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Olmsted's unconscious recreation

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Olmsted's unconscious recreation

Mark Douglas

Olmsted 1882

"There is an association between scenes and objects such as we are apt to call simple and natural, and such as touch us so quietly that we are hardly conscious of them."
- Fred'k Law Olmsted, 1882

Olmsted (2015, pp. 587-594) affirms and expands the atmospheric theory of park value as "airing grounds" to counteract the foul stench that prevailed when household sewage was dumped into city streets. Parks served "decorative motives" (p. 590). For Olmsted, the decorative theory of value was insufficient. 

There is a difference between the conscious intentions of somebody attempting to walk for the first time in convalescence and the unconscious manner of walking in the forest. Imagine somebody on a "walk through a forest, rough, stony and with tangled undergrowth, constantly adapting his movements to numerous and complicated obstacles, both near and distant, and this with so little mental effort that he is conscious of none" (p. 592). 

Holding this experience in view, it will seem probable that the mind not only produces thoughts and gives direction to the body without conscious effort, or process to be recalled, but that it receives impressions, information, suggestions, the raw material of thought; that it stores and holds them for after use; that it is fed, refreshed, revived and restocked by what it thus receives, all unconscious of the process. (pp. 592-593)

Olmsted names this "unconscious, or indirect recreation" (p. 593).

Based on the unconscious recreation motive "the highest value of a park must be expected to lie in elements and qualities of scenery to which the mind of those benefiting by them, is liable, at the time the benefit is received, to give little conscious cogitation" (p. 593). Olmsted compares the experience of the beauty of "a common wildflower seen at home" to that of a rare museum bound hybrid flower imported from Japan (p. 593). The rare import is admittedly "more decorative, superb, attractive" (p. 594). But the wildflower, while seemingly innocuous, "while we have passed it by without stopping"; the common wildflower may "have touched us more, may have come home to us more, may have had a more soothing and refreshing sanitary influence" (p. 594).

Olmsted laments that in his day the press glamorizes the tastes of an elite class rather than the class of the masses. The wildflower is "simple and natural" and "productive of a great deal of happiness" (p. 594). But "the population of our country is being rapidly educated to look for gratification of taste, to find beauty, and to respect art...only as a holiday and costly luxury, and with deference to men standing as a class apart from the mass" (p. 594). This "obscuration, supercession, and dissipation of tastes" (p. 594) is a social impoverishment.