The Scope and Results of European City Planning 1909

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Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. whose father was the designer of Central Park in New York City and whose firm would go on to design Memorial Park in Riverside in 1924 and the soon to be restored Cummer Olmsted Gardens in 1931 was a speaker at the fateful National Conference on City Planning in Washington DC. Join us after the jump for his opinions on Anglo Saxon Democracy and restricted neighborhoods!

Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. was the son of Frederick Law Olmsted, the fore-father of the profession of landscape architecture in the United State.  While still a student at Harvard, young Olmsted spent a summer working in Daniel Burnham's office in Chicago while the "White City" of the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition was built.

As the son of the most renowned name in landscape architecture, Olmsted was chosen for positions of prominence from the very start of his career. In 1899 he became a founding member of the American Society of Landscape Architects. The following year he was appointed instructor in landscape architecture at Harvard, where he helped create the country's first university course in the profession.

He emerged on the national scene in 1901, in Washington DC on the McMillan Commission. Charged with interpreting Charles L'Enfant's vision of the nation's capital, he worked with his father's colleagues from the Chicago World's Fair to transform Washington into a work of Civic Art according to the L'Enfant Plan, but as a centerpiece of the City Beautiful Movement.

In 1910, Olmsted's colleagues asked him to lead the first organization of the nascent planning profession, the National Conference on City Planning. One of the few planners to practice successfully in both the City Beautiful and the "City Efficient" eras, Olmsted helped lay the theoretical foundation for the new discipline in a series of presidential addresses to this body over the next nine years. In 1917 he was instrumental in organizing the American City Planning Institute, a professional society for planning practitioners, and he was elected its first president. As this organization's representative, he offered the planning profession's services to the government during World War I, serving as manager of the Town Planning Division of the U.S. Housing Corporation, which oversaw the first direct federal participation in building worker housing.

But in 1909, he gave the following, his first speech at the First National Conference:

Address by Mr. Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. at the National Conference on City Planning In Washington, D.C.

I speak with much hesitation on the very broad subject which has been assigned to me, the more so because I have recently returned from some months of hurried travel in Europe devoted to the study of city planning. This has proved to be just enough to make me realize on the one hand what a deal of light can be thrown upon our own problems by a study of European work, how much we can learn from their mistakes as well as from their many successes, and on the other hand how utterly superficial and limited is my acquaintance with the field. In the humble spirit of a student, then, I offer my observations for what they may be worth.

The most elementary kind of city planning — of which evidences are to be seen in almost every western city, while strikingly absent from the street plan of Constantinople — is the effort by some kind of municipal action so to control the layout of new streets opened up by landowners for the development of building lots that they shall serve more than strictly local purposes. The immediate local selfish purposes of landowners would often best be served by narrow, short and inexpensive courts, alleys and lanes, coming to dead ends or returning upon themselves by bends and elbows in a manner calculated to exclude through traffic but fitting the shape of the land holdings and the contour of the ground in the most economical and cheese-paring way.

Indications of this primitive kind of individualistic development are to be seen in the mediaeval portions of most European cities, modified however, by many evidences of their strong and healthy communal spirit, such as broad hay markets and other market places and squares, churchyards, common landing places or strands on the shores of navigable waters and almost always by a few tolerably continuous and direct but often narrow thoroughfares connecting the market places and other centers of traffic with the outlying country. In the map of Constantinople these evidences of higher organization are generally lacking, wide areas being covered with a chaotic complex of undifferentiated wriggling alleys leading nowhere. Conscious and organized public effort at city planning seems ordinarily to begin by the effort so to control the layout of new streets created by private initiative as to accomplish two simple and easily understood purposes.

1. To make new streets connect with older streets so as to afford more or less continuous lines of travel.

2. To make the streets wide enough to avoid probability of congestion of travel.

When city planning is taken up in detail, street by street or subdivision by subdivision as the cases arise, with merely these two objects in view, and especially when it is done in a routine way with the minimum of expense for surveying and the minimum of thinking and trouble devoted to special planning for special cases, the result is apt to be a mechanically standardized arrangement of streets and blocks,in which nearly all the streets approximate the same standard width and nearly all the lots the same standard depth, with little regard to the probable uses of the land or the volume and character of traffic on the streets as determined by the grades, by natural advantages and disadvantages, and by adjacent developments.

This mechanically standardized planning in its extreme case of a single system of uniform rectangular blocks with uniform straight streets covering the whole town or very large quarters thereof is of course more characteristic of American cities than of any others in the world. But under a different superficial aspect rather similar practical results are to be found in many a town that is usually regarded as coming in quite a different class, as in parts of Boston and its suburbs, and in not a few quarters of European towns, perhaps most noticeably in England. Even where little rectangularity can be found in the plan, and where there are few streets that run perfectly straight for more than a short distance at a time, this mechanical standardizing of the street plan can be recognized in the comparative uniformity of street widths, standardized at a breadth considerably greater than is required for strictly local purposes.

An interesting fact is that although rigid municipal legislation and official routine and local habit tend to bring about such a standardizing in any given locality, the greatest variation is to be found in the standards adopted in different localities, even under similar economic social and topographical conditions. In other words, the standards appear to have been determined more or less, by accident and to persist through inertia, rather than to be the result of a successful adaptation of means to ends. Another interesting fact about these locally standardized street plans is that they have a distinct influence on the type of buildings that can be economically erected in each locality at various stages of its development; for example, they often increase or decrease, as the case may be, the economic inducement to erect rear tenements and deep, dark, ill-ventilated buildings.

City planning, carried to this point, accomplishes two things. It gives through connections of some sort at both ends of practically every new street that is constructed for local purposes in opening up new building land, and it insists on a standard minimum width for every street so that it will be able to carry some through traffic in addition to serving the purely local needs of the abutters. The great defect of the standardizing process everywhere is due to the fact that the great bulk of street traffic inevitably tends to concentrate itself upon a certain limited number of thoroughfares, the lines of least resistance, and unless this tendency is foreseen and adequately provided for by giving very much more than the average capacity to these streets which will form the main thoroughfares, serious congestion and inconvenience inevitably result.

On the other hand the uniform insistence upon a minimum street width that is but little below the average for all streets in the city results in the case of purely local streets in a needless extravagance in respect to the land thus withdrawn from productive use and in respect to actual outlay for street construction and maintenance; an extravagance the burden of which must be borne by the occupants of the district, whether they be tenants or owners. Also the tendency of the standardizing plan to encourage the distribution of a certain amount of through traffic upon nearly every street in each district is a distinct injury both to the residential streets, where the abutters wish to escape from the disturbance of traffic, and to the commercial streets, where the abutters wish to have the maximum amount of traffic pass their places of business.

There has long been a recognition of the more obvious trouble of deficiency in the main thoroughfares, whether resulting from a wholly unregulated natural growth on local streets, or from a perfunctory and mechanical standardizing plan such as has often prevailed both in English and American towns, wholesale, rectangular and monotonous with us, and piecemeal with them, but similar in practical results. For more than half a century, particularly in France and in Germany and in the countries that have most strongly felt their influence, the provision of a liberal number of exceptionally wide thoroughfares, from a hundred feet to a hundred yards or so in width has been a systematic feature of town extension plans. The type was fixed mainly perhaps by the striking examples set in Paris under the second Empire, which were themselves based, artistically, upon the avenues of the formal parks of Le Notre Dame, made known to all of Europe two centuries before by the great prestige of France.

The type is a familiar one to travelers in almost any part of Continental Europe where active city development has been in progress: a broad straight avenue, usually of moderate length, often provided with some more or less effective vista point, such as a public building or monument or fountain, generally lined with symmetrical rows of trees, and flanked or intended to be flanked by buildings approximately uniform in height and architectural character. As the common name of boulevard implies, these broad thoroughfares had their origin largely in the opportunities which are repeatedly presented during the expansion of fortified cities of utilizing in such a way the sites of the older and outgrown military defenses, technically known as boulevards or bulwarks. But the utility and popularity of these circumferential boulevards early led to a public demand for similar thoroughfares running on radial lines in and out of town where danger of traffic congestion is obviously much greater than on circumferential lines, and, as I have said, they came to be a regular feature of progressive city planning on the continent of Europe during the latter half of the nineteenth century. These boulevards are not in most cases primarily pleasure drives, as is usually implied of a so-called boulevard in this country, but are main thoroughfares used by street railways and all kinds of street traffic, heavy and light, the trees and decorative features being a mere incident, though an important and highly appreciated incident, of this general utility. The absence of fortified cities in England and America during the period of most active city growth and the consequent absence of the peculiar opportunities for forming successive ring boulevards as popular object lessons in what a really liberal thoroughfare can be, has probably had as much to do with the deficiency of such thoroughfares in our street extension plans as the individualistic and decentralized character of Anglo-Saxon democracy.

Although the provision of a certain number of exceptionally wide thoroughfares, adapted to carry without possibility of congestion the main streams of travel, has thus for a long time been an accepted feature of extension plans in continental cities, and although great numbers of such boulevards have come into being, it is only within the last two decades that the other objections to mechanically standardized street planning have begun to be fully realized. In 1892 in the Prussian House of Representatives the minister of finance, in presenting a bill relative to town planning, said: "Everywhere equally wide streets have been made, whether they were intended for the use of the well-to-do classes, whether they are in a district of heavy traffic, or whether they are in the less busy parts of the town in which, naturally, workmen seek a home. And the spaces between streets have been made far too great, and thus back buildings have been artificially called into existence. In preparing a rational town building plan our task will be to avoid these faults and to take as our aim that narrow as well as wide streets shall be laid out, which will cost less to make, and especially that plots for buildings shall be less deep, so that huge tenement houses may be avoided."
This speech suggests the coming of a far broader, deeper, wiser attitude than that which merely sets an arbitrary minimum of street width and establishes a mechanical method of agglomerating block after block and street after street of a standardized type, or even that which adds with liberality the main thoroughfares of extra width and gives them a grandiose architectural character. It marks a recognition of the idea that the ultimate purpose of city planning is not to provide facilities for certain kinds of transportation or to obtain certain architectural effects, but is to direct the physical development of the city by every means of control within the power of the municipality in such a manner that the ordinary citizen will be able to live and labor under conditions as favorable to health, happiness, and productive efficiency as his means will permit. Intelligent economy in the use of land and in construction and in maintenance is of the essence of the problem. It involves large questions of economics and social development and not merely those of engineering in the narrow sense or of architecture in the narrow sense.

NEXT PAGE:  Examples of German City Planning and Lessons to be learned from their successes and mistakes.

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