Edges in landscape are everywhere,.. overly common, yet at times incidental.  Each landscape space offers different programming, functions or physical characteristics. At the boundary of each space is an edge...these are the transitional spaces from one landscape or space to the next (i.e.: the entrance into a city park, the bridge to a connecting highway, the riparian zone linking biota).

Landscape edges are transitional linear places where one space or landscape becomes part of another. Often neglected in design, edges are considered primary structural components of landscapes because of their integration and social functions.1  They offer not only physical change, but emotional and psychological transitions as well.

Edges can be where the picturesque meets the pastoral, built meets unbuilt, city meets country. Woodlands edges, wetlands, beach fronts are considered strong edges, and can also be referred to as "ecotones" - physical transition zones between two ecological systems.  These edges and corridors strongly influence landscape biodiversity, and in many situations when designing them -- the suggestion is that the "lightest hand" is the hand that designs best.

 Delphi Theatre/ toursofathens.com

 Delphi Theatre/ toursofathens.com

Some edges are purely physical (a building meeting terra firma) while others are visual and symbolic (earth or sea meeting sky). Some edges are abrupt while others are smoothly drawn out and richly complex (i.e.: a woodland edge, a waterfront).

New Jersey Meadowlands/flicker.com

New Jersey Meadowlands/flicker.com

As an urban dweller, I am most cognizant of the juxtaposition between two systems that are forced to co-exist within a city- the built form and the natural form.  John Motloch, speaks of the "dynamic nature of natural systems versus the static nature of architecture." Natural systems are point-in-time expressions of ongoing environmental processes: site and living organisms continually experience change.  Conversely, architecture consists of relatively static elements.  Architecture changes little over time. Buildings do change expression - from transparent, to reflective, to opaque - from day to night. Plant materials, on the other hand are living organisms and mature over time.  Even senility in the landscape can be one of the most sensual aspects of landscape design."2

Within these edges are "thresholds"*, uniquely centered entities within the linear form of an edge.  The Collins English Dictionary defines threshold as “the starting point of an experience, event or venture; a psychological point at which something would happen or would cease to happen, or stimuli would take effect.” 

These thresholds provide tremendous opportunities for designers to create gateways within them and experiential transitions within that journey.  "A gateway denotes a threshold, a place of passage, a garden gate that opens and closes, a bridge point of entry into a city, a harbor of access to some hinterland. A gateway can have many forms, a literal gate, an avenue of trees, an entrance into a building... yet they all have the same function --to mark the point where a path crosses a boundary and help maintain the boundary.  All of them are 'things' - not merely holes or gaps, but solid entities.  In every case, the crucial feeling this solid thing must create is the feeling of transition."3

Central Park, lookout point as a threshold

Central Park, lookout point as a threshold

Saarinen's Gateway Arch.  

Saarinen's Gateway Arch.  

St. Louis on the edge of the Mississippi River is known as the "Gateway to the West"

Edges are also topographic.  Perhaps simple and smooth with gradients and rhythmic sequences or textural and rugged, spurred, ditched and jagged, natural or built with sub-spaces or steps.  Of particular note on a grand scale is the Isthmus of Panama - a narrow strip of land where geological tectonic plates meet, the landscape changes often and dramatically.  It became a major inspiration for Frederick Law Olmsted in developing an aesthetic for public parks as he crossed it in 1863.

1. Form and Fabric in Landscape Architecture; Catherine Dee.
2. Introduction to Landscape Design; John Motloch
3. A Pattern Language: Alexander/Ishikawa/Silverstein.


Born in Hartford, Connecticut and raised by his father, unable to attend Yale College because his eyesight had weakened due to sumac poisoning, Frederick Law Olmsted sailed off to China where he returned a year later with scurvy.  After recovering, he set out his hand at farming on Staten Island, failing miserably to profit from his land holdings.  Next he embarked for England and Wales with his brother whereupon they encountered magnificent estates, parks and rural scenery.  Such was the indication of things to come.  Most influential in his journeys were Joseph Paxton’s design for Birkenhead.

Paxton sought to bring the grandeur of the aristocratic garden to the working people of Birkenhead. The park was a declaration of civic pride to nearby Liverpool and an attempt to tempt wealthy taxpayers to either build or purchase homes in Birkenhead. It is widely believed to be the first civic park in Britain, but more importantly within this context it provide the inspiration and template for Olmsted (and Calvert Vaux's) work.  Olmsted wrote "

"five minutes of admiration, and a few more spent studying the manner in which art had been employed to obtain from nature so much beauty, and I was ready to admit that in democratic America there was nothing to be thought of as comparable with this People’s Garden"."

 Illustration and photograph of  Birkenhead Park (youyesterday.com/flicker.com)

“Olmsted was much impressed with the meandering footpaths and open meadows spangled with rocks and scattered trees. He wondered how cleverly "art had been employed to obtain from nature so much beauty." And wonder of wonders, this was not just a sanctum for some noble lord but a park open to the public, a park for people of all stations in life. In all the cities of democratic America, he had to admit, there was nothing quite like it. Not yet, anyway.” National Geographic Magazine, March 2005.

Illustration of Central Park/Bethesda Terrace and fountain


Much has been written on Olmsted’s intriguing life, including the most recent bestseller “A Clearing in the Distance”by Witold Rybczynski.  Thanks to the efforts of the Olmsted Legacy a film that was initially screened last year at select locations will now be coming to public television.

The Olmsted Legacy, with its name slightly tweaked to "Olmsted and America's Urban Parks" was aired appropriately on PBS for Earth Day, April 20th.



Frederick Law Olmsted (1822-1903) is recognized as the founder of American landscape architecture and the nation's foremost “parkmaker.” Olmsted moved his home to suburban Boston in 1883 and established the world's first full-scale professional office for the practice of landscape design. During the next century, his sons and successors perpetuated Olmsted's design ideals, philosophy, and influence.

Over the course of his career projects  he designed, established and contributed to scenic reservations (i.e.: Yosemite Valley 1865, Niagara reservation 1887), major urban parks (i.e.: Central Park 1858, Prospect Park 1866) park systems (i.e.: Buffalo Park system, Boston’s ‘Emerald Necklace’, Rochester and Louisville), residential campuses (Stanford University, Hartford Retreat), government building grounds, parkways and site planning for the World’s Exposition of 1893.

Lesser known and spoken of are the designs of country estates for wealthy clientele, of which Olmsted designed a number of.  His greatest private client was the Vanderbilt family and it’s many heirs to the fortune of William Vanderbilt. (Olmsted had actually been a neighbor to William Vanderbilt on Staten Island in th 1840's and was now designing the family mausoleum in that same area.)   Olmsted created the Biltmore estate (beginning in 1888) in Asheville North Carolina for George, the youngest of the eight children. Three of George’s sisters had also engaged Frederick Law Olmsted to design their properties.

One of these sisters was Eliza Vanderbilt who married Dr. William Seward Webb, who left the medical profession at the urging of the Vanderbilt family. Webb was propelled into the finance and railroad industries, eventually increasing his fortune as builder of Adirondack Railway Services. The couple lived in New York City and built an ambitious estate in Shelburne, Vermont, which has survived and become notable for its agricultural, technological and architectural achievements. A working farm, at it’s peak in 1902, "Shelburne Farms" included nearly 4,000 acres of farmland with 300 employees to maintained this estate. Between 1886 and 1902, the Webb’s purchased 32 farms on Shelburne point, amassing all this land situated on Lake Champlain in Northern Vermont, framed views of the Green Mountains in the distance, just south of Burlington. 
Shelburne House
view from house looking east
view from south lawn of house looking west

The architect was Robert H. Robertson, who worked alongside F.L. Olmsted.  Shelburne Farms includes four major building on the site – “Shelburne House” (now an inn) the “Coach Barn,” Farm Barn,” “Horse Breeding Barn  Sheep and “Dairy Barn” -- dairy cattle, horses, pigs, gaming pheasants and poultry were raised on this farm.  As many as 100,000 trees a year were planted to create the sculptural landscape, (Capability Brown would be envious), 20 miles of roads and carriage trails were built.
serpentine road leads through...
opening to a clearing in the distance..
with the house perfectly sited on a hill.

Olmsted brought to this site an organizing concept that separated the farm into three types of spaces: farm, forest and parkland.  He also brought design principles learned from his early European travels and mastered in parks such as Prospect Park, Brooklyn.  
Shelbourne Farm: a (Lancelot "Capability') Brownian landscape via F.L. Olmsted
These design principles, commonly though of as the  English naturalistic landscape tradition of the early 18th century – are broad meadows with occasional clumping of shade trees, undulating hills, rich and diverse woodlands that transition into these meadows, looping roads strategically through the landscape to alternately reveal and obscure views and the appreciation of an expanse of water to reflect the sky.
rolling hills + meadows meets lake

(framed views from house)
Guests would tour the farm and horse operations, enjoy carriage rides, boating on Lake Champlain, croquet or golfing on the estate’ golf course. Presently, the site is designated a national historic landmark and has evolved into a non-profit (supported by significant donations) with a teaching component (environmental education center) working farm and an inn.

**With exception of F.L.Olmsted public domain portrait, all photos ©Todd Haiman 2010