An essay by Thomas Fisher, dean of the College of Design at the Univeristy of Minnesota,  in Places argues that Frederick Law Olmsted‘s early work as general secretary of the U.S. Sanitary Commission serves as a important model for today’s landscape architects. Fisher believes landscape architects must once again deeply engage in improving public health by creating parks and walkable, bikeable communities. Furthermore, landscape architects must also get political, take on “prevailing power structures,” and make a “powerful case for long range social good and challenge those that skew the rules in favor of short-term gain for an increasingly remote elite.”

Fisher says the public health movement started in Germany in 1840′s and came out of concerns about the typhoid and typhus epidemics in Europe’s slums. One German physician, Rudolf Virchow, was “among the first to see the connection between poor sanitation and disease.” An American public health movement soon sprung up and sanitary commissions were set-up in several states. John Snow, a British physician, helped push the movement along with his breakthrough work that discovered cholera was linked with dirty water, not “bad vapors.”

Olmsted, then a public intellectual and editor of a magazine, was carefully tracking developments in public health, and began to argue for “great public parks” that could function as the “lungs of the city” and provide slum dwellers with clean air. However, Fisher says, “more accurate, in hindsight, was the emphasis Olmsted and Vaux placed on good sanitation — on well-drained land, well-circulating waterways and well-designed sanitary facilities — which reflected their knowledge of the sanitary movement and the connection the nascent field of public health had made between polluted water and disease.”

Olmsted and Calvert Vaux famously won the Central Park commission, but years later, Olmsted resigned the position of chief architect for the park after being caught up in political tensions with the Park’s comptroller and board of commissioners. A new position opened up for him: general secretary and chief executive officer of the new U.S. sanitary commission, a tough job during the Civil War. With Olmsted at the helm, the commission fought the federal government to improve the health conditions of soldiers. “The Sanitary Commission inspected and made recommendations not just about the soldiers’ exhaustion levels but also about design issues such as the location of camps, the provision of drainage and waste disposal, the ventilation of tents, and the storage and preparation of food.”

Fisher argues that Olmsted’s brief detour from landscape architecture was actually very important — it helped create an early, formative connection between landscape architecture and public health. However, with Olmsted leaving the public health field, it also meant the end of the direct professional connection. “It now seems clear that with Olmsted’s resignation from the Sanitary Commission a potentially vital connection was severed — the connection between physical design and public health. The disconnection would remain in place for more than a century — and only very recently have the ties begun to be restored.”

To restore the connection, new links must be formed between landscape architecture and public health, rooted in current health issues. While the public health community has had success in treating diseases, new health problems require the intervention of landscape architects: “Today millions of people on the planet, especially in the rapidly growing cities of the developing world, endure living conditions much worse than what Olmsted witnessed in Lower Manhattan, and almost a billion lack easy access to clean water. We confront as well — perhaps for the first time in history — the public health challenges of prosperity. We now identify diseases like cancer, heart failure, diabetes, emphysema and even obesity as “lifestyle diseases,” resulting from individual and social behaviors, from personal choices and cultural patterns; indeed the Centers for Disease Control have been studying “urban sprawl and public health” for several years now. We understand the problem: the increasingly sedentary, high-calorie lifestyle that’s become common in wealthier countries has made obesity an epidemic, with all of the attendant malignancies and infarctions that come with it. Here, the causes lie even closer, no farther than the car-dominated cities we build, and the corn-syrup-laced beverages and high-fat foods we produce and market so aggressively.”

Moving forward, Fisher says landscape architects must follow Olmsted’s example and write and speak out on these issues. “In an era of great change, such as ours, we need to adapt the methods Olmsted used in another turbulent time: defining the discourse, identifying the problems, and proposing the strategies and policies needed to resolve them. Some of that can happen through design, but nothing can replace the power of persuasive writing and speaking. We need more often to put aside the mouse, and take to the keyboard.”

Secondly, like Olmsted, today’s landscape architects must partner with a wider range of design disciplines. “The causes of homegrown lifestyle diseases and of global pandemics are complex and interwoven; it will take many disciplines, working together, to devise solutions. And of course Olmsted’s example suggests that the landscape architect can function not only as an expert in how we inhabit and steward the land, but also as a manager of diverse teams of people. Olmsted knew something about sanitation — but just as important, he knew how to organize and operate a complex commission and oversee the work of a large multidisciplinary staff. This may in fact be among the more important skills landscape architects can offer today, as the field studies how settlement patterns, transportation modes, water quality, etc., relate to the ramifying problems of public health in an urbanizing world.”

Lastly, Fisher argues landscape architects must fight for those facing disease. “It will take professionalism and political will, but the price of ignoring our contemporary public health crises — pandemics that will endanger billions, chronic diseases that damage lives and by extension the whole society — will be steep, and we will all pay it.”

Image credit: Ocean Parkway Bicycle Path designed by Olmsted and Vaux, 1894 /New York City Department of Parks and Recreation, Places