Landscape architect reimagines Olmsted’s Jackson Park, makes pitch for conservancy and nixing golf driving range

Staff Writer

Nearly 40 people packed into the Hyde Park Historical Society, 5529 S. Lake Park Ave., last Monday evening for the first neighborhood appearance by a landscape architect who may shape Jackson Park for years to come.

Vermont-based architect Patricia O’Donnell was picked earlier this year by privately-funded non-profit Project 120 to help restore designer Frederick Olmsted’s original influence on the park. The group is planning a series of projects for the park — including a music pavilion behind the Columbia Basin — and funding part of a 155-acre restoration of its natural habitats by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

“What Bob Karr asked me to do from the beginning is ‘Think big picture. Don’t only restrict yourself to the Corps,’” O’Donnell said.

Although Project 120 President Bob Karr was advertised as the main speaker at Monday’s event, Patricia O’Donnell gave the feature presentation, describing her previous work and vision for parks as a shared, democratic space.

During her career, O’Donnell has completed hundreds of landscape projects. More than 50 have been on spaces designed by Olmsted, such as the U.S. Capitol Grounds.
“One of the things that’s really important about a landscape is understanding its character and its spaces,” O’Donnell said.

Olmsted’s 1895 revised plan for Jackson Park revolves around its fields, lagoons and the lake, according to O’Donnell; but over time, access to these elements have been compromised by facilities, roads and parking lots.

“So if those are the three key elements of the park, and you’re supposed to be able to get to them and you’re supposed to be able to see them and experience them from various places, we have a very much diminished quality of place,” O’Donnell said. “So what we’re looking at is how that can be rebalanced.”

O’Donnell also said that there’s less tree canopy now at Jackson Park than there once was, and that 3 to 5 percent of the park’s total tree count would have to be planted every year to make up for this.

This summer, O’Donnell will provide input on the design of the USACE’s restoration by helping to determine its acreage, topography and plantings to maintain Olmsted’s influence on the park.

“So the process we’re at right now is working together to develop a shared language that integrates the nature side and the Olmsted side,” O’Donnell said, adding that whereas the corps emphasizes bird habitats, savannah and meadow she wants to highlight open space, flowers and low-lying plants.

Asked about the role of Project 120’s planned pavilion in the park O’Donnell said, “This park today doesn’t have any strong destinations,” adding that its current draws are the Museum of Science and Industry and sports.

O’Donnell also made the case for several long term, major developments: establishing a conservancy for the park, improving its degraded and truncated pathways and abolishing the golf driving range next to the Bobolink Meadow.

“It may take years. I’m just the person trying to hold it up and say this is the space for everyone, we need to reopen it,” O’Donnell said. “That’s the core space. Let’s not give it over to golf.”