Iconic Olmsted Parks Threatened Around the Country by All Manifestations of Climate Change


Olmsted’s Threatened Legacy, at 200

This year marks the 200th birthday of Frederick Law Olmsted Sr., the father of landscape architecture. In recognition of his legacy, a new report from an education and advocacy organization invested in connecting people to places shows that several parks designed by Olmsted and his sons are now “dying quiet deaths” in the face of threats, including climate change. 

Olmsted, born in 1822, is best known as the designer of Manhattan’s Central Park. He also designed Boston’s “Emerald Necklace”—a system of parks connected with boulevards—and many other parks around North America through his firm. After his death, his son, Frederick Law Olmsted Jr., continued his legacy and designed many more parks and park systems, including the country’s first state park system in California. 

The Cultural Landscape Foundation’s 2022 Landslide report features 12 Olmsted landscapes challenged by a number of threats, including the impacts of climate change. The California State Park system faces an onslaught of wildfires on top of drought and eroding coasts. Hot temperatures at Downing Park in Newburgh, New York, are causing algal blooms and the loss of trees. And Lake Wales in central Florida—a city whose charm comes from the streets meticulously designed by the Olmsted firm with trees and plant features—has been walloped time and time again by destructive hurricanes that are changing the landscape. 

“We look at landscapes as being vessels for having natural resources, scenic resources and cultural resources,” said Charles Birnbaum, founder of the landscape foundation. “So all of those values come together in the shaping of the land.”

The Covid-19 pandemic made clear that outdoor spaces with cultural significance and natural beauty are essential. He hopes this report will inspire people to advocate for funding for parks that can be used to tackle threats to them. 

“These places are absolutely critical,” Birnbaum said. “I think that they’re critical to how people get to recreate and enjoy and you know, basically have downtime. They’re absolutely critical. They are the connective tissue and they are democratic grounds that bring everyone together.”


Prioritizing Threats

During the worst of the Covid-19 pandemic, the number of tweets about climate change dropped, especially those with negative sentiments, a new study found. That could have implications for political action on climate, the study’s co-author said. 

The study, conducted by Oleg Smirnov, a political science professor, and Pei-Hsun Hsieh, a Ph.D. student in political science, at Stony Brook University in New York, analyzed tweets posted between 2019 and 2021. In the year before the pandemic, the platform saw 8 million tweets about climate change. In 2020 that number was 5.6 million, and in 2021 it was 5.3 million. That’s despite an increase in news coverage of climate change, more climate-related disasters and more Twitter usage generally during that time period. 

The study also found that there were fewer tweets about climate change during each of the Covid-19 waves, during which cases and hospitalizations were high. Smirnov said these findings are consistent with the finite pool of worry—a theory that says when humans are faced with multiple threats, they prioritize and focus on the threat that seems most immediate. 

“At the height of the pandemic, it certainly makes perfect sense that we focus on the most immediate threats, when people died around us, and so many people were affected, it makes perfect sense,” Smirnov said. “But it doesn’t change the fact that there is this other threat, which we really cannot afford to neglect.”

The researchers also analyzed the sentiment of tweets and found that during Covid waves, tweets about climate change were more positive and were less likely to contain emotions like fear, anger and disgust, which are associated with anxiety. 

Although Twitter users are a small and not entirely representative sample of the American population, Smirnov said it is still a useful indicator of what is important to the public and informs political leaders about which issues to prioritize.

“If climate change is no longer a salient, important issue for the public, there is less urgency for politicians to do something about it,” Smirnov said. “Climate change is something that we need to address now. Because of climate science, we know we cannot afford to wait. And it’s difficult for people to realize this, because it’s not really how our brains are wired. We deal with immediate threats.”


Adapting to Climate Change Without Evolution

Narwhal—the iconic Arctic sea mammal known for its enormously long tusk—can live for more than 100 years. Scientists have long thought that the whale’s long-lived generations and sensitivity to their environment would make it nearly impossible for them to evolve to tolerate a rapidly warming climate, but a new study finds that narwhals may be adapting to the changing environment.

In the summer, narwhals live in ice-free waters off the Arctic shores of Canada and Greenland, then in the fall they migrate into areas that are almost entirely covered by sea ice. In a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, scientists analyzed migration data for narwhals between 1997 and 2018 and found that narwhals delayed their migration to their wintering grounds by an average of 10 days per decade. That rate was correlated with the delay of sea ice extent in the fall, the study found, indicating that the migration delay is closely tied with climate change, study lead author Courtney Shuert said. 

“It was very striking to see the really tight association with climate,” Shuert said. 

This adaptation shows the potential for narwhals to adjust to climate change without evolution, which requires many generations to make an impact. 

“It’s sort of a light spot,” Shuert said. “We’re so used to climate change discussions being quite depressing and sad, but maybe there’s these other capabilities of species, especially really long lived animals like narwhal, potentially there’s some hope that they can adjust to how rapidly things are changing in their environment.”


A Venture Capitalist and a Rock Climber Team up

A new partnership between a venture capitalist and a professional rock climber aims to support groups organizing around environmental justice and clean energy at the local level.

The Levine Impact Lab, funded by venture capitalist Peter Levine and hosted by the Honnold Foundation, founded by rock climber Alex Honnold, will give organizations financial support and mentorship to build up operations, leadership and networking over a three-year period. 

“Generally in this space, there’s a ton of momentum and investment and funding for big tech and utility scale work, and very often community-based organizations and low-income communities are left out of conversation, kind of an afterthought when it comes to the renewable transition,” said Emily Teitsworth, executive director of the Honnold Foundation. “This initiative is going to directly support organizations that are using solar and renewable energy to support low-income and marginalized communities across the U.S. and eventually around the world.”

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The Levine Impact Lab will begin with a cohort of four U.S.-based organizations, but eventually hopes to scale up to 50 partners globally by mid-century. The inaugural partners include a group that works to bring solar energy to Hopi and Navajo communities and an organization in Brooklyn that composts organic waste while providing employment and experience to low-income communities.  

Small nonprofits like these have limited access to resources needed to grow, Teitsworth said, but their community focus gives them a lot of power to make a difference. 

“Given the scale of the climate crisis and the ability for these partner organizations to make catalytic change at a broad scale, I’m really excited to see how this develops,” she said. “It is sort of a different way of doing this kind of capacity building for nonprofits and a more sustained approach that will hopefully allow them to be sustainable in the long term and grow their impact in ways that they wouldn’t otherwise.”

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