H. V. B. Osbourn

Proceedings of the Engineers' Club of Philadelphia 17 (February 1900): 24-39.

Although in this brief paper H. Van Buren Osbourn, a Philadelphia engineer, dealt only on the problems of Philadelphia, his suggestions for improvements were similar to those put forward in other American cities. For example, he championed the use of radial avenues combined with grid streets and cited Washington, D.C. as a successful application of this principle. He also advocated regulations that would fix the maximum height of buildings at some fraction or multiple of the width of streets on which the buildings faced. His other suggestions on the need for neighborhood parks and for playgrounds connected to schools reflect the change in recreation planning from an emphasis on large natural parks like Fairmount in Philadelphia to more utilitarian spaces for play and relaxation within each urban neighborhood.
The subject, as set forth, is a broad one, comprehending many departments of engineering, admitting of discussion along widely divergent lines. It will be my object to indicate the phases that may be discussed, rather than attempt the particularization of any one topic. The following remarks are, therefore, of an introductory nature.

The need of a better water-supply for Philadelphia is obvious, and if anything of value can be said at this time, after the discussions of the last few years, it will be welcome. It seems, however, that "now is the accepted time" to act rather than to talk, for with the present promising conditions, the energetic course being pursued by the Mayor needs but the hearty support of the people in November to secure an abundant supply of first-class water.

Therefore, passing over the greatest necessity of Philadelphia let us turn our attention to the harbor. Excellent work has already been done in the widening of Delaware Avenue, the extension of the wharves, and deepening of the channel of the river, but the last is confined mainly to the river opposite the central part of the city, leaving an insufficient depth of water over the various shoals in the long reaches down toward the bay. Too much emphasis can not be laid upon the necessity of a deep thoroughfare to the sea. Wharf-owners now have the evidence before them of the benefit of broad, long piers, and should see to it that in this respect Philadelphia does not fall behind its large sister cities. Knowing, as we do, that there has been a satisfactory solution found to this great problem, we can look forward with a greater degree of certainty to the increase of the commercial importance of our city.

Another river is identified with Philadelphia--the Schuylkill-- that deserves attention in this connection; not that it is presumable that it will ever be developed to so great an extent, commercially, as the Delaware, in fact. I have reference more to improvements from an esthetic point of view than from a practical one. The park authorities have accomplished considerable in the line of protection walls along the river banks, and deserve support in their efforts toward beautifying the river course, but there remains a considerable length (below Fairmount Dam) outside the control of the Park Commission that should be inclosed with substantial walls, built so as to combine a pleasing appearance with commercial usefulness. As with Delaware Avenue, if the city set the example by initiating such improvements individual owners would undoubtedly follow suit....

Passing to another topic,--rapid transit,--will be of value to compare Philadelphia with other large cities. Boston has, for instance, lately completed an admirable subway, the purpose of which is to relieve the congested passenger traffic in the business section of the city, but it seems even this great improvement has not entirely overcome the difficulty, for, when there during last summer, I heard rumors that efforts would likely be made to restore some surface electric lines that the "subway" was supposed to have finally abolished.

In the line of this need our city is more fortunate than either Boston or New York, because congestion can not be so great, owing to the fact that the business section is more scattered and covers a large territory.

The clear appearance of some New York streets on which electric lines are now in operation, is in striking contrast to the unsightly trolley wires and poles in our own city. Again, London has, in a great measure, solved the problem of rapid transit by the underground roads. Probably the ideal combination for Philadelphia will be underground or subway roads for the thickly built-up sections, coming up to elevated roads as the suburbs are approached.

Turning to another interesting topic, and one almost constantly under the public gaze,--streets and parks,--we find much matter for discussion. And first let us consider each city as a unit, having a general design, or rather a predominating idea, constantly in application in their upbuilding and extension.

There are, we know, two very distinct types to be followed in the planning of a city--one the gridiron or rectangular fashion, the other a radial method. A notable example of the latter may be seen in the city of Washington. The Capitol forms, as it were, the pivot from which the main streets radiate, and the cross-streets, in a manner, form circles with this pivot as a center.... This plan is one calculated to achieve the most pleasing effects in the landscape and general beauty of a city. In designing new streets or remodeling old ones, wherever possible Philadelphia could well follow this example.

Another great need in Philadelphia is numerous wide streets. The younger western cities of this country have evidently noted this fact, for many of them have laid out fine broad boulevards, and striven, particularly in the residential sections,to give ample room for driveway, sidewalks, open ground within which to grow shade trees and, at least, small lawns. It would be scarcely possible to contemplate such radical changes in the old part of Philadelphia, but it does seem reasonable to ask for such advantages where old streets are to be widened, and especially where new ones are to be laid out. In the matter of the width of streets there should always be a proportion between the distance from house-line to house-line, and the height of structures built upon such lines. Indeed, in Paris an explicit law governs this subject, so as to prevent a street from degenerating into a canon through the erection of structures out of all proportion to the street width. This same most excellent law of the French capital is a bar to that ridiculous spectacle to which can often be attributed the esthetic ruination of the appearances of a block of perhaps individually fine buildings--to wit, the presence of a pygmy house immediately beside a gigantic towering structure.

Far more important than the purely artistic appearance that well-proportioned buildings give to a street of proper width, is the underlying sanitary reason that they should not be closed in, like alleys. Plenty of air and sunshine are vital to life, and one gets very little of either in our deep, alley-like streets. With such manifest advantages in favor of broad streets, it would not seem a hard thing to have the necessary legislation enacted establishing certain relative proportions between the height of structures and the width of the streets upon which they are built. A fine example of how a city may properly proportion its streets to the surrounding buildings and beautify the whole with trees is ...the "Boulevard des Capucines" " in Paris. Of course, we do not have to go abroad to find handsome streets, for Boston's Commonwealth Avenue, Cleveland's Euclid Avenue, and many others point the way to the esthetic joined to the essential in the making of city streets; and, right here, the great value of trees, at least in the semibusiness section of our city,--if not in the very busy parts,--should receive due attention. Perhaps it is not generally known, but it is nevertheless a fact, that cities well covered with good shade trees enjoy a more equitable range of temperature than others shorn of them. Let us have trees, therefore, as numerous as may be, and laws to secure their maintenance and protection.

More numerous and more advantageously located breathing-spaces must appeal (as a want) to those of our citizens who take the trouble to compare our city, in this respect, with the city of Washington, for example. Philadelphia has a number of squares, or small parks, most of then covering quite an extent of ground; but, while they are very well in their way, the more imperative need is number and relative disposition rather than extent. A person should not have to walk a mile that he may escape from the perpetual brick and stone of city streets into an open glimpse of nature's refreshing green, when opportunity affords for a brief fifteen or twenty minutes' outing. As instanced above, Washington covers the point admirably in its many delightful "circles," with their clusters of foliage, fine trees, walks, and resting-places....

Finally, let the good people consider how worthy a thing it would be to establish playgrounds for children about the town, and more especially in connection with the many school-houses. It surely is a need to take the children out of the streets and give them a spot where the fear of trolley cars shall not be a factor in the sum of parental anxieties, and the lack of space a despoiler of the robust enjoyment of those games which make of boys and girls better men and women. This is a plea especially for the inhabitants of the poorer and most thickly populated parts of the city--for these, because of their weaker and less fortunate lives, need the fact as well as the lesson of more wholesome surroundings. 

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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