Thomas W. Sears

Proceedings of the Engineers' Club of Philadelphia 28 (April 1911):147-158.

Sears (?-? ), identified as a visitor, read this paper on January 21, 1911
Many members of this Club are, no doubt, vitally interested at present in the betterment of Philadelphia, and it is the purpose of this paper to show in what ways the profession of landscape architecture may be of assistance in planning such betterments, and so the chosen subject is, "The Functions of the Landscape Architect in Connection with the Improvement of a City."

The word "improvement" has been chosen rather than "beautification," which was suggested, because there is no intention to aid an impression which a good many people unfortunately have, viz., that landscape architecture as applied to cities is simply the art of adornment--the art of making very beautiful street lamps, or of having everywhere wonderful flower-beds, and at most of occasionally laying out new streets regardless of whether they lead anywhere or not. It should be distinctly understood at the outset that it is nothing of the sort; that landscape architecture as applied to cities is first and foremost utilitarian; after this, if one can introduce beauty, so much the better. Some one has recently said that cities strive for "beautility," the combination of beauty and utility; but, first of all, it should be remembered that a city must be designed conveniently and economically. Beauty in the highest sense of the word, of course, means a combination of beauty and utility, for unless a thing is useful, it cannot be truly beautiful. If this is thoroughly understood, the title might well be changed to "The Functions of the Landscape Architect in Connection with the Beautification of a City."

Under this subject will be enumerated the various ways in which a landscape architect may be of service to a city. However, the subject is such a colossal one that it will be impossible to discuss technically in such a short paper any of the sub-headings, as, for instance, the advantages and disadvantages of the diagonal arrangement of streets, the gridiron systems, or various other systems or combinations of systems.

The landscape architect may be of service to a city in three distinct ways, as follows:

1. He may be of great service by providing a comprehensive plan for the development of a city. A plan which would set aside for commerce, habitation, and recreation those areas for which they seemed best fitted, and a plan which would attempt to solve such tremendously important problems as the transportation, and the related ones of street arrangement and general classification of streets according to use, and the problem of approaches to cities.

2. He may help out very materially by designing many of the elements for public use which he has provided in the plan; such as sites for public buildings and monuments; designs for grounds belonging to schools, institutions, etc.; parks; parkways; park reservations; arboretums and botanical gardens: designs for playgrounds, squares, and plazas.

3. He may promote the general welfare of the city by working out for individuals, or groups of individuals, designs for real estate developments; private places; groups of private places; private parks; hotel grounds; private school grounds; church grounds; cemeteries; grounds around hospitals; mills; factories; and by having charge of property belonging to railroads and traction companies.

He may also, at times by lectures, personal influence, or some such means, incite people to timely action, but his influence in this field is relatively small, referring now particularly to his position in public work. His position is that of the trained expert who is called in to give advice and embody his ideas in plans; he undoubtedly always will do his utmost to see that his plans are carried out, but that is not essentially his work. That is for the people at large, and more particularly for that group of people who are directly in charge of the work; they should have sufficient confidence in the abilities of the man they call in as expert to do all in their power to see that his plans are eventually carried out. By this is not meant that a landscape architect should be commissioned to make just one plan for a city, and that this one plan should be adhered to and carried out through thick and thin; for no matter how efficient the landscape architect, conditions are bound to change in unexpected ways at times, and so make changes in the original plan very advisable. The landscape architect should always be with a city, and his advice from time to time should be taken rather than his first advice. To make his own work easier, the landscape architect's first plan should have that most desirable of qualities flexibility, so that when the unexpected developments occur it will not be necessary to tear down the whole structure of the plan and build up anew.

Some one has recently said that the plans of a landscape architect are like a guide-post, telling the direction and number of miles to a given place; I should like to go this one step further and say that the landscape architect is like a guide--he may try to get people to come on his tour by telling them how interesting it is. Then, if they do not come and miss out on something that is really worth while, it is their fault.

The landscape architect may be of greatest service to the city, as stated above, in providing a comprehensive plan for the city. It is unnecessary to point out the advisability of city planning to enlightened communities; the strange part is that people should not have been awakened to the advantages thus produced years and years ago. One would hardly think of building a house of any size without the aid of an architect; why should not a city, in which the health, wealth, and happiness of millions are concerned! be much more worthy of a design?

Some of the problems the landscape architect has to face to successfully plan a city, briefly stated, are: He must at the outset make a most careful study of the (a) physical, (b) economic, and (c) social conditions existing in the city. It is perhaps needless to point out how vitally these matters are connected with the design; what a controlling factor the topography is, how important a bearing the commercial enterprises may have on the design, or how necessary it is to bear in mind the centers of interest about which the life of the city clusters.

Upon this exhaustive study, so briefly outlined, but which requires much careful application and great skill in passing upon situations and tendencies, depends largely the success of the future plan. From it the designer should be able to determine what localities are best suited to commerce, habitation, and recreation.

The reasons for choosing a locality for a given purpose are both economic and esthetic. For example, it would not be necessary to choose for the site of a big park the most beautiful piece of property; many other considerations should be entertained. Is the site near a community which would need it and use it?

Is it likely to be easily accessible from a greater distance? Is the cost of the property so high that it would be possible to create an equally beautiful park for less money elsewhere? Is it naturally suited for park purposes, or would it mean a great outlay to turn it into a park? Would the return which the location yields as a park be greater than if it were used for any other purpose? The considerations entering into the choice of a locality for other purposes, commerce and habitation, are much the same; many cases could be cited if space permitted.

Certain areas, then, should be conserved for specific purposes; not that this could be done in an absolutely hard and fast way,--as, for example, one could not say that one part of the city should be used entirely for habitation and another for commerce,--but the tendency should be in the direction named, and provision should he made in advance for open spaces for recreation at regular intervals.

The conservation of certain areas for given purposes should be considered alone: with that tremendously important problem of transportation and the related problems of street arrangement,

classification of streets according to use, and the approaches to cities.

On the subject of the arrangement and general classification of streets according to use, it may be said that one of the controlling factors in the arrangement of streets is the transportation problem; that there must be in any well planned city easy and convenient means of communication between one part of the city and another; there must be certain main arteries, which are recognized as such by their width and importance; there must be secondary traffic streets and streets for a variety of other purposes. Streets should be classified according to their use, and their width should depend on this classification. In some cities standard widths of streets may have been adopted, two or possibly three in number; and standard sizes of blocks. This is a grave mistake. In the first place, one does not with such a scheme get the variety of widths in streets which should be obtained, as some streets will he wider that they should be and others much too narrow; in other words, they are not economically designed to meet their needs. Besides this economic reason against streets of standard width, there is an esthetic one: a city in which the streets are practically all the same width is monotonous and mechanical, while a city in which the streets vary greatly in width is much more interesting and attractive. The system of standard size of blocks is bad for the same reason, and also because in very thickly settled communities it permits of the dark, unwholesome tenements being erected, a thing which those interested in housing are now fighting so rigorously. Thus it is seen that on the city plan depends in a great measure the question of housing, and to a certain extent the health of the city, for it is in the tenement quarters where the worst diseases breed.

The subject of streets meeting at rond-points, and of vistas being terminated by some architectural feature, are very interesting. Rond-points in themselves can hardly be criticized, as they often furnish an attractive and suitable location for some architectural feature; if, however, so many streets lead into one rond-point that a congestion of traffic is caused, or if a rond-point is so bulky that it seems a great hardship for through traffic to be made to slow up to go around it, or if the streets are so numerous that they cause a great interruption to traffic, then the rond-points may well be criticized.

The subject of vistas being terminated by architectural features is closely connected with the latter, and is also well worthy of discussion. It should be borne in mind in this connection that while a vista terminated by an architectural feature is usually very attractive, at the same time vistas beyond a certain number of miles do not count for much, and that on the length of the vista should be determined the size of the feature at the end.

There are two main approaches to cities: (1) On water by boat, and (2) on land by railroad. Along both of these lines of approach land should be taken for public use, and for very different reasons. Take first the use of water fronts: Unless some provision is made for the public, the whole water front, whether it be river or harbor, may be usurped by commercial enterprise and the public deprived of ever seeing the water except when aboard a boat. In certain cases, as in New York, where the water front must of necessity be utilised for dockage, a combination of commercial and public use may be successfully employed. There the docks are owned by the city and leased by the steamship companies; in this way their appearance can be controlled. At present it is planned to build on the tops of these docks huge recreation parks which may be used by the public.

The reasons for taking land for public use along railroads are quite different, as there is generally no beautiful view along a railroad track entering a city. The reasons for taking land in such cases are as follows: In the first place, the land is always cheap, owing to railroads being essentially noisy, dirty things, from which people try to get away. Railroads invariably make a bad scar wherever they go thorough a city, and billboards and ugly tenements are naturally enough the things that greet the eye of the visitor. Now, if such land is taken for a park or parkway it may be very acceptable, particularly if the tracks are below the level of the streets rather than above them....

The complexity of the problem of city planning has perhaps been indicated by the foregoing remarks There are two other aims which the successful city planner must always have clearly before him, as he is working out the definite problems touched on above; the first is the need of preserving the city's individuality, and the second is the need of unity in the design. Occasionally some one says how regrettable it must be that a clean sweep cannot be made by doing away with existing topography and conditions. To do this would be like removing the character from a human being; for example it would be fatal to do away with Beacon Hill. as without it Boston would no longer be Boston. Rather the idea should be to retain such features, to make the most of them, and so maintain the individuality of the place. As to the other point, there should be some keynote to the city, possibly a civic center, or even in large cities groups of centers, around which other elements should cluster; subordinate parts should be subordinated, related parts-should be interrelated, and so on until in the end there is obtained from all the complex problems involved in city planning a unified result. I have already enumerated the elements provided for public use in the plan which the landscape architect might have the privilege of designing. It is only fair to suppose that he who makes this his life work might design these elements better than any one else, and that by his training the landscape architect should be able to conceive of a more beautiful country park, or a more economical and compact design for a city playground in a congested district, than any one else In this way, then, he might very materially benefit the city.

The third way in which he may promote the general welfare of the city is by working out designs for property belonging to individuals or groups of individuals. The trouble here is in getting owners to realize the advisability of employing landscape architects, and yet think what a difference it would make in the appearance of a city if all the private or semi-private property was attractively laid out.

Take, for example, a real estate scheme in a suburban district; the landscape architect, particularly if he was the same man that had made the general plan for the development of the city, would take care that he did nothing to interfere with the best development of the city. Of course, in this way he would also be benefiting the private property for which he was making landscape designs. And again he would have more regard for the topography than the owner; he would have curved roads rather than straight ones in rolling country, if it seemed advisable on account of the grade and other reasons too numerous to go into; and even if, by so doing, he would be unable to provide the same number of lots in a given territory that could be obtained with the rectangular system. He undoubtedly would make up for this loss by making the lots that he did provide so attractive that the net return would be greater than if the more short-sighted policy were adopted.

There have already been enumerated a long list of private properties which, if laid out by a landscape architect, might work a great change for the better in the appearance of a city. Fitness is the test which should govern the design of all such property. Of all the types mentioned, there is as great an opportunity on mill and factory grounds and land belonging to railroads and traction companies as on any others, if owners could only be made to realize the fact. In the case of the mill and factory grounds where landscape work has been done, not only has the appearance been wonderfully improved from the point of view of the public, but the work has almost invariably proved a good investment, in that the efficiency of the employees has been increased by their seeming to reflect the surroundings in which they worked. In the case of property belonging to railroads, not only might a great change for the better be worked in the right of way, but also danger from fire might be materially lessened.

An effort has been made in this paper to show clearly that landscape architecture is utilitarian quite as much as esthetic; that whatever one is designing, whether it be a city plan or any of the elements in a city, the design should be governed by use as much as beauty.

Many problems of tremendous interest in connection with city planning have been but briefly touched upon, and some have been left out altogether, owing to the vast proportions of the subject.

However, three distinct ways have been outlined in which the landscape architect may be of service to a city; these are the means; and the end to be arrived at by these means is to make the city, to which more and more people are flocking every day, a better place to live in--a place, more economical, more healthful, and more beautiful. These three things are perhaps in the highest sense the real functions of the landscape architect in connection with the improvement of a city. 

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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