Charles Mulford Robinson (Biographical note)
Municipal Journal and Engineer 21 (September 5, 1906):230-231.
The fact that a wave of improvement effort is sweeping over the country is common talk and common experience. Wherever you live, in village, city or town, and wherever you go for your vacation--if it be not into the wilds--the spirit of improvement is plainly in evidence, embodied usually in the enthusiastic members of an Improvement Society. So widespread a movement cannot fail to have its significance, its hopeful possibilities, and its dangers. These might be dwelt upon with profit. But there is also, beneath the broad, quivering, sun-flecked surface of the improvement flood, a deeper current. Such deep currents are worth looking into. They cut the channels, and if the flood subsides, it is their mark that remains.
To speak concretely, it is not mere club discussions. or the arraignment of delinquent public servants or the provision of rubbish cans at street corners, or the cutting of weeds, or the putting of flowers in vacant lots, which is going to leave a mark on our towns that will be plainly visible fifty years from now. These are excellent lines of activity, and are necessary ones if the improvement societies are to approach the realization of their ideas; but in the direct results of these acts there inheres no quality of essential permanence. To be sure, the opinion has been occasionally expressed by interested persons, that such activities are significant in pointing to the dawn in the United States of a Civic Renaissance; that there cannot be so truly popular a stirring toward the beautifying of the communities in which we live without the promise of the birth of a civic art destined to take a place with the best art expression of the world. This is much to hope; but as yet the accomplishments on which to base expectation are too meager to quote convincingly in evidence There is some good sculpture--St. Gaudens's Sherman and Puritan, for example; there are a few really beautiful buildings, like the Boston Public Library; some mural paintings that we shall never wish to hide: and a good many admirable landscape pictures in the public parks--it is said that in this branch of public art we do now, indeed, lead the world. But the total, in the whole sum of our civic construction, is not great enough as yet to justify assured expectations. We shall have to look further if we would find the present current that surely is cutting a mark which will last.
DEMAND FOR EXPERT PLANS
Obviously, such effort must be for the future even more emphatically than for to-day. I think it is to be found in the growing demand on the part of cities and towns for expert plans that shall guide them, both in their newer areas and, far more significantly, in developing their older and more congested quarters. The best known example of such plans are those prepared for the city of Washington by the expert commission; but, with little heralding, the movement has spread far. New York, Harrisburg, Cleveland, St. Louis, Detroit, Syracuse, Denver, San Francisco, Columbia, Ottawa, Toronto, Honolulu, and Manilla are some of the communities that have lately secured suggestions from individuals or commissions, and half a dozen other cities are now negotiating for such reports. It is not cheap work, unless one puts the benefit of a well conceived and practicable plan over against the outlay, and it is well to explain the belief in its value and the faith in its future importance.
A city, or, less preferably, an organization on behalf of a city--as the Adornment Association in San Francisco, or the Board of Commerce in Detroit--retains the professional services of a man, or of several men, with whom work of this character has become a specialty. The adviser, or commission of advisers, goes to the city, spends some time there in examining it in company with the officials or other interested persons, converses with the men and women most prominent in the city's life, hears all the suggestions that are abroad for the town's improvement, and gets in touch with the local improvement organizations. A carefully-thought-out plan is then developed. There is effort to make it consistent, appropriate, and reasonable; artistic in the whole and in its parts; so logical, attainable and beautiful that it will appeal to the common sense of the people at the same time that it fires their ambition and arouses their zeal. The plan is put forward in a written report, illustrated where necessary with maps, diagrams, and drawings. This report is then published for permanent keeping, the newspapers having already given to the people the full text and the most essential of the diagrams.
The city thus receives its aesthetic charter, its guide to growth throughout its area. It is not expected that the municipality will accomplish at once all the changes which are recommended; but it has now a definite, concrete, and individual ideal to develop toward, and henceforward every step may be made to count in the right direction. With changing conditions it may even be necessary to modify the plan from time to time in some particulars; but the great consideration is that there is a general plan. The old, costly, ineffective method of haphazard developing is given over.
The faith and hope in the plan is based especially on four considerations: First, that it is made by an outsider, by one who has no axes to grind, no property to boom, no interests to serve except the public's no position to lose. Once, in preparing such a report, I was going over the principal park of the city with the superintendent, and pointed out to him a landscape feature that l considered thoroughly bad. "I fully agree with you," said the superintendent, "but the commissioners are daft over it. If I recommended the change, I'd lose my head." I had been called on to recommend what I thought was right, and I was going away in a few weeks with my head on my shoulders. The change was advised in the Report, and subsequently, of course, it was made.
The second consideration is that, because the adviser is an outsider, the problem is fresh to him. Familiarity with existing conditions has not so prejudiced him that he cannot see how they could be improved. Thus it is possible that he may perceive at once opportunities that the residents had never thought of. The third consideration is the fact that he is trained to the work and has had experience. He has schooled himself, in seeing towns, to see not only what they are, but what they might be, and ought to be; and he has traveled much--it may be over two Continents at least--picking up suggestions. And finally, in his make-up, there is, and must be, something of contagious enthusiasm, of zeal, and of faith.
The fourth consideration is that his recommendations are based on a science as exact, almost, as engineering. He deals not alone with superficialities; but investigates the tendencies of growth, the density of population, the present and the probable future traffic requirements; studies the individuality of the city, its history and its traditions--for he must not be a ruthless iconoclast--its economic characteristics, and sociological and hygienic needs; considers its financial resources and limitations if he be honest; and, if conscientious, reflects that properly to make a city beautiful is beautifully to fit it for the transaction of its business and for the living of its every-day as well as of its higher life--that art lies fundamentally in complete adaptation to function. If, then, he plans a civic center, or lays out a diagonal street, or locates a park, a dozen other factors than the mere appearance of the change enter into his decision. And because he has given weight to them and they have determined his choice, the selected site adds more to the city's beauty than an arbitrary fixing could have done. The mind approves while the eye is pleased and to mere effectiveness there is thenceforth added an enhanced convenience and orderliness that in itself is satisfying.
It goes without saying that a report thus constructed commands public confidence and respect The very fact that it has been ordered presupposes an inclination to adopt its findings and to carry out its recommendations, as rapidly as practicable. The report is not a theoretical discourse on a fancied City Beautiful but a concrete presentation of how beautiful a city might be developed from the given local conditions; and it is treated not as an academic discussion, but as a handbook or manual for constant use reference in the development of the city.
EXPERTS MUST DECIDE
From what has been said of the study going into a carefully made report of this kind, it must be clear that in no two communities can the work or the recommendations be alike. To preserve, and even to emphasize, the individuality of the city or town, so far as this is of a worthy type, is one of the primary requirements of a good report. The Harrisburg park scheme, the Cleveland group plan, the comprehensive splendor of the Washington proposals are, indeed, typical in their differences. In my own studies I have found it advisable, too, in each city to seize upon the one or more particular needs of the town and to lay the stress most forcibly there. This also illustrates the individuality of the reports. For example: In Detroit the important points were the water front and the Campus Martius; in Columbus, O., and in Syracuse, N. Y., the great lack was a park system; in Colorado Springs the main necessity was the improvement of the very wide streets by parking; in Denver it was the development of the Capitol site; in Honolulu the creation of a civic center, of a worthier water entrance and of parks; and in Oakland, Cal., the provision of facilities for outdoor enjoyment and some changes in the street plan. In fact, one has usually to recommend changes of the latter kind, and the points that require the main emphasis by no means monopolize the suggestions.
With this description of the basis on which a report is built up, of the ideal toward which it aims, of the practicalness of its recommendation and of the completeness with which it considers future as well as present, there appears the reason for giving to it a significance and value, in the long perspective of a civic art development, which is possessed by no other contemporary movement in the field of civic improvement effort. These reports, by their very nature, are permanent in effect; and they are based not on individual caprice and changing tastes, but on a science. The "art" atrocities of the moment, the "improvement" enthusiasms, criticisms, and cleanings-up must pass away or be forgotten; but these will remain, and the changes that are wrought in accordance with them will lay the foundations of magnificent cities and beautiful towns--foundations broad enough to bear such superstructures as now we only dream of. The fine and encouraging thing is that so many communities are ordering the scientific investigations and reports and are substituting for the old-fashioned methods with their resulting quick congestion of population and of traffic--and in which so much must be from time to time undone--a development on logical and carefully thought out lines.