John Nolen

City Planning. Hearing Before the Committee on the District of Columbia United States Senate on the Subject of City Planning. 61st Congress, 2nd Session, Senate Document No. 422. (Washington: government Printing Office, 1910):74-75.

Nolen (1869-1937) delivered this address at the First National Conference on Town Planning and the Congestion of Population, May, 1909 in Washington, D.C. Nolen was a landscape architect, having graduated with an A.M. degree in that subject in 1905. He was then 35, for following his graduation from the University of Pennsylvania he spent the next ten years as Secretary of the American Society for the Extension of University Teaching. A year spent in Europe in 1901-02 focused his interest on landscape architecture, and shortly thereafter he entered Harvard. While still a student he had begun to practice professionally, beginning with a park design in Charlotte, North Carolina.

He opened an office in Cambridge and very soon expanded his work to include the promising new field of city planning. His study of Savannah, Georgia was perhaps the earliest of such projects, but this was but the beginning. In his long career he produced planning reports for more than fifty cities. He also designed several new towns, including Kingsport, Tennessee, Mariemont, Ohio, and Venice, Florida. Nolen also served as consultant on many other projects, including the metropolitan planning studies for Philadelphia and New York. He trained many able assistants in his office, several of whom later opened their own offices. They included Justin Hartzog and Hale Walker.

Nolen became one of the most articulate, easily understood, and effective spokesmen for American planning. Although many of his illustrated lectures before civic and official groups were obvious efforts to obtain profitable contracts for his services, they nonetheless served to educate audiences throughout the country about the presumed benefits of city planning. In the brief statement below Nolen seems not yet to have found his voice that later would be heard as so persuasive.

His colleagues recognized his qualities of leadership, electing him to the presidencies of both the American City Planning Institute of which he was a founding member, the National Conference on City Planning, and the International Federation for Housing and Town Planning. British admirers of his work and contributions elected him an honorary member of the Town Planning Institute. He wrote Replanning Small Cities (1912), New Ideals in the Planning of Cities, Towns, and Villages (1919), and New Towns for Old (1927) and edited City Planning, published in 1916.

It is of interest to note that in this early conference paper he, like so many others in both Britain and America, pointed to German planning as the exemplar of success in this field. In his later speeches he often referred to his own work in citing examples of how planning could improve American cities.

What is needed in the planning and rebuilding of American cities? A critical observer, especially one having the achievements of the European and South American cities in mind, is tempted to answer: Everything. For, with few exceptions, our cities are lacking in almost all of those essentials of convenience, comfort, orderliness, and appropriate beauty that characterize the cities of other nations. But, above all, generalities and indefiniteness must be avoided. We must be specific. Therefore I shall confine my remarks to three points. We need (1) to make recreation more democratic; (2) to develop the individuality of our cities; (3) to stop waste. First, then, we need to make many improvements which are for the benefit and enjoyment of everybody, for the common good. In this respect how striking the contrast is between Europe and America! The poorest workingman in Europe has some advantages and opportunities which here the wealthiest can seldom command. Forty years ago Germany planned to provide in its cities and for all the people in them facilities for wholesome physical exercise, large and convenient opportunity to enjoy the beauty and wonder of the nature world, and a more intimate knowledge of noble kinds of human life and beautiful products of human work. Fine city streets, orderly railroad approaches and surroundings, truly beautiful public buildings, open green squares and plazas, refreshing water fronts, ennobling statuary, convenient and ample playgrounds, numerous parks, parkways, and boulevards, art museums, theaters, opera houses and concert halls--all these in Europe are free, or so nearly free that they are easily available for all the people. These are not only worthy pleasures in themselves, to relieve from the grind and fatigue of yesterday's and to-day's toil, but they make a definite and indispensable contribution toward to- morrow's efficiency. In political rights we have democracy enough; judging by results, perhaps more than we have fitness for. But should we not work for a wider democracy of recreation, for more opportunity to enjoy those forms of beauty and pleasure which feed and refresh the soul as bread does the body? We should no longer be content with mere increase in population and wealth. We should insist upon asking, How do the people live, where do they work, what do they play?

Secondly, we need to consider more attentively the opportunity to improve our cities by the development of their individuality, their personality. Mr. James Bryce has pointed out that the one most serious drawback to American life is its uniformity and that this criticism applies especially to cities. With but five or six exceptions, he says, American cities differ from one another only that some are built more with brick than with wood, and others more with wood than with brick; their monotony haunts one like a nightmare. This criticism becomes clearer and more pointed if we recall the cities and towns of England and, more especially, of Italy and contrast them with our own. What is the explanation? It is partly the lack of an historic past and of memorials and old buildings resulting from that past. But most of it is due to factors more largely in our control. For example, it is in our failure to echo more closely in our city plans the physical situation and topography of our cities. Many illustrations could be given. The rectangular street systems and the colorless names, if the numbers can be called names, which are repeated from one end of the country to the other, regardless of natural features or local history, are indications of our failure to embrace easy and economical opportunities to gain individuality in our cities and to make them a fundamental form of expression. There is failure, likewise, of the people to express themselves and their ideas. As our interest in human life is in the distinctly personal, so is it in towns and cities. We need a local concept, a love and pride in local traditions and local ideals. Civic art furnishes the most available means to express these local customs and local aspirations, and it should be remembered that only in expression do we truly possess them. The future need not longer be taken at haphazard. What we see about us is not the finished product, but only the raw material. We should, therefore, frame an ideal of what we wish the city to be, and then work to make it real.

One of the main obstacles to greater achievements in American cities is the cost. My final point, therefore, is to earnestly advocate a stopping of waste. Stopping waste, to my mind, however, does not mean primarily a reduction of public expenditure, although there is a close relation between moral reform and material progress. A more honest, economical, and wiser expenditure is indeed sorely needed, and ultimately the change of policy proposed would lead here, as it has elsewhere, to a decided reduction in taxes. Germany has not only better housing, more parks, and greater provision for education, but a comparative study appears to indicate lower taxes also. Yet at first we must effect our saving mainly by preventive measures and by a bold but well-considered and conservative investment of capital. The main sources of this new wealth, the extent of which is beyond all estimate, is in a wiser husbanding of our aesthetic and human as well as our natural resources in the promotion of physical health, in legislation that meets more successfully the needs of twentieth century city life, in doing things at the right time, especially as this applies to the purchase of land and the establishment of thoroughfares, and in doing things in the right way, using to our advantage science, art, skill, and experience. By saving waste in these ways and by timely investing (not spending) of public money in great enterprises we shall be able to get many of the improvements which we all now desire, but which we think we can not afford. European cities lead us in wholesome opportunities for recreation for the promotion of health, for the enjoyment of art. They lead us in the developed individuality of their cities. In what do we lead? Mainly in a larger death rate and a larger tax rate.

To sum up, it appears that the present methods are fatal and that American towns and cities need (1) an open-minded and skillful investigation of their problems; (2) united and hearty cooperation on the part of various public authorities and private individuals in the solution of these problems. Finally, prompt and courageous execution of the plan found to be best for all concerned. 

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: jwr2@cornell.edu 
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