Charles Mulford Robinson ( Biographical note )

City Planning. Hearing Before the committee on the District of Columbia United States Senate on the Subject of City Planning. 61st Congress, 2nd Session, Senate Document No. 411. (Washington: government Printing Office, 1910):89-91.

By 1909, when Robinson presented this chatty paper at the First National Conference on City Planning and Congestion of Population, he had achieved fame as the author of books on civic art and as one of America's first and most prolific planning consultants. It is amusing to note that what passed for city plans at the time included Robinson's studies of Denver and Los Angeles. In the first city he spent a total of two weeks and in Los Angeles only a month in studying these places on the spot.
It is said that a good way to make a man your friend is to let him help you, and that of several children a mother loves best the one that is most frail. City planners, in my experience, feel toward the cities in which they have done their work--the cities whose personality they have studied and come intimately to know, the cities which they have tried to educate in the proper way of living and of growing--quite as mothers feel toward their children. Now of the town and city, children of the writer, Los Angeles and Denver are not frail at all, and he does not feel that he has helped them as much as he has helped a good many smaller places. If he could have chosen which of his children he would talk about he would not have chosen these. But of course, when you are asked, you talk with pleasure about even the most self-willed or the most obstinate of your children, for the possession of those qualities does not mean that you can love them less. Denver has been my most self-willed and Los Angeles my most obstinate; but I think they will both turn out pretty well.

This conference, as I understand it, is an experience meeting, and what we say is more or less confidential and necessarily personal. Hence, I offer no more apology for the first-pronoun than does, the sinner asking for prayers.

It was about a year, if I remember correctly, after the art commission was established in Denver, that I was asked to visit the city and suggest to the commission how Denver could be improved. Nothing very elaborate was expected. I had done some work a few months earlier in Colorado Springs, of which the art commission's chairman had heard, and learning that I was going to the Pacific coast he telegraphed the request that I stop off in Denver. The chairman himself was a good deal interested; some of the other members of the commission I never even met; the mayor was open to convictions--being a broad man; the chamber of commerce was at that time concerned with other things. The appropriation was small, and the art commission was looking only for suggestions from an outsider as to the goal toward which it might properly work.

In all, I spent not quite two weeks in Denver. In that time I attempted to cover the whole city more or less by automobile, met a large number of persons, and discussed the subject with them from various points of view, and wrote my report. When the report was ready a meeting of the art commission was called in the mayor's office, and the reporters were admitted. Not a word of what would be proposed had leaked out, and naturally there was some curiosity to hear the paper.

Of course a great many suggestions were made, for Denver is a large city. Among the more important were the extension of Broadway; a better entrance to City Park, extending it to Colfax avenue; some boulevards; some real playgrounds; and, most particularly, the creation of a civic center, of which the capitol should be the crown. This latter, involving the purchase of land that might cost at least three million dollars, was a very ambitious scheme, and it was new, but it had a great deal to recommend it from many standpoints, and I had worked it out with care. The persons present at the meeting were taken off their feet.

Next day the thing was in all the papers, with diagrams and pictures, The day after that not less space was given to it. Large headlines told how the citizens had been roused, the cartoonists were exercising their ingenuity on the subject, there were columns of interviews about the plan; and to an amazing extent, considering the large expense the plan would involve, these were favorable. This went on for several days, and one of the papers conducted a two-column department on the editorial page devoted to letters, pro and con, about the proposed center, the department continuing for nearly two months. Before the end of that time the real-estate board, which was very active and progressive, proposed that a big dinner be held at the Brown Palace Hotel, that the cost be put at only a dollar a plate, and that taxpayers be asked to meet at the dinner and talk over the project in the presence of the mayor and other officials. I had left the city weeks before. Seats, it was announced, could be provided for 400. Eight hundred applied for them. A newspaper account of the dinner says: "The hall rocked with the cheers of the guests. The enthusiasm rose to an unparalleled height. A great majority rose to its feet (when the mayor approved the plan) and handkerchiefs, napkins, and glasses were waved." The same paper says: "In the opinion of those who observed the attendance, the gathering was the most representative and important that had been brought together in years to discuss any question of public interest."

It was the consensus of opinion at the dinner that an attempt should be made to carry out the civic center project. A large bond issue was required, and at the next election the matter was submitted to the people. Several months had passed meanwhile; to issue the proposed long-term bonds a charter amendment was necessary, and some questions concerning the municipal ownership of public utilities had been injected into the campaign. All of these matters befogged the real question, and by a slender majority the bond issue was defeated. But the idea would not down. As a writer said not long ago, the people of Denver had seen a vision and never would be content until they had a civic center. Meanwhile, other recommendations of the report were being carried out. The new entrance to the park was secured; playgrounds have been established; the park commission sent for Mr. Kessler and from him secured detailed plans for the boulevards; the extension of Broadway has been definitely platted and is about to be executed. All the time there was talk about the civic center.

A fortunate chance took Frederick MacMonnies to Denver, and he proposed swinging the axis of the suggested mall a little to the south, so as to bring it through cheaper property. This involves some artistic sacrifice, for the proportions in the original plan were ideal and it most happily united two awkwardly distinct street systems, which now will not be united; but the new plan saves at least $2,000,000, and it still gives an effect so striking and worth while that the people have been quick to accept the substitute. A firm of local architects, Briscoe & Hewitt, have worked out the details, and Denver is to have its civic center. But you see why Denver may be characterized as the self-willed child of a city planner. The "Queen City of the Plains," as her citizens call her, is not as beautiful, perhaps, as he had dared to hope, but she will be stately and modern, and will have money in the bank.

As for Los Angeles, there also the municipal art commissions sent for me. And perhaps, in the confidences of this meeting, there may be repeated the instructions with which the work was commenced. It was about a year after I had made my report for Denver, and on the day of my arrival there was held a meeting in the mayor's office to talk over the work. The mayor turned to me finally and said, "How much was that civic center for Denver going to cost?" Now, Los Angeles had been, to express the matter politely, exceedingly "businesslike" in the preliminary negotiations. She had sent me a contract to sign, and had stipulated that I should stay just one month in the city. So when the mayor asked how much the Denver civic center was likely to cost, the answer, "Three millions for the land," came with some reluctance. The mayor's thumbs went into his armholes. "We," he said, swinging back in his swivel chair, "want no $3,000,000 plan for Los Angeles. We want a $10,000,000 plan."

It was a pleasant task to gratify the mayor's desire. One does not get that sort of order very often. But Los Angeles is involved in an expenditure of $23,000,000 for water, and of $3,000,000 for county highways, and the mayor has gone out of office. Of the three great schemes of improvement which the plans included, none therefore has yet been executed. These were a union station, with plaza and approach--the latter 200 feet wide and 10 blocks long; a civic center, grouping the public buildings, with terraced gardens connecting the court-house and city hall; and an educational center. which put a needed art gallery and public library on a hill, whence they would dominate a street and overlook a parkway and approach, on which are grouped already the music auditorium, three churches, the California club, and other fine structures. Yet some things have been done.

The president of the municipal art commission writes: "While it is true that your report has not been taken up in its entirety, as we could wish, yet it has been worked toward in at least eight different directions. The union-depot plan is now before the presidents of the different roads, a joint committee of the city council and chamber of commerce having presented it to them; the connecting link between Griffith and Elysian parks has been completed; and the improvement of that long stretch of your connecting boulevards which makes use of Vermont avenue, from Griffith Park to Westlake Park, is an assured fact. The widening of Buena Vista street is also assured; the magnificent new bridge is about to be built, and the more adequate connection with Pasadena has been obtained. So you see," he adds, "a good deal is being done." Yet the big things have not been done, and compared to other and more tractable communities, Los Angeles seems obstinate. But the water project and the county highways are in themselves great municipal improvements; and this month preparations are being made for a campaign with the slogan, "Fifty millions for improvements." Twenty millions of that sum are allotted to the execution of the suggestions in the city-plan report.

In closing it is worth while, perhaps, to note again that in each of these large cities the comprehensive study was authorized by the municipal art commission. That was significant of broad and generous interpretation, both by the commission and by the city, of the former's opportunity and duty. 

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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