Push for Parks
August 31, 2011 |  by Mike Field

Rebecca Messner, A&S ’08

Parks power growth: New York’s Central Park fueled  a real estate boom.

Parks power growth: New York’s Central Park fueled a real estate boom.

Although she’d never made a film before, Rebecca Messner has the filmmaker’s gift. “I know about telling a story,” says Messner, a Writing Seminars graduate and assistant editor at Urbanite magazine in Baltimore. It’s a lucky thing. Brought on two years ago as a research assistant for a major film documentary about the life and legacy of Central Park designer Frederick Law Olmsted, by the time the film premiered in August 2010, Messner had—by attrition—become its co-director and writer. And with no small success. Olmsted and America’s Urban Parks has been broadcast nationally through American Public Television, and New York Times critic Neil Genzlinger wrote, “Ms. Messner’s film makes you glad that Olmsted’s hands, and mind, came along when they did.”

How Messner became a budding auteur is a story unto itself. It starts with her father, Michael, a hedge fund manager and champion of a national plan to repurpose the estimated 200,000 acres of vacant retail, office, and industrial space idled by America’s real estate crisis. The Messner family’s Speedwell Foundation funded the film to draw attention to Red Fields to Green Fields, an organization that advocates purchasing financially distressed commercial properties in U.S. urban areas and converting them to green space—public parks and adjacent land reserved for future development. Olmsted and the U.S. urban parks movement of the 19th century serve as the effort’s role model. “We want to get people back to the long-sighted way of building and developing cities,” says Messner of the family focus. “How do you positively affect people 150 years in the future?”

Building parks, it turns out, can be a surefire winner, improving the quality of urban living while increasing property values—Olmsted found that the value of real estate surrounding Central Park (which cost New York $13 million to create starting in 1857) increased $209 million by the time of the park’s completion in 1873. As Messner’s film makes clear, however, Olmsted worked tirelessly to reshape America’s urban landscapes but left himself little time for recreation in the way he advocated for his fellow citizens. “The ironic thing I kept coming back to,” Messner says, “is that Olmsted devoted his life to making these spaces, but he worked so hard you have to wonder how much time he actually spent in parks.”

Related reading:

Olmsted and America’s Urban Parks – Film