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March 2005 Issue

Updating Olmsted
Preserving Detroit’s Belle Isle Park for learning, life, and nature. 

By Frank Edgerton Martin

Updating Olmsted
Hamilton Anderson Associates

Detroit is a city more often associated with the auto industry and Motown than with great urban landscape architecture. Yet this Great Lakes city boasts an extraordinary island park larger than New York’s Central Park and almost as heavily used. In the face of continuing budget crises in one of the poorest cities in the country, the Detroit Recreation Department recently commissioned Hamilton Anderson Associates to bring new life to Belle Isle, the city’s beloved 982-acre island attraction, first designed by Frederick Law Olmsted Sr. in 1883. Winner of a 2004 ASLA Merit Award for Analysis and Planning, Hamilton Anderson’s Belle Isle Master Plan recognizes the island park’s role as a unique natural environment, historic conservator, learning center, and gathering place.

“Just like everything else that happens in Detroit, there was a controversy over whether the island should become a park,” project principal Kent Anderson, ASLA, says of Belle Isle’s founding. When the city purchased the island in 1879, there was an uproar because many citizens would have preferred more neighborhood parks instead of a major investment in a single, concentrated park for the whole city. Probably as a response to this opposition, the city hired Olmsted, with his national prestige and growing body of park work in Boston, New York, and other Eastern cities, to create a conceptual plan.

In his 1883 report outlining the new Belle Isle plan, Olmsted argued with characteristic righteousness that the value of a park “lies in its power to divert men from unwholesome, vicious, and destructive methods and habits of seeking recreation, and [in] inducing them to educate themselves.” Olmsted’s scheme left intact most of the old floodplain forest on the island’s east end while introducing a central promenade, similar to that in New York’s Central Park, at the center of the linear island. For public events and picnics, the plan proposed a large parade ground to the south of the promenade sweeping down to the shore.

Only two years after devising the plan, Olmsted resigned in 1885, most likely as the result of a conflict with city leaders who demanded more attractions, amusements, and architectural features within his Arcadian scheme. From 1884 through 1908, the city made major investments in new roads, bridges, shelters, and plantings based largely on the islandwide scale of circulation in Olmsted’s original plan. New structures accommodated emerging fashions in active recreation such as boating, skating, swimming, and horseback riding. Today, like major city parks such as Golden Gate Park in San Francisco and Saint Paul, Minnesota’s Como Park, Belle Isle is a catalog of changing American tastes in landscape design, urban play, and educational roles for park districts. It is also, like many destination parks, being loved to death.

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