In UB professor’s audio course, a glimpse of Frederick Law Olmsted’s life beyond landscape architecture

The Audible Original course, timed with the 200th anniversary of Olmsted’s birth, explores big questions that shaped Olmsted’s multifaceted professional endeavors

Release Date: March 28, 2022

Portrait of Adam Rome.

Adam Rome. Credit: The Great Courses.

“Throughout his life, Olmsted asked big questions about the sustainability of society. ”
Adam Rome, professor of environment and sustainability
University at Buffalo

Download a photo of Adam Rome. Photo must be credited to The Great Courses.

BUFFALO, N.Y. — April 26, 2022 marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Frederick Law Olmsted, and University at Buffalo professor Adam Rome is offering his take on Olmsted’s life, legacy and innovations in a forthcoming Audible Original course.

Olmsted is best known for his work as a 19th-century landscape architect. But the audio course, set to debut on April 21, offers a view of his work beyond this profession.

Though Rome discusses many of Olmsted’s iconic projects, especially Central Park in New York City, the three-hour Audible Original also details Olmsted’s role as a journalist, pioneer in management and social reformer.

The course reflects on common themes that shaped Olmsted’s work in these positions. In an introductory lecture, Rome tells listeners that the content is divided into sections concerning Olmsted’s engagement with big questions: “How can people develop a sense of community in a highly mobile and individualistic society? What is the future of the city? How can we avoid destroying our environment? What is the role of government in society?”

Olmsted’s endeavors outside of landscape architecture varied. He not only designed Central Park in partnership with Calvert Vaux, but also oversaw its construction as park superintendent. Other management roles included leading the U.S. Sanitary Commission, which provided medical assistance to Union troops during the Civil War. Before all of that, Olmsted was a journalist. As Rome recounts, Olmsted’s newspaper work included dispatches from the antebellum South for the New York Times that “built support for the abolition of slavery” and formed the basis of the influential book, “The Cotton Kingdom.”

“Throughout his life, Olmsted asked big questions about the sustainability of society,” Rome, PhD, professor of environment and sustainability in the UB College of Arts and Sciences, said in an interview. “Olmsted’s life tells us a lot about the great challenges of his time — and ours. His way of thinking about what makes cities sustainable is incredibly relevant. He would also have a lot to say about the present, especially about how we might deal with climate change and social divisions.”

Finding inspiration in Buffalo

Ingrained in Olmsted’s work on public parks was the idea that cities must plan for the future, and that green spaces were integral to the sustainability of cities, Rome says. Parks could improve health and well-being. People needed a place to go to escape from busy streetscapes, congestion, noise and stress. Trees cleaned the air.

Those ideas remain relevant now. Olmsted and Vaux designed a system of parks in Buffalo, and it was on a walk in one of those parks — Delaware Park — that Rome decided to create his audio course.

This was early in the COVID-19 pandemic, and the park offered some respite from the pressures of the day. The temperature had dipped below freezing, but despite the cold, Rome stood in the snow, watching the sunset. The beauty of the moment inspired him.

“The park is 150 years old. It’s survived a lot of change, and that always helps me to feel hope that our society will endure, that we'll find ways to get past all our troubles,” Rome says.

In addition to Buffalo parks, Olmsted’s work in Western New York included taking a lead role in a late-1800s campaign to restore natural landscapes on the U.S. side of Niagara Falls. The fight succeeded, leading to the removal of structures near the cataract. Olmsted and Vaux were appointed to design the landscape.

The creative process behind an audio course

After preparing a script, Rome traveled to a studio in Virginia this January to record the course on Olmsted. It’s his second Audible Original. His first, “The Genius of Earth Day,” discussed the first Earth Day in 1970 and the wide-ranging legacy of that event.

Making these courses gave Rome a chance to explore teaching in a new medium. He had to think about how to connect to an anonymous audience of people who might be multi-tasking while listening. That encouraged him to find a more intimate voice and think about pacing and ways to signal when important points were coming.

The Earth Day course built on a book Rome had written, but the Olmsted course was the opposite: “I’ve been fascinated by him for years,” Rome said, “and this was a beta test of how much I have to say about the continued significance of his life. And the answer is a lot.”

Media Contact Information

Charlotte Hsu is a former staff writer in University Communications. To contact UB's media relations staff, email or visit our list of current university media contacts.