Magazine article The Wilson Quarterly

Why We Need Olmsted Again

Magazine article The Wilson Quarterly

Why We Need Olmsted Again

Article excerpt

Frederick Law Olmsted, the designer of Central Park and many other public spaces, left an unmistakable imprint on the American landscape. Far less familiar are his distinctive ideas about how to shape the American city - ideas that are more pertinent than ever amid today's rising outcry over urban sprawl.

Sprawl is shaping up to be an issue in the forthcoming presidential election. It is easy to see why. The public is concerned about gridlock and the relentless urbanization of the countryside. Existing communities erect barriers to growth, pushing development yet farther out; rural towns feel threatened. There is a general feeling that things are out of control. Yet there is no consensus on how growth should be accommodated. The public is alarmed at the consequences of sprawl but suspicious of the chief means of reining it in - centralized planning.

The public's confidence was soured by the planning debacles of the 1960s. High-minded urban renewal left thousands homeless; cross-town freeways fractured neighborhoods; and public housing super-blocks, conceived by the best minds in the field, created high-crime zones. Faced with another round of planning "solutions," the public is right to be skeptical. Yet the suspicion of planning runs further back in time than these relatively recent events. Americans have always been uncomfortable with centralized planning. We admire European cities, but we have resisted vesting as much power in an individual as, say, Rome did in Pope Sixtus V, or Paris in Napoleon III. Instead of the grand gesture we have preferred the generic grid, plain Main Street, and its modern counterpart, the ubiquitous highway strip. This is not simply laziness. These modest planning solutions have generally provided a level playing field for "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." In the grid, or on the strip, everyone is treated equally. The house stands beside the church which is next to the drive-in restaurant. Each has equal prominence, none assumes precedence over the other.

The history of the planning of the American city has been chiefly a story of private accomplishments and private monuments: palatial department stores, railroad terminals, skyscrapers, baseball stadiums. There is one exception, and it is a big one. During the second half of the 19th century, almost every large city - New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco - planned and built a public park. European cities had parks, but London's Hyde Park or Paris's Tuileries Gardens were relatively small. The American parks were huge: 840 acres in the case of New York's Central Park, more than 1,000 acres in San Francisco, more than 3,000 in Philadelphia. This was planning on a heroic scale.

The majority of those great public works were designed by Frederick Law Olmsted (1822-1903), the remarkable planner and landscape architect who, with Calvert Vaux, built Central Park and Brooklyn's Prospect Park, and designed parks in Buffalo and Chicago. Later, working alone, he planned parks in Boston, Detroit, Louisville, Rochester, and Montreal. What was it that made Olmsted's brand of city planning so successful?

Olmsted, too, lived in a time of spectacular urban expansion. "We have reason to believe, then, that towns which of late have been increasing rapidly on account of their commercial advantages, are likely to be still more attractive to population in the future," he wrote in a paper delivered in 1870 to the American Social Science Association, of which he was a founder. "That there will in consequence soon be larger towns than any the world has yet known, and that the further progress of civilization is to depend mainly upon the influences by which men's minds and characters will be affected while living in large towns."

Although Olmsted loved the countryside, like most of his contemporaries he never suggested that urbanization could or should - be curtailed. Nor was he nostalgic about the country's agrarian past. …

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