Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr.

The Builder 101 (July 7, 1911):15­17.

Arguably the intellectual leader of the American city planning movement in the early twentieth century, Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. (1870­1957) was a worthy son of a distinguished father. While still an adolescent, "Rick" Olmsted worked and studied under his father before entering Harvard. After graduation in 1894 he entered his father's firm and a year later as the elder Olmsted's health deteriorated he and his half­brother became its head under the name Olmsted Brothers. Not long thereafter Rick became landscape architect for the Boston Metropolitan Park Commission, serving from 1898 to 1920. In 1900 he prepared a curriculum in landscape architecture for Harvard and taught there from 1901 to 1914, the last eleven years as Charles Eliot Professor. The curriculum beginning in 1909 included a course in city planning, one that he taught with James Sturgis Pray.

His active involvement in urban planning began in 1901 with his appointment as one of four members of the Senate Park Commission with Daniel Burnham, Charles McKim, and August St. Gaudens. He maintained a special interest in Washington, serving on the Fine Arts Commission from its founding in 1910 to 1918. During the First World War he was manager for town planning in the U.S. Housing Corporation. This body planned and built near war industries a large number of housing projects, some of them approaching new towns in size. From 1926 when it was established to 1932 he was a member of the National Capital Park and Planning Commission. Olmsted was one of the moving figures in establishing the National Planning Conference and was its president from 1910 to 1919. When the professional members of this group and other formed the American City Planning Institute in 1917 they elected Olmsted its first president. In the 1920s he was also a member of the Advisory Committee on City Planning and Zoning, established by Secretary Herbert Hoover in the Department of Commerce. Olmsted helped design the innovative Forest Hills Gardens project in Queens as well as the industrial town of Torrance in California. He also prepared plans for existing cities: Detroit in 1905 and 1915; Utica in 1907; Boulder, New Haven (with Cass Gilbert), and Pittsburgh (with Bion J. Arnold and John R. Freeman) in 1910; Rochester (with Arnold W. Brunner and Bion J. Arnold) in 1911; and Newport in 1913.

The appearance of this statement in a British architectural journal is one piece of evidence among many that planners throughout the world were fully aware of what was taking place in their field in other countries. Certainly in such British Commonwealth countries as South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, and India, architects and others concerned with building would have seen this article that appeared first in a Canadian publication reporting on the remarks by an American planner. American journals also reprinted material that was first published abroad, and also offered their readers reports on developments in other countries as well as reviews of books on planning by British and Continental authors.

We take from the Canadian Real Estate News the following remarks, being part of a verbatim report of the American landscape architect, Mr. Olmstead [sic], arising out of a visit to Montreal, when the principal matters discussed with the Metropolitan Parks Commission had to do with the selection of lands for parks and playgrounds, and with the location of boulevards and other lines of urban and suburban transportation:--

The main framework of any city plan is the transportation system, including in that term the public ways, both of local and of general importance, the street railways, the rapid transit railways, where such exist, the long­distance railways with their terminals, and the facilities for water­borne traffic. No matter how diverse or how independent may be the circumstances which determine and the authorities which control the several parts of such a system, the progress of the community and the convenience, economy, and general satisfaction with which its people can do their work and enjoy their lives, depend very largely upon the joint efficiency of these diverse parts, considered as a single interrelated system for the movement of people and commodities.

When a place is small, both the length and the volume of such movements are so limited and so simple that a haphazard development of each part of the transportation system to meet the demands immediately pressing upon it gives rise to no serious inconvenience, but as the community grows the increase in the volume of the traffic streams, in the distances travelled and in the desirable speed of movement, enormously and indefinitely multiplies the burden placed upon the community by lack of economical correlation between the various means of transportation as well as by any deficiencies in each one of them.

Comprehensive Planning Necessary.
The location and width of the new streets which are daily extending the permanent framework of the city into new territory are now being fixed, in the main, by the local landowners. Their business is simply to market their land, and, so far as their limited control extends, to provide sufficient means of access to it to attract purchasers. It is not their business, and it is beyond their power, to provide for the main lines of transportation through other localities to give access to theirs; and no more is it their business to provide main thoroughfares through their own districts for the sole benefit of those beyond them, whose land will compete with theirs in the real estate market. It is nobody's business at present, and it ought to be made somebody's business to provide for the main channels of intercommunication.

This laying out of main transportation lines is not a thing to be done quickly and once for all, but a matter for painstaking and patient study and unremitting attention, beginning with the preparation of a general tentative plan and then proceeding gradually but persistently to execution, modifying the general plan from time to time, whenever it can be shown that a change, in view of all facts, really makes the plan as a whole better for the interests of the community, but never permitting the plan to be disregarded or set aside in execution. No such plan is of much value unless it has a permanent, active, responsible custodian, who will keep it up to date by improving it to meet conditions unforeseen at the time of its first preparation, and who will see that it is put into effect from time to time as circumstances permit. Such a custodian would be a permanent Metropolitan Commission, with a staff of engineers and designers constantly at work, on the one hand perfecting and extending the general plan and working up its details, and on the other gradually, a piece at a time, without haste or procrastination, bringing it into execution.

Rapid Transit Routes.
But whatever the best rapid transit routes may prove to be, these facts are tolerably clear about them:--First, that a paying rapid transit line cannot be built until after a large part of the district through which it is to run is pretty fully occupied--that is, until after most of the streets have been opened and built upon. Second, that the cost of installing a rapid transit line in a district already subdivided and built upon will depend mainly upon whether provision has been made in advance for such a line in the lay­out of the city, because in the absence of such provision it must either go under the streets, with all the drawbacks of subways, or encumber the streets most objectionably with an elevated structure, or cut its way through private building lots, all very costly operations, and apt to result in bad alignment at that. Third, that the question of how the city or any part of the city can have rapid transit, and how far and how fast the passengers can be carried for five cents will depend largely upon the cost of installing the lines. Fourth, that the speed, the range, and the economy of local passenger transportation is one of the most important factors making for comfortable and healthful homes for the mass of the people, and against the overcrowding of houses on the land and the exaction of excessive ground rents.

Surface Car Routes.
Of equal importance with the rapid transit lines properly so called, are the surface car routes, which will become the feeders of the former, and which must be the main agency in extending the residential radius. While in the older part of the city the cars must generally occupy streets laid out before the invention of electric traction, there is every reason for making the strongest efforts to secure throughout the suburban area, where the street plan is still flexible, a system of' thoroughfares calculated to give the quickest and most convenient routes for street cars, as well as direct lines and easy grades for teaming. These thoroughfares need ample width as well as good lines and grades. In a 60­ft or 66­ft. street, unless the sidewalks are excessively and unreasonably curtailed, the roadway cannot be made wide enough for two vehicles to pass between the curb and the street cars. Therefore the main stream of slow­moving vehicles must perforce run upon the tracks.

If the traffic becomes heavy in such a street there is endless conflict, the drivers are inconvenienced by the cars, and the speed of the cars is seriously reduced. It takes a width of 48 ft. to 52 ft. between curbs to allow of two lines of vehicles between the street cars and the curbs, the former figure being cramped, and the latter distinctly preferable. No important street, therefore, that is likely to be occupied by car tracks should be given a less width than 80 ft. to 90 ft. on grounds of the baldest utility. A little additional width may allow the permanent maintenance of trees upon the sidewalks; but where new suburban land is being laid out a width of upwards of 120 ft. is very desirable on purely utilitarian grounds, because it permits the use of a special reservation for the electric cars by which means their speed can be considerably increased, and with these greater widths, trees and grass and other park­like features can be introduced to add to the amenity of the way. Such boulevards, from 120 ft. to 200 ft., or even more in width, are very generally to be found in progressive European cities, even those considerably smaller than Montreal, and they are becoming more and more numerous in America.

Main Thoroughfares and Local Streets.
It is very important in dealing with the subject of city planning to maintain very clearly the distinction between such main thoroughfares as we have been discussing and the local streets, of which the prime object is to give means of access to the lands and houses immediately abutting upon each, and in close­built districts to admit light and air to the buildings that line them. Nothing is to be gained by making such local streets any wider or longer or more direct or upon any flatter gradient than is absolutely needful to accomplish these purposes in a convenient and economical manner; and to require more than this, often means a needless waste of land, and of construction, cost, and maintenance charges which have to be paid for somehow, and in the end just add so much to the taxes and the rentals.

A very considerable degree of individual discretion in the lay­out of local streets ought to be permitted to the landowners, while, upon the other hand, no local or personal consideration whatever should prevent the laying out of the main thoroughfares on the lines and at the widths and with the grades that will make them the best possible transportation routes for the city as a whole.

General Considerations Affecting the Location of Playgrounds and Parks.
In any city closely covering a large area, well­distributed public playgrounds and neighbourhood parks become one of the urgent needs if the health and vigour of the people are to be maintained. And the most important classes to provide for are the children and the women of wage­earning families. Most important because of their numbers, and of the direct influence of their health and vigour upon the efficiency of the coming generation; but most important also because they have less energy to seek out healthful recreation at a distance from their homes. Practically there are few women and children who will take the trouble habitually to walk more than a quarter of a mile in the city to a playground or local park for exercise or rest, and back to their homes again. For most a car fare is out of the question except for an occasional holiday excursion. This means that ideally there should be neighbourhood recreation centres, not more than a quarter or at most, half a mile from every home in the city. Considering the present deficiencies in Montreal that may sound like a remote ideal; but other cities are unmistakably advancing toward that ideal, and there is no logical halting­place till that is reached, although the progress toward it may be very slow in the older parts of the town.

Activities of Public Recreation Grounds.
The size, form, and character of public neighbourhood recreation grounds depend upon the functions to be performed by each. Some of the activities where they are well developed, as, for example, in Chicago are these :

1. The playing of little children in sand piles, and upon the lawn, and in a shallow wading pool, and in open shelters, under the watchful guidance of an attendant, who not only keeps them out of mischief and danger, but plays with them, tells them stories, and stimulates the healthy activity of their little minds and bodies. The mothers may come with their children and sit by them while they play, or may leave them in safety while at work. A plot but 100 ft. square may be of value for such use.

2. For the boys of larger growth, and also for the girls and women, the more active games and gymnastic exercises, with and without apparatus, in the open air when the weather permits, and under cover in the winter, always with the opportunity and inducement to wash and bathe, and sometimes with a swimming pool to boot. Sometimes space is found for the big field games, and regular athletic sports on a running track, sometimes for nothing that takes more space than basketball or fives.

3. For the older and less active people a few pleasant shaded walks and benches to stroll and sit upon, from which to see the youngsters play, and once or twice a week perhaps a band concert.

4. For the use of all a field­house, where the sanitary accommodations are kept to a standard of cleanliness and good order that sets a good example to the neighbourhood where a reading branch of the public library is available, and in which one or more large rooms are at the disposal of the neighbourhood for lectures, entertainments, and dances: clean, healthy recreation given full play amid decent surroundings, instead of being driven to the saloon, dance­hall, and the like.

A full­fledged recreation centre is a large and elaborate affair, and a costly one to keep in operation, and until the taxpayers have satisfied themselves by tentative experiment that such things are worth their cost, a much more modest scale must be adopted; but there are such advantages in the possibility of gradually building up a group of related activities, that it is extremely desirable to secure rather good­sized tracts, 20 acres if possible, rather than split the same area into a large number of very small squares.

As to the total area to be secured, it is so seldom possible to get enough that there is little danger of overdoing the purchase of such local parks. There is a rather general consensus of opinion that about 5 per cent of the total area devoted to local parks, play grounds, and squares is a reasonable minimum standard at which to aim, and that more than 10 per cent. may be uneconomic.

Some of the most successful suburban real estate operators in the north­eastern United States have satisfied themselves, and are operating on the principle, that the dedication of land for local park purposes up to a reasonable amount, if so arranged as not to interfere with the lotting system, actually increases the net returns from the operation On a plan which was drawn up by Messrs. Wood Harmon, & Co. to illustrate the application of this principle, about 30 per cent. of the total area is devoted to streets (about the normal figure for New York City), and about 7 3/4 per cent. to the park.

Considerations in Selection.
With the exception of certain park sites which are more or less dictated by topographical considerations, the main consideration in selecting local park lands should be equitable distribution and cheapness. In the suburban and rural districts the presence of fine old trees or other special features might have a considerable influence, but ordinarily such local parks must depend so largely upon artificial improvement that any slight natural advantages are easily counterbalanced by differences in the cost of the land. Most pressing is the acquisition of such parks in regions that are rapidly being built up, for the obvious reason that the enormous jump in the value of property which takes place through the erection of buildings upon previously vacant land is generally followed by a period of comparatively slow rise or even of decline in value as the buildings depreciate. Delay is apt to add but little to the cost in a region where buildings must be torn down in any case to make a park, whereas it adds enormously to the cost in regions at the growing margin. Out in the country beyond that margin, even though land can be obtained cheap, there is little reason for buying park lands except to preserve some special natural feature, such as a fine grove of trees, for future park uses, or to secure single tracts of unusual size or shape for special purposes.

The probable future increase in the value of outlying land is discounted in its present market value, and the generally optimistic tendency of the real estate speculator is apt to keep the market rates so high that interest on the cost and loss of taxes will in the long run more than counterbalance any saving the public can make by such speculative purchases.

In selecting lands in the more crowded parts of the city it is sometimes a helpful device to mark upon a map, by dots of an arbitrary size, representing a fixed number of people, the local distribution of population based on census returns, if obtainable by blocks or wards, or upon a school census, or voting lists, or other fair proportionate basis. With this as a guide the rest is largely a matter of bargain hunting, for which one of the important qualifications is to have cash in hand with which to do the bargaining. 

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: 
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