense — with some contemplative time on the side. In the last few years, the script flipped. Living and working in an urban environment has led me to find inspiration closer to home.
Incredibly, my world is framed on two sides by a linear park designed by Olmsted’s sons. Every day I walk for at least an hour, while taking in unobstructed views of Casco Bay and its many islands. There is no doubt that these walks contribute to my well-being (I’ve lost 30 pounds), my creativity and my connection with neighbors. The walks — which often include breaks to sit on a coveted beachside rock and look at the landscape — also contribute mightily to my sense of joy — a daily affirmation of the simple fact that I need to be in nature to be happy.
What Frederick Law Olmsted proposed over 130 years ago is increasingly important today. In a world intent on going faster, a three-mile-per-hour stroll with ample time for contemplation — a quieting influence in the face of noise and bustle — may just be the perfect prescription for our sanity, health, and happiness.
1 Memorandum from Frederick Law Olmsted to Chicago Exposition Commissioners. (Cited in This Land Was Saved for You and Me by Jeffrey H. Ryan. 2022, Stackpole Books, p. 27.)
2 How Parks and Green Spaces Can Improve Your Health. College of Natural Resources News. CNR Web. April 20, 2022. https://cnr.ncsu.edu/news/2022/04/parks-green-spaces-improve-health/
This post was originally published on Medium (April 14, 2023).