Friday, June 3, 2016

On "Civilizing American Cities" by Frederick Law Olmsted **

Essentially a well-organized anthology on Olmsted's thoughts on city planning, the work starts with an introduction to the man himself. As becomes apparent, it is in some ways strange to think that the man most revered in landscape architecture circles was not formally trained in the profession. I'd thought that because he preceded the profession, but in fact there were already men doing such work, Calvert Vaux, under whom Olmsted studied and worked, being one of them. Olmsted was in fact trained more in architecture, but it was his work with Vaux on New York's Central Park that created his reputation, such that he would go on to design many other major cities' central parks. In addition to discussing his personal life, the introduction gives us a sense of the ideas of the man himself, who preferred natural simplicity to artificial naturalness. Hence, he abhorred country houses made of blocks of stone or some kind of primitive stone edifice put up next to a contemporary street curb. Such “nature” is the very antithesis of natural in Olmsted's view.

The first part focuses various aspects with regard to the growth of cities. The first reading of this section is about the history of cities--or to be more precise, the history of roads. I wish I could better remember Lewis Mumford's writing on this subject, because the first part of Olmsted's piece seems more theoretical than real. That may or may not be the case. He talks of how original roads were generally goat paths, cow paths, and foot paths that had been paved over (but I'm reminded that grid systems go back even to the Greeks). He also writes of how some roads were built for military purposes (indeed). And then he turns specifically to the problem of London. Here, he notes how the city expanded without proper roads. Disease and filth proliferated, and the wealthy and whoever else could moved to country estates. In time, as merchants became more important, cities began to attract the wealthy and also the lower classes (looking to better themselves). Olmsted focuses on how people always seemed to want to be away--out in nature, which I'm not so sure to be the case (why be there cities to begin with if so?--we like to be among other people). The London fire provided a great opportunity to lay out a consistent street plan, but landholders rushed to rebuild before the plan could be implemented, creating troubles that would cost London for generations to come. Earlier on, the thinking was largely that the larger the city the more the crime and disease, but this has not proven to be true in the modern world. In fact, as societies have urbanized, people have lived longer, safer, and healthier. But that does not mean that such will always be, Olmsted contends. People need and want access to nature and to sun; as such, it is important to include parks in any city plan, parks that people can easily access, lest the health gained be lost.

Next we turn to the problem of New York. Olmsted largely decries the city's rigid adherence to the grid, resulting in blocks that are too small or too large for purposes other than tenements. He denotes that cities like Paris and London have occasional large blocks that allow for large architectural marvels that can be seen from a distance.

In another essay, Olmsted recounts the history of cities from a cultural angle, arguing that it is women who encourage families to move to the city--for its convenience, its ease of shopping, its tidiness. But Olmsted argues, as he so often does, that man needs nature--and that nature must be brought into these towns, in the form of gardens and parks, or the advantages of the city, especially in regard to health, will be lost. And again, he turns to New York and the building of Central Park, which he'd had to fight various council members and business owners to properly install. And the result has been a profound success, whereas too often many other cities have set aside land that would have gotten little use for building and thus get little use as parks.

The book then provides several essays by Olmsted on individual cities--San Francisco, Buffalo, Chicago, Montreal, Boston, Berkeley, and Riverside (in Illinois). Most of these essays get deep into specifics, and in only a few cases are maps provided. This makes the essays difficult to follow, as they are clearly of their time and place. Had Olmsted written of cities where I've lived and spent a great deal of time, I might have been better able to follow him--and cared to try. But the reading is fairly dry to someone not connected to the time and place.

Olmsted's writing on Boston stands out in some sense for his discussion of art and aesthetics, as it relates to park building and city planning. He talks of how great art stands the test of time--and that good city plans and good parks will as well. The essay on Riverside stands out also because it is essentially a chapter about a planned city--a planned suburb of Chicago. Olmsted argues for curved streets and for lots of greenspace but no parks. The space doesn't lend itself to parks, Olmsted argues, and because plans can be done from the ground up (nothing having been built), lots of space can be allotted for each tract. And so there we have it: the beginning of suburban sprawl. (Olmsted argues that lower density means less traffic--but he doesn't seem to take into account traffic to/from businesses.) I can see why Jane Jacobs would argue that garden city planners did not understand what made cities work (even though, as denoted in some other books, garden city planner ideas actually weren't about sprawl--they were about small dense cities with gardens in between; Olmsted's gardens, when placed in a suburban context, however, seem to fit some of the Jacobs stereotype).

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