For Play or for Profit?: Frederick Law Olmsted and the Industrial Elite Plan for Belle Isle Park

The process of creating Belle Isle park on the wooded island in the Detroit River prompted many questions concerning design, politics, and city living. Commissioned by the city’s Board of Park Commissioners in 1871 and designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, the island park represented an uneasy collaboration between municipal planners, a noted landscape designer, and the city’s industrial elite. Olmsted brought to the Belle Isle plan his notion of the urban park as a refuge from the industrial life of the city, a concept he perfected in his 1857 design for New York’s Central Park. Yet local industrialists in Detroit sought to establish Belle Isle Park as an income-generating attraction that deployed elaborate architecture and highly visible entertainment venues to yield high profits. Additionally, no policy precedents existed that would allow Detroit city planners to preserve land within the city without set-asides for commercial or industrial development. Accordingly, this study illuminates the role of large municipal parks in the industrial city, and the tension between the park as a refuge and the park as a place of commerce.

- journal article in progress