THE GROWTH OF CITY PLANNING IN AMERICA
J. Horace McFarland
Charities and the Commons 19 (February 2, 1908):1522-1528.John Horace McFarland (1859 ? ) was an untiring advocate of urban and regional planning. By profession a master printer, he became an author and publisher. He wrote several books on gardening: Photographing Flowers and Trees (1902), Getting Acquainted with the Trees (1904), Laying Out the Home Grounds and My Growing Garden (1915), The Rose in America (1923), and several others. He also edited The American Rose Annual from 1916 onwards. A prolific author, he contributed articles to such publications as Country Life in America, Ladies Home Journal, Country Gentleman, House and Garden, Better Homes and Gardens, House Beautiful, and American Home.The assertion is ventured that the vast majority of urban dwellers would, if asked, explain that a city plan was merely a city map, and nothing more. Indeed, most of those whose minds have been more or less awakened to a civic consciousness, and who are beginning to care for the interests of all, are likely to have very hazy ideas upon the subject of real city planning, and more likely to think it of slight importance. I am reminded of a park board which began its service some five years ago, including a lawyer, a shoe manufacturer, an ironmaker, a banker and a miller, all excellent and honorable men, all completely unacquainted with modern service parks. and all just as completely certain that park making was, after all, a very simple matter. Parks meant to these good men certain spots of ground more or less adorned with trees and grass, having drives and walks and geometrical flower beds; and the only real essential of which they were completely certain was the plan for the geometrical flower beds! They had, fortunately, a body of earnest women back of them, forcing upon them a real park plan and a real park designer, whose services and which plan they undertook to use most reluctantly, but with most happy eventual results.
At least an equally strong interest in planning led to his election as President of the American Civic Association in 1904, a post he retained for twenty years. On this subject, too, McFarland wrote many articles and was a faithful participant in national conferences of planning and civic organizations. In 1926 he was appointed an American member of the International Niagara Control Board, in 1927 he served as Chairman of the Pennsylvania State Art commission, and in 1936 he became a member of the National Park Trust Fund Board. McFarland lived in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, a city he referred to in the paper that follows.
So it has been with respect to any popular conception of city planning, even more than with respect to modern parks; for there are many successful examples of the latter, and few of the former. Parks are grown out of existing vales and hills and meadows and woodland for the most part, while the creation of a properly planned city in a great center of population means the upsetting of many human beehives, the workers in which are quite ready to sting!
Sitting at one of the inquiry desks of the American Civic Association to which come daily earnest questions from all over this broad land, I can testify with knowledge of the relatively restricted general interest in city planning. Occasionally some acute inquirer wants information as to grouping plans or civic centers or the like, but not once to five hundred requests for help along more primary lines. How to get waste paper off the streets, how to have good street trees, what to do about poles and wires and smoke, something about children's gardens and playgrounds, a wail by reason of danger to the Grand Canyon of the Colorado, a plea to "save the White Mountains," and latterly a stream of indignant, earnest inquiries as to means for stemming the flood of billboard ugliness that is pouring out over the whole beautiful country from the planless, hideous, gridironed cities--these keep us wishing our scanty resources were larger and our workers with ten heads and twenty hands each, to cope with the desires of those who are seeking aid to make a "better and more beautiful America." Yet when the occasional and usually acute inquiry as to concrete planning movements is received, we respond with delight; and it is worthy of remark that we were able, recently, to more than double the information at the command of a great city planner, at his request.
Again, city planning is almost incomprehensible to the average city dweller, to whom even yet the city means but highways and houses, to whom taxes are merely an exaction and parks entirely a luxury, to whom civic beauty is only civic wastefulness.
There is usually complete innocence of any other plan than that of the town surveyor, whose lines have followed the exigencies of the real estate speculator complacently, or have rigorously adhered to William Penn's Philadelphia ideal of monotonous rectangles. Within a mile of my desk a city extension exists, showing where the city "engineer" calmly took his squares up and down a steep hill, with resulting grades that make the streets most efficient as sluices every hard rain, while otherwise almost useless. And this man yet "engineers" a growing city, cheerfully innocent of any least interest in the occasional allusions he hears to radial streets, civic centers, natural contours or anything else than the gridiron layout which is his gospel of experience and practice.
But there is the occasional inquirer after all, and as I have hinted he is sure to be an acute and far-seeing man, who dreams of cities that shall be conveniently attractive, harmoniously complete in essentials for comfort, and free from outbreaking private or public ugliness. He has trouble in having his ideals respected in the free and presumably enlightened United States; for has not every citizen here been constitutionally guaranteed a right to do as he pleases with his own, however his "pleasure" may destroy the comfort or annoy the eyes and the aesthetic sense of his neighbor? Our occasional city planner must face a storm of protest at his ideas of "centralized government," of "paternalism," his wastefulness in attempting to provide beauty in the place of ugliness.
But the stuff of which the city planner is made is that of the old pioneers of liberty, and he persists. Thus it has come to pass that while the great majority of those interested in civic advance look with faint interest upon movements for civic beauty in streets and structures, the truly greater and wonderfully efficient minority have succeeded in forcing attention to some ideals and in having those ideals given the sanction of interested effort. The city plan is a slowly materializing dream in America, and this dream, as I shall briefly show, has recurred in many cities.
It should not be implied, from what I have written, that there is reason for discouragement as to the progress of city planning. The contrary is surely true; but I must yet insist that, notwithstanding the splendid discontent which works such wonders in America, there is not yet the absolute and pervading demand for better city conditions which would so quickly bring the answer. With the idea in mind that a plan once made does not necessarily imply immediate fulfillment, and that reiteration and education must proceed to bring the perfected fruition of our dreams, we can bear better the lessening indifference of the many.
The father of our country certainly started the nation toward city planning most efficiently, when he laid down his conception of "the federal city" for the guidance of L'Enfant, his technical assistant. The old plan for Washington, resurrected a few years ago when the best talent of the country was focused upon the problem of making more noble and dignified the national capital, at once confirmed itself as adequate and ideal, and the great men engaged, after traveling to and studying the forms and lines of the finer European cities, could do no more than insist upon a complete adherence to the scheme devised by the seer who was at once patriot, statesman, soldier and engineer.
Yet so weak was the country's conception of this plan, and so poorly was it adhered to, that the only feature of the original scheme which impressed itself definitely upon the nineteenth century was that which gave rise to the ironical designation of Washington as "The City of Magnificent Distances." And when Charles Dickens saw it in 1842 and viewed its radial plan from the dome of the capitol, even this cultured man of letters could see nothing commendable, for he wrote: "To the admirers of cities it is a Barmecide feast; a pleasant field for the imagination to rove in; a monument raised to a deceased project, with not even a legible inscription to record its departed greatness. Such as it is, it is likely to remain." It is, in passing, some little consolation to record Dickens's impression of Philadelphia's gridiron plan as "distractingly regular. After walking about in it for an hour or two, I felt that I would have given the world for a crooked street."
Now, as the superb conception of the federal city is taking form in marble and asphalt and trees and grass, the whole world admires, and even our unthinking majority, not knowing why, stiffens with pride in insisting upon the beauty of the national capital. It is to be hoped that the superb railroad terminal, an integral feature of the harmonious development of Washington into supreme city beauty, will educate the thousands who pass through its great portals to themselves assist, by reflection upon Congress, in building well this civic expression of our national greatness. We need to remember that Washington is more the pride and the responsibility of the citizen of North Dakota than of the dweller within the shadow of the capitol, who has no vote and no congressional representation.
So much has been written of the plan for grouping public and semi-public buildings in Cleveland that I may only allude to it as no longer a dream, but an accomplishing fact. Within a few passing years the majestic central mall will take the form of beauty its designers, the "dreamers" Burnham, Carrere and Brunner, have sketched for it, and Cleveland will be teaching city beauty and harmonious planning to all America. And this city will be immediately visible to all who arrive at or pass through Cleveland by rail; for the great railroad station which is an integral part of it will receive and deliver its throngs through a majestic avenue of city dignity and beauty.
Less understood, or rather less well known, I believe, is the great work accomplished in Kansas City since 1892 under the leadership until his death of Augustus R. Meyer, and through the talents of George E. Kessler. This movement is the more interesting because of its combination of park and boulevard, the one providing a great and growing city with essential recreation facilities and the other bringing beauty of architecture and grace of greenery right into the once ugly heart of a seemingly hopeless, gridironed city.
No less interesting is the financing of this Kansas City achievement, for when Mr. Meyer began his great effort, the city had just bonded itself to its legal limit for a water system, and there was not a municipal dollar in sight for the great scheme so near his heart--not even an appropriation sufficient to pay for desk-room and facilities for meeting for the newly appointed park commission of 1892! Yet, by a combination of courage and legal acumen far more often applied to private enterprise than to city affairs, the commission and its successors have managed to get and wisely expend in fourteen years $6,009,201.07, and to establish not only a great park and boulevard system but a yet greater public sentiment to foster, sustain and use them. It is a delightful commentary on the methods of this able commission that, starting the fiscal year of its last published report with a balance of 84 cents from the preceding year, it has expended some $40,000 in maintenance, and returns to the city treasurer only twenty-seven unused cents!
The Kansas City plan has done much to remedy previous thoughtless or incidental deficiencies. It has, as such work always does, stimulated local pride and liberality, an evidence of which is its possession of the completely donated Swope Park of 1,354 acres.
As in olden time it was said that "all roads lead to Rome," so now it may be said that all city plans refer to the Columbian Exposition. Until Mr. Burnham's dream of the White City assumed its form of marvelous beauty beside the lake, dazing the world which thought of Chicago only in terms of pork and progress, expositions in America had taken no particular thought for beauty, either of building or environment. When the Centennial exposition in 1876 showed us our material progress and taught us our powers and our resources, Washington was not the open book of accomplishment in city planning she now is. The great buildings in Fairmount Park reflected nothing. but hugeness, save for the Memorial Hall, and there was no planned general beauty--nor was it missed, it must be confessed.
It remained for Chicago, then, to awaken our dormant sense of form and appropriateness in architecture and environment, and to show what planning could accomplish. From the White City, I insist, have radiated all the lines of urban-elegance and beauty that we are now coming to recognize as desirable. Succeeding expositions have not at all surpassed the impression created by the Chicago fair, though Buffalo, St. Louis and Jamestown, each in order, have undoubtedly deepened and strengthened the desire for that orderly civic beauty which was born in proximity to the "midway."
Chicago herself has been slow to take to her smoky heart the lesson she so strongly enforced upon all the country fifteen years ago, but has now, through her Merchants' Association, undertaken planning of the city beautiful. Mr. Burnham is to suggest plans for her encircling outer parkway, for making sightly the river fronts through the city, for beautifying the lake front, for building great railroad stations, for cleaning the streets of poles, signs and obstructions, for planting trees and introducing refreshing greenery wherever practicable, and for generally turning from careless ugliness to considered sightliness. Who doubts Chicago's ability, or her willingness, to do these things, great though the cost may be? No one, at least, who has cognizance of her humanitarian work for health and citizenship as well as for beauty in the South Side neighborhood centers so recently and broadly established. These centers are part of a planning for a city's service to its people that makes for health, happiness, prosperity and good order, and their successful experience is a most acute endorsement of the whole movement for making over our American cities.
St. Louis, a long-time rival of Chicago, is acutely awake to the defects in the development of her city plan' as evidenced by a notable report prepared and issued by the active Civic League of St. Louis. This report canvasses the whole field of city planning, and proposes, with complete consideration of the ways and means, a far-reaching and admirable scheme for improvement. I have faith in the future of the people, the city and this plan.
To materially modify the old Knickerbocker plan for New York, with its interesting cowpath reminders toward the point of Manhattan Island, would suggest a staggering expense. Yet no one can overlook the changes, quietly proceeding, which tend toward a city of wonderful beauty. This I say as one willing to stifle his prejudice against the predominance of "sky-scrapers," when he sees those same towers of commerce creating not only a new sky-line, but a general modelling of new city lines that grows into majestic beauty. To realize the danger, the candid observer must divest himself of prejudice, as he views the great city from the Hudson river, or looks up and down Broadway at various happy intersections. And if the observer be alive to beauty in the concrete, he will keenly enjoy a ride up Fifth avenue toward sunset, or a walk from 42nd street to Union square on a bright morning.
But the civic part of this change is impressive. New York city has paid millions for spotting green upon its city plan below City Hall Park, and has, along the. Bronx, as well as north and east, added great areas of park territory with connecting boulevards. North of 125th street there is but a reminiscence of the rectangular square plan of the lower city.
The noble use of the bank of the Hudson in Riverside Park may in the expensive future be complemented by a proper water-front development lower down on both of the great river fronts. An official New York City Improvement Commission has projected a comprehensive plan, and who shall say it cannot be carried out!
One of the separated tendencies toward harmonious civic beauty in New York is found in the beneficent operations of the Municipal Art Commission, which has final and complete authority to pass upon the designs for all structures wholly, or in part upon public property. The erection of many architectural horrors has been prevented by this unpaid, nonpartisan, well entrenched commission, which controls even the design of a letterbox in a public building, as well as the building itself.
Thus, it will be seen, the great metropolis is slowly and almost unconsciously revising its city plan, through these various forces for betterment.
Many other centers of population in which some of the restlessly persistent minority of civic planners live, are doing or proposing great things for improvement in city lines. Baltimore, for instance, secured out of its conflagration a Burnt Districts Commission, which has modified and improved streets. A striking commentary on the net actual value of such work to the citizen appears in an authoritative statement that a certain piece of property on a street widened under this plan had been unsalable before the fire, but after its ugly building had been burned off and the commission had cut twenty feet off its front, more than double the previously asked price was readily obtained. Does beauty pay?
The Municipal Art Society of Baltimore has proposed, under the guidance of Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., a superb outer park system, adding, when completed, an element of incalculable value to the city plan.
San Francisco, as all know, had been considering her plan deficiencies before the great catastrophe. For a time it appeared possible that Mr. Burnham's revision of her map might be carried out in the burnt district at least; but the forces of graft and greed were too strong. Yet there are now lively hopes for a better city plan near the Golden Gate.
Boston is admirably parked, and her State House suggests a civic center, yet there is now proceeding education for the adoption of a plan involving designed and splendid avenues, to add convenience, dignity and beauty to "the Hub."
The slumbers of good William Penn must be disturbed by what is occurring in his checkerboard city of Philadelphia; for actually a great parkway is being cut diagonally from Logan square to Fairmount park! There is hope, therefore, that the Quaker city may some time endeavor to mitigate the incongruity of its civic center at the city hall by drastically cutting out the great buildings she has unfortunately permitted to be erected so as to hide and dwarf her twenty million dollar city home. An active combination of organization is working periodically to correct park deficiencies in Philadelphia.
Minneapolis and St. Paul have joined in an admirable park provision which modifies and adorns the plans of both cities. With thirty-four miles of connecting parkways, the twin cities are girdled in green. It is to be hoped that St. Paul's plan for securing adequate approaches to the fine new capitol building may be concretely realized.
In two other states new capitol-buildings are acting to modify and improve city plans. Providence has provided open space about her state house, and the new railroad station fits somewhat. Her great park plan will perfectly complement the city beautiful. Harrisburg has treated Pennsylvania's great capitol as the focal center of an admirable boulevard and parkway plan devised by Warren H. Manning, but as yet this noble structure, the real beauty of which has been considerably obscured by the scandal surrounding its erection, is hemmed in closely by buildings which the plan proposes to remove. Meanwhile the great axis of the plan, a noble street of 120 feet width, has been adorned from its right angle junction with Harrisburg's well-developed miles of parked waterfront on the Susquehanna, clear to the eastern city line, more than a mile, and it is being connected with the eighteen mile surrounding parkway which will connect the city's fine public possessions.
No one would suggest any general modification of Buffalo's city plan; for it is a model. It bears the reflection of Washington's genius, for Major L'Enfant laid out its radial avenues, starting from Niagara square. Buffalo has, however, important work yet to do, in arranging to group her public buildings, and to provide a proper union station in place of what are perhaps the most unsatisfactory equivalent facilities in America.
The beautiful capitol of Connecticut has provided a center of development in Hartford, and but recently much additional space was added, so that a grouping of well placed great state buildings will come about. The city and state have joined in a monumental bridge over the Connecticut, and Hartford has recovered and adorned some of her neglected water front. The splendid parks help to bind and complete a general plan not easily excelled.
Of the effort of New Orleans to take the best advantage of her scanty resources there can be only admiration. Charged with an unjust "carpet-bag" debt, her foresight and her courage are alike admirable, and the result commendable.
These obstreperous civic-advance men and women who push the majority along do not always live in the larger communities Therefore we see in a hasty and all too inadequate glance over the United States, some pleasant things doing in the smaller cities and towns. The most encouraging of these are the result of action by some of the so-called "soulless" corporate authorities supposedly engaged only in extracting the last penny of selfish profit out of industrial pursuits. Let us turn to the mill town of Billerica, Mass., where, so long ago as 1891 the family of Governor Talbot, once owner of the mills, gave a useful town hall as a memorial to him. Following, there came model houses, the Oval of native plants, a live village improvement society, and hedges of lilacs as house separations in a mill village!
That the North Carolina village of Biltmore, completely planned, without a dominant rectangle, including underground wiring, trees planted in grass strips, a village green, a delightful railroad station, tree-embowered schools and a vine-clad post-office, should be a financial success only sustains the contention as to the real utility of planning, and the lack of vicious intentions by some of our men of wealth.
But a marvel is to be disclosed--that northern Michigan lumber towns, the sort of community of which "Hell's Half-Mile" has been usually the outbreaking feature--can be planned for service and satisfaction to their inhabitants! Thus has been worked out the town of Munising, under the commission of William G. Mather, president of the Cleveland-Cliffs Iron Mining Company. Lying in an amphitheatre, the steep, wooded surrounding slopes have been held for public use, and made accessible by a three-mile trail, giving great view points. A civic center is provided, with an attractive court house. The workmen's houses are more than hovels, and there is considerable planting.
Warren H. Manning, who has done this work for Mr. Mather, is most interested in the absolutely new town of Gwinn, not far from Lake Superior, and also provided by Mr. Mather. The Topsy plan was not adopted for Gwinn, for it hasn't "just "rowed"; it has been most vigorously pushed, and upon a carefully worked out plan. Let Mr. Manning tell of it:
This town now has a model sewer and water system nearly completed, roads and sidewalks cleared and graded for three thousand people houses erected for five hundred; stores station and other houses under way and plans and contracts made by which the town's area may be doubled and its present housing capacity increased tenfold.
The town plan provided for three main streets radiating from the station with church lots at their termini, for a hospital site, a site for a group of public school buildings and a public playground, and for a system of reservations passing through the town and including the narrow, and at times flooded river valley, with its dense growth of fir, spruce and birch.
Southern cities are waking to their needs and their possibilities. Columbia, the capital of South Carolina, has secured a report on the work necessary to enable proper advantage to be taken of the hundred-foot avenues provided in the original city plan, as well as to obtain needed parks, and parkways. Mr. Kelsey, who prepared the Columbia plan, has also submitted to the local Municipal League an admirable proposition for the improvement of Greenville, South Carolina.
As I write these words, there comes to my desk a plan for making over in beauty the well placed and prosperous railroad city of Roanoke, Virginia. It has not been many months since I urged upon the people of Roanoke their needs, and especially their need of a plan for procedure; therefore the concrete result of Mr. John Nolen's survey of the conditions is the more delightful to me.
Did space and time permit, other bits of town-planning encouragement might be described. In Warren, Arizona, a plan is being executed which provides a civic center, locations for public buildings, and, most wonderful, actually so directs the main highways as to have each embrace a mountain view! The wagon-making town of Flint, Michigan, is developing upon a plan, and a plan once rejected by Menominee, Wisconsin, is being revived--but only after a gridiron scheme has burned a bad mark across it. Naugatuck, Connecticut, is managing an addition upon considered lines, and here again the utility of planning appears; for a fearful seventeen per cent grade on the main highway is reduced to beauty and seven per cent. I would take it that even the horses of Naugatuck would favor city planning! Patchogue, New York, has likewise a planned addition, using for all the people the beautiful banks of a canal, and doing other things not possible in "hit-or-miss" development..
But what need is there of further examples to prove the splendid activity of the planning minority? These people, philanthropists all, whether individual or corporate, will have it that their philanthropy is mere business. Just so; but what fine business to be engaged in-- the business of making this earth most serviceable and heaven-like to the people who cannot--or will not--do it for themselves!
I wish I could record greater interest by educational institutions in city planning. A recent architectural and art exhibition held in Pittsburgh--and the stronghold of smoke and noise is, by the way, mightily stirred with a desire to mend some of its many civic ills--presented showings from the schools of architecture at Cornell, Columbia, and the University of Pennsylvania without a hint of city planning. The exhibit of the Massachusetts School of Technology included a plan for a New England town," and "plan of a residential section." It would seem as if these institutions might well consider broad civic needs, and stimulate broader civic endeavor. Yet I can say that some years of work in the heart of things civic, including visits of inquisition and disquisition to some seventy cities, have not shown me that educators are educating beyond the narrow lines of generations past. It is the layman, the "crank," the unsatisfied one, the golden-hearted woman seeking to see a bit of the heavenly city in advance, who move communities.
As I have said, this survey is hasty and inadequate. It has not attempted to catalog the plans proposed for community improvement, nor to even mention half the movements for better planning. Mr. Burnham, the Olmsteds, Mr. Kessler, Mr. Manning, Mr. Kelsey, Mr. Robinson, Mr. Nolen, and other students of population and nature are at work all the time, making suggestions for better things in towns and cities.
I have expressed my feeling of the lack of interest upon the part of the majority--who are to be benefited--and most heartily: my admiration for the working minority. To any community, or to any individual, there must be encouragement in this brief setting forth of a little of what has been done.
There is a vast deal yet to do, before our American cities can be considered as serving reasonably well the needs and the lives of the congestion of population they represent; that it will be expensive doing, is obvious; but that is our American preponderating "hindsight" way. Fairmount Park cost hardly a thousand dollars an acre, covered with natural grass and growth; but a three-acre bit at one of its entrances, permitted to be covered with houses, cost $400,000; yet it had to be bought.
So I would urge the doing, whatever the expense, certain that it will never be less than at present, and that even now, it will "pay" a city to make itself convenient, sanitary, serviceable and beautiful, in terms of dollars as well as in the higher, finer terms of human lives.
Selected, scanned, edited, provided with headnotes, and formatted as a web document by John W. Reps, Professor Emeritus, Department of City and Regional Planning, West Sibley Hall, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York 14853, USA. Tel: (607) 255-5391, Fax: (607) 255-6681, E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org To Top of Page To Homepage