440px-Portrait_of_Frederick_Law_Olmsted

Landscape Architect Tackles Belle Isle

Image: Frederick Law Olmsted, Wikimedia Commons.

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Click here to see resources for further reading on Belle Isle

Surrounded by the rushing waters of the Detroit River, Belle Isle is no stranger to the enjoyment people can find from water recreation. The original development of Belle Isle Park’s rivers and boating areas is discussed in a report by Frederick Law Olmsted in his proposal for Detroit in November of 1882. Olmsted was known as the founder of American landscape architecture, and his design was lauded for its expert integration of both natural and artificial elements. In his original plan for Belle Isle, Olmsted discusses the need for boating recreation in the park, and suggests that it would be a fairly easy process to implement artificial waterways running through the park. He argues that the current water drainage channels, which were built to drain the marshy ground in 1882, were unsuitable for anything productive, as they were too low for drainage and created dangerous health conditions.

Olmsted saw much potential in the design of streams through the island while still maintaining a natural appearance. Likewise, his plans for the existing forest on Belle Isle reflect a blending of natural and artificial elements that would produce the illusion of wilderness within a carefully controlled landscape. He designed a ferry landing and boating recreational area, but planned for the rest of the island to provide a peaceful “wild” environment.

His plan for genteel recreation catered to the upper class, but also reflected the ideas of escaping urban life.  Residents of the cities, whether working or upper class, desired relaxing outdoor experiences away from the factories and populated city.  These areas of boating recreation would provide both entertainment and beautiful relaxing spaces for the park-goers.

  • Frederick Law Olmsted, The Park For Detroit (Boston: Franklin Press, 1882), 40-41.
  • William Cronon, “The Trouble With Wilderness,” in Out of the Woods, ed. Char Miller, Hal Rothman (Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1997), 368.

Click here to see all narratives about Belle Isle

Click here to see resources for further reading on Belle Isle

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