On Frederick Law Olmsted

I recently read A Clearing In The Distance: Frederick Law Olmsted and America in the 19th Century by Witold Rybczynski. Some quotes from the book below, and then some comments.

The report observed that “the present street system, not only of Brooklyn but of Portrait_of_Frederick_Law_Olmsted.jpgother large towns, has serious defects for which, sooner or later, if these towns should continue to advance in wealth, remedies must be devised, the cost of which will be extravagantly increased by a long delay in the determination of the outlines.” The chief drawback, according to Olmsted, was the undifferentiated grid plan with its network of intersecting, uniform streets. He had already spelled out his opposition to this characteristic nineteenth-century device in his report on San Francisco. “On a level plain, like the city of Philadelphia, a series of streets at right-angles to each other is perfectly feasible, and the design is as simple in execution as it appears on paper,” he had written, “but even where the circumstances of site are favorable [emphasis added] for this formal and repetitive arrangement, it presents a dull and inartistic appearance, and in such a hilly position as that of San Francisco, it is very inappropriate.”

Olmsted and Vaux proposed modifying the grid. Their solution … called it a “Parkway.” The parkway was a 260-foot-wide avenue divided into five traffic lanes, each separated by a row of trees. The two outside lanes were reserved for commercial vehicles ….  The parkway was an essential link. For him the “metropolitan condition” included cities and suburbs.

Unlike modernist city planners of the 1920s, Olmsted was neither a radical nor a utopian; he believed that it was possible “to realize familiar and traditional ideals under novel circumstances.” This attitude appealed to civic leaders, businessmen, and politicians alike and explains why his planning proposals were easily accepted.

[Describing the collection of architects at the White City of the Chicago World’s Fair] “Look here, old fellow, do you realize that this is the greatest meeting of artists since the fifteenth century!”

According to him, landscape architecture involved composition and perspective in which details were subordinate to the whole, contrary to decorative gardening, which treated “roses as roses, not as flecks of white or red modifying masses of green.”

Olmsted is a fascinating individual who went through many careers, a farmer, a travel- writer who visited the south before the Civil War, and of course later in life a landscape architect

He was not a transportation planner as such, though his development of parkways and multi-way boulevards did contribute in an important ways to transportation designs and should be used more. One could argue he anticipated the idea of complete streets, serving multiple modes of transportation in the same corridor, to improve not only aesthetic design, but efficiency and equity.

We recently did a study showing how the quality of environment, including the presence of trees, at transit stops affected riders perception of time. Nicer environments reduced people’s overestimate of wait time. A similar observation holds with driving experience, people prefer to drive on boulevards than channelized freeways. This isn’t surprising, but it doesn’t fit much into standard engineering design of either roads or transit stops and stations. Since we are designing for people, it should.

Olmsted also developed garden suburbs, and opposed the rectilinear street grid. I think it depends on how you use it, and what you do in residential neighborhoods should differ from what you do in commercial areas.  And what you can and should do depends in part on the transportation technology you are trying to facilitate. How you design for trains differs from pedestrians, and those, which need to be more direct, differ from automated vehicles, which we are only now beginning to think about.