Many of us grew up watching Hollywood’s idea of what the year 2020 might look like.
“Back to the Future” (1985) thrilled us with 21st Century visions of flying cars and hovering skateboards, while “Blade Runner” (1982) took us into a bleak world, populated by synthetic humans working on colonized planets.
Now that we’ve arrived in 2020, we can see what the movies got right. The answer is: not much! As Yoda wisely said, “Difficult to see — always in motion, the future is,” in “The Empire Strikes Back” (1980).
Despite the derision from my two daughters and spouse, I am a history nerd (and movie nerd). I enjoy looking back on past advancements and changes. It’s fun to see the world through the eyes of yesterday’s visionaries — we can consider how they led us to the world we have today.
Those visionaries include at least one legend of the green industry, as we saw when Chicago hosted the World’s Fair in 1893.
As a showcase for everything new and cutting-edge, this expo rolled out many remarkable innovations that are still with us. People were introduced to Wrigley’s Spearmint gum, Pabst Blue Ribbon beer, Aunt Jemima pancake mix, Cracker Jack, the zipper, spray paint, the mechanical dishwasher and even the Ferris wheel.
The expo’s success was never a given. It had to follow in the footsteps of the prior world’s fair in Paris (1889), where the Eiffel Tower debuted as the city’s crown jewel and tallest manmade structure in the world.
The pressure was on Chicago to not just follow that, but represent America equally well or better to the world. And that’s where Frederick Law Olmsted came in.
Applying plants to the built spaces
Olmsted was an American landscape architect, journalist and social critic, now popularly considered to be the father of American landscape architecture.
He became involved in the Chicago World’s Fair after American architects were tasked to create public spaces worthy of celebrating the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s arrival in the New World in 1492. The world’s perception of American innovation and beauty was at stake.
Prominent American architects John Wellborn Root and Daniel Burnham were assigned to the built spaces. They sought out Olmsted to create an outdoor environment worthy of the world stage.
Buoyed by his success designing Central Park in New York City, Olmsted saw the World’s Fair as an opportunity to show the public that landscape architecture could be more than just a simple gardening exercise. It could be appreciated as an art form, on the same level as sculptures, paintings and architecture. He challenged people to see plants, trees and flowers as pieces of an overall landscape, like colors on a palette and shapes on a painting.
Olmsted designed the expo site on Chicago’s South Side, which was named Jackson Park. He defended his vision against those who felt the site should be more suited to industrial or commercial activity. The resulting park became an example that launched hundreds of other public treasures around the country.
The quality of Olmsted’s landscape architecture was recognized by many of his contemporaries. They appreciated his use of lakes and wooded slopes, with lawns and banks and forest-covered hills on the shore of Lake Michigan that gave the impression of an ocean view.
Olmsted’s work even served as an inspiration to me earlier in my career, when I served as chief of staff at Metro, the regional government for the Portland area.
Metro acquires, develops and manages greenspaces. As we sought public support for a greenspace acquisition bond, Olmsted’s voice was still with us, showing us the value of livability and living material in urban planning.
“Difficult to see” the future is — but Olmsted helped us see it.
The proven benefits of plants
Our green industry — globally, nationally and in Oregon — grows the very foundation of inspiring landscapes of the kind that Olmsted envisioned. The people who get to live in these verdant, thriving, well-designed communities are the beneficiaries.
But that’s not just us talking. It’s all proven by research our industry has shared through the Plant Something program (www.Plant-Something.org).
Shade trees and landscaping along paved streets can cut the cost of street repairs, lower the costs of maintaining nearby buildings, and make people more comfortable by moderating weather’s effects.
Well-planned landscaping also protects buildings from the sun’s pounding rays in summer and the biting conditions of winter. Situated properly, plants can create buffers between the buildings and the elements. Plants cut costs associated with cooling in summer and heating in winter. What’s more, they protect the walls themselves, reducing the costs of upkeep.
Streetscapes create a welcoming, interesting shopping place. Trees should be part of street improvement programs that benefit businesses. Flowers, shrubs and trees make businesses inviting, which increases flow and puts customers at ease. Adding plants and landscape to business areas also boosts the economy by employing people to tend and maintain the displays.
Policymakers, city planners and the industry must look beyond just the aesthetic benefits of what the industry grows each year. Our products bring the principles of natural design into the brick-and-mortar world, creating beautiful environments that incorporate both.
We are limitless, only confined by our imagination. The products we grow today could have future impacts surpassing Olmsted’s innovations from 1893.
And with all respect to Yoda, that’s not so difficult to see.