The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Listen to Frederick Law Olmsted on the Capitol Grounds

A passerby stops to look at the Capitol from behind a tall fence topped with razor wire on Jan. 21.
A passerby stops to look at the Capitol from behind a tall fence topped with razor wire on Jan. 21. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

Regarding the Feb. 3 Style article “Don’t fence us out”:

Capitol Police want more security around the Capitol. Rather than listening to them, Congress should pay attention to Frederick Law Olmsted. Olmsted designed Central Park and hundreds of parks and landscapes across the country, including the Capitol Grounds. He was the founder of landscape architecture. But he was also a social reformer who believed that parks and open space are essential to democracy and Americans’ pursuit of happiness.

In 1873, when Congress called on Olmsted to design the grounds, the country had just come through a civil war and an economic panic amid growing immigration and rapid urbanization. The country was faced with social and environmental challenges similar to those we have today: racism, disease, pollution and inequality. 

As Olmsted saw it, the Capitol grounds and building should exemplify a nation that had triumphed over deep divisions. In a report to Congress, he recognized the role of the grounds “as a public park, especially during the hot season.” Olmsted believed parks and open spaces could provide people from all walks of life a place to connect and find common ground. We need to listen to Olmsted. If we are to be a free people, the prescription is not more fences — but more open and democratic spaces. For good and bad, the Capitol Grounds are the people’s grounds.

Anne Neal Petri, Washington

The writer is president and chief
executive of the National Association
for Olmsted Parks.

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