Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. ( Biographical note )

John Nolen (ed.), City Planning: A Series of Papers Presenting the Essential Elements of a City Plan (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1916):1-18.

Much of the last two-thirds of his essay reproduced below (and some earlier passages as well) is based on Olmsted's address in 1910 before the Second National Conference on City Planning and Congestion of Population. This was reprinted under the bracketed title used above as "The Basic Principles of City Planning," American City 3 (August 1910): 6772, as well as in the conference proceedings. Early in his 1910 paper he referred to "the complex unity, the appalling breadth and ramifications, of real city planning." A few lines later he noted: "We are dealing here with the play of enormously complex forces which no one clearly understands and few pretend to; and our efforts to control them so often lead to unexpected and deplorable results that sober-minded people are often tempted to give up trying to exercise a large control, and to confine themselves to the day's obvious duty and let these remoter matters take their course." The second and third paragraphs below present this same conclusion. It is a sobering thought to realize that the complexities of Olmsted's day--daunting as they may have seemed to him--now look relatively simple compared to the far more complicated issues that face today's cities and their planners.
City planning is the attempt to exert a well-considered control on behalf of the people of a city over the development of their physical environment as a whole. Although most of the elements of the subject have been long under discussion and have accumulated an extensive literature, books purporting to treat of city planning are few in number and all of recent date. Indeed the term itself and its equivalent, "town planning," have come into use only within a few years.

The new and significant fact for which this new term "city planning" stands is a growing appreciation of a city's organic unity, of the interdependence of its diverse elements, and of the profound and inexorable manner in which the future of this great organic unit is controlled by the actions and omissions of to-day.

We are learning how, in the complex organism of a city, anything we decide to do or leave undone may have important and inevitable consequences wholly foreign to the motives immediately controlling the decision but seriously affecting the welfare of the future city; and with our recognition of this is growing a sense of social responsibility for estimating these remoter consequences and giving them due weight in reaching every decision.

City planning stands not only for a longer look ahead in planning municipal improvements than has been customary in the past, but especially for a broader and more penetrating vision of the interrelations between apparently distinct lines of planning in cities and regions, and of the profound influence which activities carried on in one part of the field and with a view to one set of purposes may have upon conditions in another part of the field. It takes account of the influence of street plans and depths of blocks upon the prevailing type of building and thus upon the amount of light and air and privacy in the people's dwellings; of the effect of railroad locations on the distribution of factories and on the congestion of population and character of housing; of the economic interrelation between water-supply lands and park lands; of the social and economic values to be secured by grouping educational and recreational functions which have ordinarily been separated; and of other combinations innumerable.

City planning thus conceived has a breadth and ramification at once inspiring and appalling. Any mind with sufficient imagination to grasp it must be stimulated by this conception of the city as one great social organism whose future welfare is in large part determined by the actions of the people who compose the organism to-day, and therefore by the collective intelligence and will that control those actions. The stake is vast, the possibilities splendid, and the ideal of a unified, intelligent, and purposeful control of the city's entire development follows obviously and logically from the conception of the city as a social unit with its fate in its own hands. The complex unity of the subject and the absence of definite limitations upon its scope add to the strength of its appeal to the imagination. Nothing which may conceivably become a part of the city or affect the city's future can logically be excluded completely and in all cases from its field of consideration. It will embrace the most diverse branches of specialized science and technique applied to urban affairs, including countless phases of engineering, sanitation. economics, and finance. and every art which can minister to the happiness and welfare of an urban population.

But the very qualities which give strength to city planning in its appeal to our hopeful idealism stand as obstacles in the path of its practical application. Every man of affairs who has learned how to get things done, no matter how clear his conviction that it pays to investigate the pertinent facts before reaching any decision, is keenly aware that if he waited to examine all the factors which might possibly bear on the wisdom of any decision, he would never get around to making the decision at all. He relies upon his common sense to fix an arbitrary limit upon the factors which he will take the time to weigh before forming his judgment and proceeding to action. And from this point of view the new social ideal of unified and comprehensive city planning, insisting that it is a duty to study and provide for the remoter needs of the city and to consider the remoter consequences of every change proposed, may easily appear a counsel of theoretical perfection, encumbering the route toward effective practical accomplishments. The answer is, of course, that any ideal must be applied with common sense and with due regard for the human limitations of time and place.

The common-sense application of the city planning ideal may be phrased thus: Whether they like it or not, whether they know it or not, a collective responsibility rests upon citizens of the present generation for making or marring their city's future in countless ways. It is utterly beyond their power or that of their agents to discharge that responsibility with complete knowledge or infallible wisdom; but it is reasonable that they should use a moderate amount of their collective energy and wealth in a deliberate and conscientious effort to meet the responsibility as well as the available means permit. It is of very secondary importance what kind of agencies are employed in the effort. That is wholly a matter of local and temporary expediency, as is also the question of how careful and thorough and costly the investigation and planning ought, in common sense, to be....

But, from the very nature of cities, there are certain classes of problems which confront them all, and certain common lines of investigation, planning, and control which are especially apt to be worth while.

In the following chapters of this book some of the most important of these lines are discussed from varying points of view. The reader must draw from them a suggestion of how the same points of view and methods of thought might be applied to other aspects of the many-sided problem-aspects which might well be more important in a given city than those which are here discussed, since it is clearly impossible in a book of this compass to deal with more than a selection of the more important and common problems.

It will, perhaps, help the reader in bridging the inevitable gaps to rehearse here very briefly a general classification of the physical subject matter of city planning with comments indicative of the present trend of thought in relation to it.

City planning may conveniently be considered under three main divisions: The first concerns the means of circulation--the distribution and treatment of the spaces devoted to streets, railways, waterways, and all means of transportation and communication. The second concerns the distribution and treatment of the spaces devoted to all other public purposes. The third concerns the remaining or private lands and the character of development thereon, in so far as it is practicable for the community to control such development.

Facility of communication is the very basis for the existence of cities; improved methods of general transportation are at the root of the modern phenomenon of rapid city growth; and the success of a city is more dependent upon good means of circulation than upon any other physical factor under its control.

Moreover, the area devoted to streets in most cities (excluding those regions that are still undeveloped) amounts to between 25 and 40 per cent of the whole, and the improvement and use of all the remainder of the city area, both in public and in private hands, is so largely controlled by the network of subdividing and communicating streets that the street plan has always been regarded as the foundation of all city planning. But even as to streets, plans drawn primarily in the interest of easy communication, with a view to the common welfare of all the citizens and by agents responsible to them, have been unusual.

It is an interesting consideration that most of the street planning in America, and until recently in Europe, has been done from the proprietary point of view. Nearly all new city and town sites that have been deliberately planned, whether well or ill, have been planned by or for the proprietors of the site, largely with a view to successful immediate sales. Moreover, the methods, traditions and habits created in this school have inevitably dominated in large measure those official street planning agencies which the people of some cities have subsequently established with the purpose of exercising a control in the interest of the whole community over the street layouts of individual proprietors.

Such public agencies, equipped with adequate powers, and so organized as to have any strong initiative and to accomplish important results on the general plan of the city, have been comparatively few in this country; but many people whose interest in this fundamental aspect of city planning has been only recently aroused seem to be quite unaware what a great amount of long-continued, patient, laborious effort has been spent and is being spent daily on such work by intelligent and well-intentioned city officials. Their hands are often tied by lack of adequate power and by lack of any supporting public opinion; they often fail to show that breadth of outlook and strength of initiative that would be desirable; too often their ideals of street planning are formed in a narrow school and a bad one; and sometimes they are unrighteously influenced by speculative and proprietary interests against the general welfare; but, taken by and large, they are doing the best they can to control the street development of their cities wisely. There is need of more power for them, more public understanding of their work, and the development of a better and broader knowledge and appreciation on their part of the technique of city planning.

It is to be noted that the ruts in which the planners of streets have generally been running in America were deeply worn before the beginning of the modern revolution in means of transportation, which dates from the introduction of metal rails and the development of the steam engine. That revolution has been made by such moderate successive steps, and the men to whom the improved transportation is due have so seldom had any responsibility for street planning, and have so generally had their attention absorbed in the immediate practical problems of getting improved means of transportation as easily and cheaply as they could under the actual conditions they found confronting them, that street planning has gone along in the same old routine way, and each improvement in the means of urban transportation has been fitted to the old Procrustean bed of the street planner.

Steam railroads, developing mostly in the open country, early began to learn the extent to which their efficiency depended upon a standard as to ease of curvature and lightness of gradient that put their planning in a wholly different category from that of the old type of thoroughfare; and somewhat more slowly they began to learn the importance of a complete separation from other kinds of traffic even at crossings. Although in the earlier days the existing streets were often used by the railroad in entering or passing through a town, the tendency became gradually stronger to disregard the hampering streets, and lay out steam railroads, even in cities, upon functional lines suitable to great long-distance thoroughfares operated at high speed. This divorce meant a great improvement as to the railroads, but it left the street system to stagnate in the old ruts, and tended to a total disregard of the relation between the streets and the railroads as distinct but complementary parts of one system of circulation. Yet, even so, one of the most important influences in securing departures from the gridiron plan in the direction of more varied and convenient lines of communication has been the reluctant recognition in street layout of the obstacles to a wholly arbitrary plan offered by the presence of radial and other functional lines of railroads established before the extension of the city. Accompanying this influence, of course, has been that of the old country highways, which were often laid out with an eye to their convenience as direct transportation routes, especially on radial lines, unhampered by what I have called the proprietary point of view as represented by the "subdivider" of land. Only in those regions where the proprietary point of view distorted everything through rigid adherence to the rectangular system of government surveys and land sales are these radial thoroughfares entirely lacking.

But if the long-distance and suburban steam railroads thus divorced themselves from the antiquated methods of the street planners, all other improved means of transit have been, as a rule, bound hand and foot by them. Horse cars, mechanically propelled street cars of all sorts, and rapid transit railways, whether above or below the street grade, have generally been limited to streets laid out on plans that embodied scarcely any features that had not been common in city street plans for many centuries. The one important exception was that the average width of street became greater. The routes which street car and transit lines have had to follow have often been full of angular turns, have seldom been well distributed in relation to the area and the population, and, in the case of surface lines, have been encumbered by a large amount of vehicular traffic for which adequate provision separate from the car tracks has been lacking.

It has thus been the tendency of street planners, whether acting for the city or for landowners, to give quite inadequate attention to the need of the public for various types of main thoroughfares laid out with sole regard to the problems of transportation, and to permit the supposed interests of landowners and the fear of heavy damages to limit the width of thoroughfares and force them out of the best lines in order to conform to the owners' preferences as to details of land subdivision. But, at the same time, there has been a decided tendency on the part of official street planners to insist with a quite needless and undesirable rigidity upon certain fixed standards of width and arrangement in regard to purely local streets, leading in many cases to the formation of blocks and of lots of a size and shape ill adapted to the local uses to which they need to be put. The typical instance of the latter tendency is that of insisting on wide blocks and deep lots in a district occupied by people whose rents must be low and accommodations correspondingly limited; narrow, deep, dark buildings or rear tenements, or both, are the almost inevitable economic result. Another instance is that of fixing a minimum width of street and minimum requirements as to the cross section and construction thereof which make the cost needlessly high for purely local streets, and thus inflict a needless and wasteful burden of annual cost upon the people.

Without more than alluding to the immensely important and complex relations between the street system, the railroad lines and terminals, the wharves, the navigable waterways, and the sites for economical warehousing and manufacturing, it is enough to say, in summary, that there is great need of treating all the means of circulation in a city as a single connected system, and at the same time of recognizing clearly the differentiation of its several parts, so that each shall fit its special function amply but without waste, from the biggest railroad terminal or the widest major traffic thoroughfare down to the smallest local alley.

In addition to the above-mentioned means of circulation, which provide for the conveyance of passengers and freight, some other specialized means of circulation often have to be provided. The pipes and wires for distributing water, gas, electricity, etc., and for the removal of sewage, are normally placed within the streets, and the requirements for them affect the locations and gradients most desirable for the streets; but it is sometimes expedient to make provision for one or more of these services separate from the streets. For example, in suburban residential districts without alleys, a special easement for pole lines and other such purposes is often laid out along the rear lot lines. But the most universal and important of the special means of circulation are the channels for the discharge of storm water. Storm-water sewers built in the streets are insufficient to discharge the water of great storms from large areas. If adequate channels in the form of brooks and rivers and canals are not kept open, exceptional storms are bound to cause disastrous floods....

The second main division of the physical environment which city planning attempts to control is a very miscellaneous one, including all the public properties in a city not used primarily for circulation; but they may be grouped for the purposes of this review into three principal classes:

Class A may be called that of central institutions, serving the whole city and requiring for convenience a comparatively central position; such as the city hall and the head offices of public departments and services, both municipal and otherwise, the public library, museums, central educational establishments, and the like, together with the grounds appurtenant to them. Functionally, it is important to class with these, as far as practicable, similar institutions of a quasi public sort, even though owned and operated by private individuals or corporations, such as the leading establishments devoted to public recreation, dramatic, musical and otherwise, with a clientele covering the whole city. One of the greatest needs in regard to all matters of this sort is the application of intelligent effort to the grouping of such institutions at accessible points in so-called civic centers, for the sake of convenience and of increased dignity and beauty.

The determination of appropriate locations for civic centers is inextricably bound up with the determination of the appropriate uses of private land for industry, business, and residence; and comprehensive zoning regulations as part of a city plan may thus be relied upon to guide the development of private property desired as tributary to the public buildings and open spaces forming the local centers.

Class B consists of institutions serving limited areas, and therefore needing to be repeated in many different places throughout the city. Such are schools, playgrounds, gymnasia and baths, branch libraries, branch post offices, police stations, fire-engine houses, district offices and yards of the department of public works and other public services, neighborhood parks and recreation grounds, voting places, public and quasi public halls and social centers, and so on, including in the same class, so far as practicable, the local institutions conducted by private organizations but serving a considerable local public. The most notable thing about this class of institutions is that, while most of them belong to the city and are therefore entirely under the city's control as to location and character, the selection of sites is ordinarily determined by separate departments, without the slightest regard to the selections of other departments, or the possibilities of economy, convenience and aesthetic effect that might result from combination or grouping. Even in the separate departments, it appears to be a rare exception that any considerable degree of comprehensive foresight is exercised in selecting sites with a view to economy of purchase, or to securing a convenient and equitable distribution.

We shall not have intelligent city planning until the several departments responsible for the selection of sites for all the different public purposes of a local character get together in laying out a general plan and method of securing such sites, forming in many cases local civic centers in which the respective neighborhoods can take pride.

Class C of public properties consists of many special institutions not demanding a central-location, but serving more than a local need, such as hospitals, charitable and penal institutions, reservoirs and their grounds, large parks and outlying reservations, parkways, cemeteries, public monuments, and certain monumental and decorative features to be found in connection with open spaces that exist primarily for other purposes. In this class, the opportunities for economy and better effects through combination and grouping of sites are not so numerous. and what seems to be most needed is a more farsighted regard for the relation of each of these important institutions to the probable future distribution of population and to the main transportation routes. In every case, the adaptability of the site to its particular purpose needs to be considered with the best of expert advice; but, in addition, those properties which occupy considerable areas, like the large parks and cemeteries, need to be considered from a double point of view, as obstructions to the tree development of the street and transit systems, and as places to and from which large numbers of people must be carried by those systems.

The third main division of the physical city is that of lands in private ownership and all the developments on such land. It may be held that these form the real city, and that the elements heretofore considered are merely auxiliary to these. Certainly it would contradict our definition of city planning if this most important part of the entire physical environment of the people were not to be suitably planned and controlled. And yet the extent to which collective control over private property may properly be carried is a debatable, and very much debated, matter. Such control is exerted chiefly in three ways:

The street plan absolutely fixes the size and shape of the blocks of land, and hence limits and largely controls the size and shape of individual lots and of the buildings which can be most profitably erected upon them.

The methods of taxation and assessment greatly influence the actions of landowners, and of those having money to invest in land, buildings, or building mortgages. These methods have a direct influence upon the speculative holding of unproductive property; upon the extent to which development is carried on in a scattered, sporadic manner, so as to involve relatively large expense to the community for streets, transportation, sewerage, etc., in proportion to the inhabitants served; upon the quality and durability of building; and, in those states where property is classified and taxed at varying rates, upon the class of improvements favored. Exemption from taxation for a certain period, or other similar bonus, is a familiar device in some cities to encourage a desired class of developments, such as new factories.

But the most direct and conspicuous means of controlling developments on private property is through the exercise of the police power, as in the case of building codes, tenement-house laws, and special district regulations. The first object of building codes, and of the system of building permits and inspections through which they are enforced, is to ensure proper structural stability. A second object is to reduce the danger of fire to a reasonable point. A third object is to guard against conditions unreasonably dangerous to health. Tenement-house laws, factory laws, and other special provisions operating in addition to the general building code of a city, are directed mainly toward the protection of people using special kinds of buildings against unhealthful conditions and against personal risk from fire and accident. Buildings are classified according to the purposes for which they are used, according to their location with respect to boundaries (such as fire limits), according to the materials of which they are built, and in dozens of other ways; and for each class minute and varied prescriptions and prohibitions are made which, in the aggregate, play an important part in determining the size, height, purposes, plan, general appearance, and cost of the structures which a lot owner can erect and those which he can expect his neighbor to erect. The amount of light entering any given window in a city, and, in a general way, the amount of air, is dependent mainly upon the distance to the next opposite building wall, and the height to which that wall rises above the level of the window. An examination of the building codes and tenement-house laws of American cities shows a confusing diversity in the regulations limiting building heights and horizontal spaces to be left open, and there are some cities in which there is practically no effective regulation at all. The more modern zoning ordinances are based on studies of light and air requirements, and promise much for the improvement of community health.

While such regulations are intended only to guard against the evil results of ignorance and greed on the part of landowners and builders, they also limit and control the operations of those who are neither ignorant nor greedy; and it is clear that the purpose in framing and enforcing them should be to leave open the maximum scope for individual enterprise, initiative and ingenuity that is compatible with adequate protection of the public interests. Such regulations are, and always should be, in a state of flux and adjustment--on the one hand with a view to preventing newly discovered abuses, and on the other hand with a view to opening a wider opportunity of individual discretion at points where the law is found to be unwisely restrictive.

In a country which relies for its progress primarily upon individual initiative under the stimulus furnished by the institution of private property, the major part and the most intimate part of the physical environment of the people--their workshops and their dwellings--must inevitably be in private ownership. And unless we make the revolutionary change of putting our main reliance on collectivism, we must avoid going so far in the collective control over private property as to make the mass of property owners feel that they are no longer free and responsible beings with their destiny in their own hands.

The nature of public control over private real estate as a part of city planning, especially under the police power, is so fully discussed in Chapter III that it is proper to pass it over here with a reference far briefer than its importance in relation to other parts of this outline would suggest. But it seems necessary to consider what looks to some people like a fundamental conflict between the new city planning ideal of a unified control over the entire physical city and the basic ideals of an individualistic democracy.

Like other aspects of public affairs, city planning can be approached from either of two contrasting viewpoints. Those approaching it from one side lay great stress upon efficiency, upon that concentration of authority without which the greatest efficiency is impossible, and upon the application of rigorous scientific methods. In all of which they are absolutely right. But they are apt to underestimate the difficulty of deciding wisely what ends ought to be thus efficiently and scientifically pursued, and to feel a serene confidence in their own ability or that of some expert or some bureaucratic group to settle just what the community should aim at as well as to direct the executive business of pursuing those aims. This attitude is rather characteristic of the able and efficient city planning authorities in Germany, despite the fact that they have pointed out how their predecessors in the earlier days of German city planning were notably efficient in doing exactly the wrong things. Those who have this easy confidence that wisdom in selecting the ends to be pursued, like efficiency in gathering data, in devising means, and in putting them into execution, is to be obtained mainly by concentration of authority and reliance on experts, are apt to distrust and dislike the groping, blundering process by which democratic public opinion is formed and modified. In other words, they are bureaucratic. If they entertain the hope that a majority can be brought to their way of thinking, they may call themselves socialists, or social-democrats, or something of that sort. Whether proletarians or aristocrats, they are alike willing to subordinate individual initiative on the part of most of the people to the initiative of some central authority.

Advocates of city planning who approach it from the opposite viewpoint are also eager for efficiency and consequently for a sufficient concentration of authority to make possible a high degree of administrative efficiency, and they recognize clearly that the greatest attainable good for the individuals who constitute a community to-day and those who will constitute it in the future can be had only by joint action for harmonizing the more wasteful or injurious conflicts of individual enterprise. But they have a saving humor which recognizes that any group of people, including themselves, will always combine a substantial percentage of error along with their wisdom, and will cling to the one almost as tenaciously as to the other. They accept the rather sardonic definition of an efficient executive as "one who decides quickly and is sometimes right." But to prevent the diligent and efficient pursuit of mistaken ends from being continued until the very authors of the mistakes can see them, they rely upon the common sense of all the people as the safest possible control. In other words, they are democrats.

And they recognize that the social development of cities is a complex evolutionary process of which the most thorough scientific study can give only a partial understanding; a process identical with the development in their social relations of the individuals who compose the city; a process dependent upon the active play of individual efforts and conflicts. They look to city planning in its control over developments on private property not as something to supersede individual initiative, but as a means of defining the kind and degree of discipline under which individual initiative can attain for itself the best all-around results.

As long as city planning control over private property is pursued in this democratic, modest, common-sense spirit, there is no vital danger to be feared even from wholly unprecedented applications of the police power. The entire subject, so conceived, is free from any necessary connection with the faults of centralized, bureaucratic control, or with the theorizing extremes of socialists or single taxers.

We have considered the three main divisions of city planning, dealing respectively with the lands devoted to the means of circulation, the lands devoted to other public purposes, and the lands to private ownership. Within all of these divisions, the actual work of city planning comprises the following steps: The first step is a study of conditions and tendencies, a survey of the pertinent facts and an estimate of the most probable future changes in those facts. The second step is a definition of purposes to be attained. The third step is the planning of physical results suitable to these purposes. The fourth and last step is the bringing of those plans to execution through suitable legal and administrative machinery. Every one of those steps of progression is vital; every part of the three main divisions of the field is important. The following chapters of this book, written by as many different men, illustrate typical parts of the field considered from the point of view sometimes of one step of progression, sometimes of another.

As a final word of introduction, it may be well to emphasize another principle which, if fully appreciated, makes for an effective unity of design in city planning, in spite of the diversity in its problems and in the technical training required to meet them. Every element in their physical environment affects the people in some degree both on the economic side, as determining their efficiency, and on the aesthetic side, as determining their enjoyment of life. Therefore in the design of everything which enters into the city, both of these aspects must be given weight.

The demands of beauty are in large measure identical with those of efficiency and economy, and differ mainly in requiring a closer approach to perfection in the adaptation of means to ends than is required to meet the merely economic standard. So far as the demands of beauty can be distinguished from those of economy, the kind of beauty most to be sought in the planning of cities is that which results from seizing instinctively, with a keen and sensitive appreciation, the limitless opportunities which present themselves in the course of the most rigorously practical solution of any problem, for a choice between decisions of substantially equal economic merit, but of widely differing aesthetic quality.

Regard for beauty must neither follow after regard for the practical ends to be obtained nor precede it, but must inseparably accompany it. 

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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