Charles Mulford Robinson ( Biographical note )

The World's Work 12 (October 1906):8046-8050.

In this selection from a long-forgotten but once important journal, Robinson reviews the status of city planning and urban improvement in the United States in the early years of the century. He sees the beginning of the American movement with the appointment of the Senate Park Commission in 1901 and the plan they prepared for Washington, D. C. But Robinson also points out that in the same year Myra Dock began her campaign for the improvement and beautification of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. He mentions many other projects and studies, including several of his own. In referring to a study of Buffalo in 1902, he rather coyly refers to himself as "a man who had written some books on city beautifying." At the time he wrote Robinson had apparently not yet come to what he would soon begin to advocate tirelessly: a comprehensive city plan that would go well beyond beautification projects or the creation of a civic center to embrace many other elements of the physical city.
One chooses somewhat arbitrarily a single event to stand for the beginning of a national movement. In tracing the effort to beautify cities scientifically, a convenient starting point may be found in the appointment in 1901 of a commission of experts to consider the improvement of the city of Washington. No doubt the example of this had a stimulating effect throughout the country. The Commission was appointed by the Senate in response to an appeal of the American Institute of Architects, in session at Washington the previous December while the centennial of the Capital was being celebrated. The Commission was composed of four members: two architects, a landscape designer, and a sculptor. The appointees were leaders in their professions, and not one of them was a resident of the District of Columbia. They were Messrs. Daniel H. Burnham, Charles F. McKim, Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., and Augustus St. Gaudens. It was a new task that was given to the Commission. The closest resemblance to it had been the co-operative planning for the World's Fair at Chicago, in which Mr. Burnham was the leading spirit. The artistic success of that had suggested the improvement of Washington and naturally led to Mr. Burnham's appointment on the Commission. The problem was inspiring and the Commission studied it exhaustively, even going to Europe to observe what other capitals had done. It had the advantage of dealing with a city that had been scientifically laid out in the beginning and that was possessed of practically unlimited financial resources. Its report embodied a plan comprehensive, beautiful, and reasonable, having as its basis the Haussmanian plan of L'Enfant, the Parisian engineer of early days.

The Modernizing of Harrisburg
But while the Washington report was being prepared the idea was being developed in other cities. The very month that the American Institute of Architects was recommending the study of Washington by a commission, a woman aroused the Board of Trade of Harrisburg, Pa., whose 50,000 population was getting along with a makeshift sewerage system, with little and poor paving, with a park of twenty-four acres, and with polluted water, though it was the capital city of one of the richest and most populous states. The woman was Myra Lloyd Dock, a member of the Pennsylvania Forestry Commission. In the discussion that followed it was agreed that $5,000 be raised as a fund with which to secure plans, and within ten days the money was secured by popular subscription. Three experts were called in to advise the city: Mr. James H. Fuertes, an engineer of New York, to report on the sewerage and filtration problems; Mr. M. R. Shernerd of Newark, N. J.; to report on the paving; and Mr. Warren H. Manning, a landscape architect of Boston, to report on the parks. It was really the modernizing of Harrisburg that was undertaken; but Mr. Manning's broad grasp and far-seeing vision gave to his department a special emphasis and lifted the movement into the sphere of city beautifying His plans called for the use of the river-front as a park, for the laying-out of interior parks and playgrounds, for the construction of a parkway encircling the city and connecting the near-by points of natural beauty, and for the improvement of the site of the capitol and its approaches. To carry out the recommendations of the three experts, it would be necessary to negotiate an initial loan of more than a million dollars--a large sum to ask of the tax-fearing people of a small city. The subscribers to the first fund provided $5,000 more for a campaign of education, which was so efficiently conducted that when the bond issue came to a vote only three precincts in the whole city gave adverse majorities, and of these the most formidable was less than a hundred. Yet the "machines" were not active, for with the loan was created to expend it a Board of Public Works, composed of three citizens of unquestioned integrity, not active in politics nor members of one party. So another capital city took steps to make itself worthier, and "the Harrisburg Plan" wrote itself large in municipal history.

The Awakening of Cleveland
Already Cleveland was astir over a suggestion for grouping its public buildings. There were to be erected a new city hall, a library, a county court-house, a post-office, and a union railroad station; it was felt that these, or several of them, might fittingly be brought together in the creation of a civic centre. The people were so aroused that the City Hall Commissioners conferred with the representatives of the other proposed structures before selecting a site. This unprecedented act led to an appeal to the legislature for authority to appoint a commission of three experts to make a group plan. The permission was granted, and the Board of Supervisors appointed three out-of-town architects. Daniel H. Burnham (already on the Washington Commission), Mr. John M. Carrère and Mr. Arnold W. Brunner draw up a plan. The Commission planned a court-of- honor on the bluff overlooking the lake, with the new railroad station to be its dominant feature; and leading back from this, to connect with the Public Square, a mall--a whole block wide, with sunken gardens and quadruple drives divided by rows of trees and lined on each side by dignified and harmonious buildings with two great public structures at its end. It was as late as August 1, 1903 that the report was handed in; but all of the necessary land has now been acquired much of it is created, and several of the buildings are well advanced. There is involved the expenditure of many millions of dollars; but a mean and stagnant section of the city will be transformed, the values of adjacent property have rapidly advanced, and there will be gains in the increased economy of transacting the public business, in the more impressive dignity of municipal, county, and national governments, in the attraction of strangers, and in the development among the people of a higher civic ideal. And that is the great thing.

Steps of progression are visible in these three pioneer movements. In Washington an outside authority (the Senate) imposed the plan; in Harrisburg the people themselves secured it through their own acts, and combined with it the most prosaic forms of ordinary improvement; in Cleveland the plan was secured by the regularity elected representatives of the people and was aesthetic as opposed to the commonplace.

With these three examples before them, other cities saw the solution of various local problems. The idea of looking into the future and, by however gradual steps of development making cities that are pleasanter to live in and better to work in needed no argument. Proved practicable, movements were started in all parts of the country, wherever there was enterprise, public spirit, love for the town, and faith in it. It is but three years since the Cleveland plan was published, yet public opinion in dozens of cities and towns is in the bubbling and boiling stage. A catalogue of plans actually obtained does not nearly represent the breadth of the idea's acceptance but, as it is, the list is significant of a change that means much for the future of cities.

Beginnings in Buffalo, Ottawa, St Louis And New York
Buffalo, between which and Cleveland neighborly rivalry had long existed, was one of the first cities to feel the contagion of the new idea. While the Cleveland plan was still only talked about, the "Society for Beautifying Buffalo" came into existence. It had a large and influential membership, and it sent to a man who had written some books on city beautifying and asked him to make a plan for Buffalo. It was the beginning of that sort of work and his report in 1902 seems now rather amateurish. But it was read at a public meeting, was published in full in the newspapers and as a little pamphlet and no doubt had its part in developing that ideal which has since authorized the transformation of Niagara Square into a splendid civic possession, which has drawn plans for a magnificent railroad entrance, and which has awakened the people's interest in a more beautiful Buffalo.

Ottawa, Ontario, came next. In response to the cry, "Let us make Ottawa the Washington of the North," the Ottawa Improvement Commission was appointed by the Dominion government. It employed Mr. Frederick G. Todd, of Montreal, to outline a scheme for parks and general improvements. In his report, which was submitted just after that of the Cleveland Commission, Mr. Todd had the good sense to point out that Ottawa--with its swift rivers, its cliffs,and picturesque terraces ought not even to try to be like Washington, its topography demanding entirely different treatment; but he was a landscape architect and his actual recommendations went little beyond park suggestions. These, however, are being rapidly carried out.

The movement also spread to the West and soon there came from St. Louis the handsomely printed report of the Public Buildings Commission. This Commission of Messrs. John Mauran, William S. Eames (afterward president of the American Institute of Architects), and Albert B. Groves --outlined a plan for grouping the public buildings on a mall, somewhat on the lines of the Cleveland scheme. An effect worthy of the city was promised at a cost of only $3,000,000 Had the plan been presented by outside experts instead of local, it might now be near completion. But, at any rate, St. Louis also has its dream.

In the last month of this same year Mayor McClellan appointed a commission on city plan for New York; and though its preliminary report, submitted at the close of 1904 was comprehensive and suggestive, it might have received more attention had it been made by a non-resident commission. Of the report of this City Improvement Commission, a competent critic said: "There is no intimation of a purpose to Haussmanize New York, and to transform an industrial city into a kind of unofficial social and aesthetic capital. If the most important ideas of the report were carried out, New York would be a much more convenient and a much better looking city than it is at present." And, he might have added it would still be the New York that we know. Every good report on city improvement will thus seek to retain whatever is worthy in the individuality of the city reported on. The idea is not to remodel cities until they conform to a certain pattern--that would be absurd; but accepting them as they are, to guide their development along lines of good sense, attractiveness, sanitation, and convenience

The Stimulus Of A Plan In Detroit And San Francisco
In 1904 the Board of Commerce of Detroit asked the writer to prepare a report on the improvement of the city. When the work was finished Mr. F. L. Olmsted, Jr., was engaged to make an independent investigation and report. Both reports, while calling attention to v various street changes that were desirable and to boulevard, park, and square defects, laid most stress on the improvement of the water-front and they agreed so well that they were published together. Since then one of the citizens of Detroit who was most interested in securing the reports, the Hon. James E. Scripps, has died; and it is found that in his will he left $50,000 to be expended in such a way as his trustees may select for the improvement of the city. This suggests the value of such a report as a stimulus to public beneficence.

But the possession of a carefully studied and accepted plan would also be an immense advantage should a catastrophe give opportunity for rebuilding considerable sections of a city. When fire destroyed much of the business portion of Baltimore, no such plan was in readiness. Long and costly delay ensued while a commission was appointed and studied the problem. The citizens acted with admirable generosity and pluck; but the street changes consisted of little more than widenings, the commission being composed of local business men who had never given much thought to city building as a science. It is not to be supposed that the "Association for the Improvement and Adornment of San Francisco" took to heart the lesson of the Baltimore fire yet it was not long before it engaged Mr. Burnham to make his elaborate report, of which the publication almost on the eve of the earthquake proved dramatically timely. His report--which on its making seemed a dream of ambition, a fair but impracticable city, so ambitious were the changes suggested--is now to be carried out in important particulars. It has proved of inestimable worth as chart and compass to the vague ambition that the new city should be worthier of its site; and how large a part the mere existence of the plan may have played in strengthening the faith in a better reconstruction is not easily measured.

In the summer of 1905 the writer was engaged by Colorado Springs, which is laid out with right angled streets, to report on the beautification of the wide, sandy ways. Each of the principal streets was taken in turn, and a plan, now being put into gradual execution by the city, was worked out for each. The next call was to Columbus, O., where only a few public spirited citizens--of whom, happily, the mayor was one--recognized the need of a park system. The duty was to point out the city's opportunity for parks in a way that would arouse the people to action. To Syracuse, N. Y., the next missionary visit was made. Each city now has its park commission; in each, landscape architects are working on the detail plans, and the money is in sight.

In recent times, so much planning for the future of cities has been simultaneously going forward that it is useless to attempt to establish an order. Columbia, S. C., has secured through its Civic League an excellent preliminary report from Messrs. Kelsey and Guild, of Boston. An important recommendation is that city and state combine in creating a Joint Improvement Commission, "with full power to adopt and carry out a systematic, well- conceived scheme of improvement." It is urged that haphazard work is invariably the most expensive in the end, and that "all improvements should be undertaken with a view to an ultimate homogeneous whole."

In Denver, the Municipal Art Commission invited the writer to make a report. He found many things to recommend--new streets, viaducts, parkways, etc.--but one need stood out with special prominence. This was to open to view the state capitol, putting it into relation with the neighboring business section--where the street plotting is on an entirely different system, at an angle to the capitol--and in so doing to provide for a grouping of public buildings. The solution of the problem required the city's condemnation and purchase of some three million dollars' worth of land, which was improved little or not at all. The report created some sensation, and for weeks the newspapers published columns of interviews, discussion and letters. Then the Real Estate Exchange suggested a dinner at the Brown Palace Hotel, where there should be a free-for-all discussion of the project. It is said that 800 applied for seats, though the hall would hold only half that number. The mayor unfolded a plan for financing the project, there were speeches, and there was enthusiasm. This was in February, 1906 but the report has already been put into pamphlet form, many of its minor recommendations have been carried out, and the city is acquiring some of the land needed for the esplanade.

A More Beautiful Honolulu
In the meantime, the new ideal of city building had extended across the seas. Mr. Burnham the gone, at the request of the Government to make a report on Manila; and when the writer left Denver he was asked to proceed to Honolulu on what seemed the presumptuous errand of planning for the greater beauty of that capital. It turned out that in spite of Honolulu's lovely natural advantages, many pertinent suggestions could be made; and that a student of these matters, coming to the island as a stranger, was able to point out some simple ways of securing attractive effects that the residents had never thought of. But the most important recommendation he made was that the individuality of the city be retained, lest its charm depart. There was a feeling that the way to improve was to straighten and widen lovely winding lanes; to build a hot and sunny quay, and broad boulevards; and to make a flower garden on an extinct volcano! He insisted that with such work the winsomeness of Honolulu would depart; that it would always be known as the town that was spoiled; and that its duty was to be true to itself--to be Hawaiian--if it would have distinction. The recommendations of the report are being carried out.

Oakland, Cal., was the next city for which the writer was asked to report. The work had just commenced at the time of the San Francisco calamity, and the adviser asked whether it was desired that he continue; the city, it may be recalled, was in a ferment, with its whole future for the moment in doubt. "Continue?" said the mayor. "Of course you must go on. We need your recommendations now more than ever."

In St. Paul, Minn., Mr. Cass Gilbert, the architect of the handsome new capitol, has proposed a plan which attracted wide attention. Primarily, its purpose is to reveal the capitol and correct the outlines and angles of its lofty site; but incidentally it connects the new cathedral with the capitol, offers a location for the soldiers' monument, provides gardens, and opens splendid vistas from the business district and other points. The idea is to carry out the plan little by little, from year to year.

A Review of Progress
In Pittsburg[h], the local chapter of architects has devised a plan for grouping public buildings around an open space. This would provide the first open space in the business district of Pittsburg, and upon it would abut the Allegheny County court- house--widely considered Richardson's masterpiece--now shut in by narrow streets. In Hartford the city engineer and Municipal Art Society have awakened interest in a plan for joint action by state and municipality, looking to the greater beauty of the city, a more dignified outlook; from the capitol, a worthy site for the new armory, and a bringing of the now isolated library and high school into the park scheme. In Philadelphia, the two most powerful improvement organizations--the Fairmount Park Art Association, with its invested reserves of more than $120,000 and the City Parks Association--have commenced a campaign for the appointment of a commission of experts. Toronto's Guild of Civic Art is bringing out a plan, for the preparation of which it furnished the money and the Ontario Association of Architects the professional thought and work. This pictures a city beautifully developed, with its lake-front put to æsthetic as well as to more efficient commercial service, and with a fine system of boulevards, parkways,and diagonal streets. "When the idea of planning the future development of Toronto first came into our minds," said a speaker at the meeting where it was made public, "some of us thought we had got hold of an original idea. We quickly found that the Continent was possessed by it. Plan-making is in the air; and Toronto, in taking up this plan and carrying it out, will be merely following a movement, and following it a good way behind." An interesting point made also at the meeting was that the thing which gives charm to a city and makes it loved is the permanence, and consequently the definite and historical character of its various districts; and that a plan arranging for the future of the city would do much thus to fix localities. It is expected that the plan will be adopted.

In a score of places minor projects are in agitation. The Indianapolis Improvement Association has obtained a report from Mr. Charles Carroll Brown for increasing the impressiveness of Monument Place. Conservative Philadelphia has before it plans for the æsthetic redemption of the Schuylkill riverfront; a change on the city map shows a great plaza with radiating streets, as at the Arch of the Star in Paris, for lower Broad Street; and the diagonal parkway from the city hall to Fairmount Park is in course of construction. The people of Springfield, Mass., have bought back for themselves some of their river-front; and the cities of Iowa have secured a state law for the improvement of river-fronts in general. Springfield, Ill., Helena, Mont., and Red Wing, Minn., have seen visions and dreamed dreams. There are whisperings in the air of yet greater things to come from a Western city. And in all this discussion there has been no mention of the vast but distinctly park work. This in itself makes mighty contribution to the beauty of cities, as in the comprehensive park report lately secured for Baltimore through the efforts of the Municipal Art Society; or in the cases of those obtained for the two Portlands, Maine and Oregon. The same is true also of the plans of the new Metropolitan Park Commission of Providence, created on the model of the one that has done so much for Boston and its neighboring communities. Such park plans affect the whole structure of the city.

Now that a new spirit of city improvement is abroad, the fundamental idea is not to plunge into vast expense by trying to carry out all the plans at once. It is better to make sure that hereafter, in the course of the city's development, each step will count in the right direction. Then nothing will have to be undone, but, through regular progression, there will gradually be realized that worthy ambition of a city to be beautiful as well as to be busy and big. 

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: 
To Top of Page
To Homepage