The Scope Of American City Planning In 1909

August 16, 2013 7 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

The First National Conference on City Planning in Washington, D.C. took place in the United States in 1909 and it would set into motion a transformational national experiment in City Planning. Artists, Do Gooders, Progressives, Architects and many of the crusading leaders of the Great Awakening generation of the preceeding generation would meet and speak in a conference that quite literally changed the world. We are presenting several of these speeches in an exploration of the DNA of City Planning. Join us after the Jump for a speech by Frederick Ford on the Scope of American City Planning.



The reader might find it interesting that many of the arguments presented by Frederick Ford are still very current issues more than one hundred and four years later.  Even as we publish this article there is a current maelstrom brewing on the subject of outdoor advertising and Jacksonville's controversial Billboard Laws.   Pay special attention to Ford's emphasis on the Broad Avenues and aesthetically pleasing entrances to the grand civic structures of the era.

Much concern and care at the time was given to the idea of 'Bad Air', in the belief that gasses and ether were the medium through which disease were spread.  Also notice the discussion about slums and tenements.  This is literally the seminal stuff that led to public health standards and zoning laws.


THE SCOPE OF CITY PLANNING IN THE UNITED STATES.
By Frederick L. Ford, City Engineer, Hartford, Conn., and Secretary of the Permanent Commission on the City Plan.

I consider it an honor to address an assemblage of this character, national in scope,  power, and influence, upon a subject in which we are mutually interested, that of  intelligent and comprehensive city planning. It is encouraging to note that the national organizations which are interesting themselves in this great subject are  multiplying. For some years the American Civic Association has been carrying on  a vast amount of propaganda work for a more beautiful America; the National Municipal League has been working for better city government and the selection of men  especially qualified by training and experience for executive positions in municipal  government.   The Bureau of Municipal Research of New York, and The Finance Commission of Boston have been working along similar lines for the elimination of dishonesty, incompetency, and inefficiency in the administration of city affairs. And now comes The Committee on Congestion of Population in New York City to nationalize this great movement. This committee has accomplished a vast amount of work in a new field of endeavor hardly touched by previous investigations and rep'irts upon  city planning and yet one which all cities must recognize as fundamentally essential to successful city planning — that of the relief of congestion of population by the  improvement of housing conditions.  

The movement for city planning in an intelligent and comprehensive manner really started in 1902 with the publication of the report upon "Theimprovement of the park systems of the District of Columbia," by a commission of widely recognized experts consisting of Daniel H. Burnham, Charles F. McKim. Frederick Law Olmstead, and Augustus St. Gaudens, and it is especially fitting therefore that the first national conference on city planning should be held in the same city where the movement originated. Starting in this local way, the movement for intelligent city planning has grown by leaps and bounds until it has reached into thelargest cities and the smallest towns and villages in America, so that today it is as much a question of national importance as is the conservation of our national resources, for city planning, if it means anything, means the better preservation of health, and the protection of life and property, and therefore directly or indirectly affects the health, happiness, and prosperity of the people and of the nation.

Since 1902 a great number and variety of reports and articles upon city planning  have been prepared, so many, in fact, that it would take practically all of one's time to read them without even attempting to master their interesting and instructive contents. If some of the reports now issued had appeared ten years ago they would  have been ridiculed as visionary and impracticable. What is the meaning of this great change in public sentiment within seven years? It means a great civic awakening is sweeping this country from the Atlantic to the Pacific and from the Gulf to the  Great Lakes. American people are beginning to realize that they have not obtained 1 dollar of value for each dollar spent upon public improvements; they are dissatisfied with the past development of their home cities, and they desire their future  development to progress in accordance with some well-defined policy, looking well  into the future so as to avoid similar mistakes.

As a general rule the reports thus far issued have been close-range surveys of the  needs of each particular city, with reasonable recommendations for their future improvements. Special features have been made of the municipal functions most in need of development, to proade a symmetrical growth.   In the Washington report the park system and the great Mall from the Capitol to the  Potomac River with the proposed locations for future public buildings upon either side were the two prominent features.   The Cleveland report deals with a special subject, the creation of a wide mall from  Superior street to Lake Erie, with public buildings on each side and a grand union station at the northerly end.   The Buffalo, Columbus, and St. Louis reports all include magnificent civic centers.   In New York City the transit problems and relief from the congestion of population  and of street traffic are the most important problems.

The Boston reports include recommenriations for the improvement of transit facilities, better means of intercommunication between Boston and the surrounding cities  and' towns in the metropolitan district, and a better system of public docks.

 In Denver, St. Paul, Harrisburg, Madison, Wis., and Hartford, Conn., ample provision is made for opening up adequate and artistic approaches to the state capitol  buildings.   Chicago, San Francisco, Oakland, Los Angeles, San Jose, San Diego, Colorado Springs, Detroit, Providence, Springfield, New Haven, Greenfield, S.C, Columbia,  Ga., Roanoke, Va., Dubuque.and Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and many other smaller cities  and towns have all had investigations and reports made, and the recommendations, if carried out, would bring them nearer the ideal as healthful and artistic cities in which  to live and as attractive places in which to do business.  

In addition to the special features, these reports cover a variety of subjects, such as parks, children's playgrounds, recreation centers, public baths, comfort and trolley  waiting stations, boulevards, parkways, public markets, the location of public buildings, studies of the street system, street names, street traffic, transit problems, the improvement of the water fronts, public docks, etc. Very few treat the problem of  congestion of population. While most of the studies have been made from the  aesthetic viewpoint, in the future more attention will be directed to hygienic and economic considerations, for now, more than ever before, municipal problems must  be solved with especial reference to their sanitary importance or their relationship,  either directly or indirectly, to the health and happiness of the people.

We have been passing through a period when much of the municipal work has been destructive rather than constructive, and the progress made partially negative instead  of wholly positive, so that some of the older work must be modified to relieve the intense congestion which is upon us. From this past experience valuable lessons should be learned and applied to the development of the newer areas if similar difficulties are to be avoided in the future. The fight from now on will be for sunlight and pure air against private greed.   It can properly be classified as reconstruction and construction work, or the abuse  and use of the solids, the areas built upon, and the voids or open areas.  

So far as the older work is concerned, we can not hope to accomplish miracles, and must be content with results far from the ideal. We can, however, make some improvement. The older streets can be and should be cleared of unnecessary obstructions. Ugly poles and overhead wires should be removed because of their unsightliness and danger. Business advertising signs which project out over sidewalks should  also be removed and placed flat against the fronts of the buildings, because they now  interfere with a proper distribution of light and air and with the work of firemen. They are also unsightly and liable to blow down during severe storms and injure pedestrians  below. Advertising signs on the tops of buildings should also be restricted in size or removed altogether, because they are unsightly and dangerous.

Street congestion can be relieved by the enforcement of suitable road rules, by the diversion of vehicular traffic or its restriction on the most congested streets to certain hours. Street-railway congestion can be relieved by the rerouting of cars.  New streets can be opened to divert and thus relieve transit and vehicular congestion.   So far as the treatment of the older built-up areas are concerned, obstructions from the tops of buildings can be removed to facilitate fire fighting, the fire limits can be extended, and better fire protection thus secured. A more systematic sanitary inspection of tenements, yards, and alleys can be made.

Vacated tenements can and should  be inspected and put in habitable condition before reoccupied. In some cases new streets should be opened, to divide too large city blocks, and to let in an abundance of  sunlight and air. The whole hygienic and moral tone of the section would be greatly improved by such work, because in the most densely congested districts are to be found the worst sanitary, social, and moral conditions breeding places for immorality, vice, and crime.

The value of city blocks is also largely fixed by the value of the perimeter rather than by the area, so that the opening of new streets through badly congested districts would probably enhance the value of the adjacent property to the extent of the cost of the improvement. From a study of the older work in American cities we should be able to determine the principal reason for the intense street congestion in some cities, and how it can be avoided in the newer development; we should determine more accurately the proper roadway and sidewalk widths for  streets used for various purposes, and what differentiation, if any, should be made in the uses of the different streets. We should learn the principal reasons for the intensive congestion of population; for the excessive death rates from preventable diseases and accidents; for the enormous property losses from disastrous fires; for the extravagance and wastefulness from dishonesty, incompetency, and inefficiency in the administration of city affairs, before we can hope to successfully cope with the solution of these great problems.

Obviously our building laws are either grossly defective or inadequately enforced to permit such horrible conditions in so many American cities.   The conditions which now exist point conclusively to the necessity of more restrictive regulations concerning the occupancy and use of private property. General laws defining the percentage of area which can be biiilt upon, and limiting the height of  buildings in relationship to the width of adjoining streets, seem most essential. In  the business districts especially the building codes should also provide for, and city officials should insist upon, a better type of fireproof construction as the best fire-preventive measure.   One of the great questions which will press for an early solution will be whether  American cities should go even further and divide the city into zones, as some European cities now do, and limit the buildings in each zone to certain uses, with separate  restrictions for each zone.   As for the newer work in the undeveloped areas, we should realize more than ever before that their development must be along radically different lines from the older work if we are to attain the highest ideals. What we need more than anything else  for these areas is the adoption of a carefully studied plan far in advance of actual  building operations. The location, direction, and width of streets for the entire area should be determined, and the streets should be officially laid out and recorded upon  the city maps, even if the roadways are not actually graded and opened for traffic for  years to come. In no other way can we hope to obtain the proper relationship between the old and the new street systems. In no other way can the size of the blocks be  so well or so easily determined as by public control" at the start, before greedy real  estate speculators have forever disfigured it with improper subdivisions. If in addition to the adoption of a rational highway system and the selection of suitable areas  for parks, playgrounds, boulevards, park ways, public buildings, and other public  uses, suitable restrictions, based upon a thorough understanding of the difficulties experienced in the growth and development of the older sections, are placed upon  the uses of the privately owned property, we have done all that we can to train the  future growth of the cities in the right direction.


While most of the reports which have been made upon city planning in this country  have been inspired and financed by private individuals, or by civic and commercial organizations, the movement has now become so popularized, and the cities themselves have become so impressed with its importance, that hereafter the work will be  undertaken more by official commissions with ample authority to employ experts,  and with sufficient appropriations at their disposal to make more exhaustive and detailed investigations and reports than most of those heretofore undertaken. This  will give the reports and recommendations made by such commissions the official  standing which they deserve and the public that degree of confidence in the results to be attained which is so essential in undertaking great public improvements.   The following amendment to the charter of the city of Hartford, Conn., concerning  a commission on the city plan, which is modeled in some respects after the bill defining the powers of the group plan commission of the city of Cleveland, indicates in a  general way how permanent city plan commissions should be organized and the broad  authoritv which they should have:

Quote
"Section 1. That there shall be in the city of Hartford a commission on the city plan, which shall consist of the mayor, who shall be its presiding officer, the president  of the board of street commissioners, the superintendent of public parks, the president  of the board of park commissioners, the city engineer, two citizens, neither of whom shall hold any other office in said city government, one member of the board of aldermen, and one member of the common council board, to be appointed as hereinafter  provided.  

"Sec. 2. The necessary expenses of said commission shall be paid by the city, but no member thereof shall be paid for his services as such member.

"Sec. 3. During the month of April, 1907, the mayor shall appoint one citizen  member of said commission to hold office for two years, and one citizen member to hold office for three years from the 1st of May then next ensuing, and in the month of  April, 1909, and in April in the years thereafter when the terms of such citizen mernbers,  respectively, expire, the mayor shall appoint one citizen member of said commission for the term of three years from the 1st day of May then next ensuing. During the  month of April, 1907, and in each April thereafter the board of aldermen and the  common council board of said city shall each appoint from its own number a member of said commission to hold office for the term of one year from and after the 1st day  of May then next ensuing. The members of said commission shall hold office until  their respective successors are elected or qualified.
 
"Sec. 4. All questions concerning the location of any public building, esplanade,  boulevard, park way, street, highway, square, or park shall be referred to said commission by the court of common council for its consideration and report before final action is taken on such location.  

"Sec. 5. The court of common council may refer to said commission the construction or carrying out of any public work not expressly within the province of other boards or commissions of said city, and may delegate to said commission all powers which the said council deems necessary to complete such work in all details.  

"Sec 6. Said commission may make or cause to be made a map or maps of said  city, or any portion thereof, showing locations proposed by it for any new public building, esplanade, boulevard, parkway, or street, and grades thereof, and any new  square or park, or any changes by it deemed advisable in the present location of any public building, street, grades, and lines, square or park, and may employ expert advice in the making of such map or maps.  

"Sec 7. Said city of Hartford, acting through said commission or otherwise, shall  have power to appropriate, enter upon, and hold in fee real estate within its corporate limits for establishing esplanades, boulevards, park ways, park grounds, streets,  highways, squares, sites for public buildings, and reservations in and about and along  and leading to any or all of the same; and, after the establishment, lay out, and completion of such improvements, may convey any real estate thus acquired and not  necessary for such improvements, with or without reservations, concerning the future  use and occupation of such real estate so as to protect such public works and improvements and their environs, and to preserve the view, appearance, light, air, and usefulness of such public works."  

In studying this great problem of intelligent city planning in a comprehensive manner, one of the first things which we should learn and ever keep in mind is the proper relationship between the different municipal functions so that the design when completed and perfected will form a harmonious whole. Too much attention directed to or money expended upon a few municipal functions at the expense of the many equally important functions will result in a lopsided, disorderly, and unsymmetrical development.  What American cities most need and should strive to attain is a healthful, orderly, and symmetrical development along sane and progressive lines.