by Robin Harlow

As I walked Camden neighborhoods collecting signatures for a petition regarding the restoration of the Megunticook River, I was asked many excellent questions. The ones I heard often were: “What about Harbor Park? Will this help the crumbling seawall and the flooded benches? What about the Olmsted legacy?”

I was intrigued by the Olmsted connection and did some research. Concerned that people were trapped inside the urban environments of the Industrial Age, Frederick L. Olmsted began designing open spaces for communities in 1850. He designed over 100 parks. After Olmsted’s death, his sons John Charles Olmsted and Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. continued his work. They conducted business as the Olmsted Brothers and followed their father’s design philosophy. Mary Louise Curtis Bok hired the Olmsted Brothers to design Camden’s Harbor Park, which was built between 1928 and 1935.

According to the National Association for Olmsted Parks, Frederick L. Olmsted was an important early leader of the conservation movement in the United States. He introduced sustainable design and environmental conservation long before it was in vogue. Olmstead wrote that design should help conserve the natural features of a site to the greatest extent possible and provide for the continued ecological health of the area. There was always a purpose of direct utility or service to his work. Service preceded art. Olmsted wanted the land to dictate the design to ensure sustainability and the perpetuation of his design’s intent.

We know that Olmsted was a pragmatist, not an ideologue. He embraced the need to adapt his parks to changing times and circumstances. After the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, for example, he updated his naturalistic landscape to accommodate the Beaux-Arts fair building that is now the Museum of Science and Industry. He also designed roads that could handle automobile traffic. In a concession to evolving recreational habits, he inserted oval outdoor running tracks for men and women.

Olmstead felt that infrastructure must embrace ecology. He insisted on including provisions for adequate drainage and other environmental engineering considerations, not simply arranging surface features. More than 150 years ago, Olmsted embraced natural approaches to flood control, knowing hardscaping was not the answer. In Chicago, he created a park along the waterfront that addressed periodic flooding by creating plant masses with native reeds, dune grasses, sedges, and sages. In Boston, faced with raw sewage and a fetid swamp, Olmsted effectively constructed the first wetlands using green infrastructure to solve dual problems of flooding and sanitation.

Many Olmsted parks have faced change, including parks in Louisville, Buffalo, and Chicago. Washington, D.C.’s National Cathedral grounds have been modified to ensure that the historic landscape can respond to the pressures of climate change while honoring the intent of Olmsted’s original design.

In 2003, Riverside, Ill., was grappling with river restoration and dam removal issues a lot like ours. The local Frederick Law Olmsted Society, which is dedicated to sustaining Olmsted’s vision for Riverside, determined that removing the dam was still entirely within Olmsted’s vision. They felt River Park was a living landmark that required evolutionary changes to maintain and improve its quality over time.

Here in Camden, the Public Library trustees were given the power, authority, and duty to manage and control the Harbor Park. This was stipulated in the original gift to the people of Camden by Mary Louise Curtis Bok. Some residents view the Harbor Park seawall and Montgomery Dam as one project. In fact, they are two separate issues that may, or may not, have one solution. The trustees have posted their statement on the issue on the library website and will be directly involved in any change.

All river restoration projects are complex and multidisciplinary. Camden’s is no exception. A short list of considerations includes flooding, cost and funding, aesthetics, watershed ecology, tourism, and history. We must also consider the heritage of Harbor Park.

Sea levels are rising. Increasingly intense rainfall events send so much water down to the harbor it is disintegrating the sea wall. Twenty-first century American communities like ours should focus on ecological adaptation rather than preserving a static view of our historic landscapes. Not only is this pragmatic but it also honors the environmentalism and progressivism at the heart of the Olmstead legacy. We hope that this legacy can help guide river restoration not by idealizing the park’s original contours, but by seeking a progressive, future-oriented design incorporating the Megunticook River.

Robin Harlow is a resident of Camden.

Restore Megunticook is written by a diverse group of Camden residents who want to face climate threats responsibly and are committed to a civil community conversation about the ecology of the Megunticook River. Their views do not reflect the editorial position of The Camden Herald.

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