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.

Where have all the masons gone?

The quality of masonry in the built environment has dropped significant in the past century.

I would like to blame this on the rise of the Anti-Masonic Party and William Wirt, unfortunately for my desire for a tidy history, that was in 1832, and preceded the decline of masonry by about a century. Furthermore, freemasonry and stonemasonry in practice are not terribly related by this time (though freemasons were once stonemasons back in the 14th century). Freemasons like George Washington did little actual brickwork.

So instead, let’s turn to the rising price of labor, as men who once would have become stonemasons, as their fathers were, were instead attracted to other businesses, and the real estate sector found that high quality detailing was no longer worth the premium it cost. Today, masonry is often a non-structural skin which is pre-manufactured, what my wife calls “brickaneer“. Yet even pre-manufactured brick veneer seems to lack style, and is just a boring layer. Better perhaps than some alternative skins, but nothing like it once was.

The more interesting question is perhaps why the market doesn’t reward aesthetics on the exterior of buildings now, when it once did.

Consider the four apartment buildings shown below, they are all in the same Powderhorn Park neighborhood, of similar size, but were built  in different decades. The level of detail on two of them is far greater than the other two. At some point interest or willingness to pay for Masonry detail failed. This is unfortunate.

New buildings don’t do much better. Compare some 21st century structures with Thresher Square. Whatever you think of aesthetics, detail is clearly lost.  Perhaps there were many older simple buildings that were just lost to history because of their unimpressiveness, and only the best bits were saved. I think it is more significant though than just survivor bias. No new construction seems to have the same level of exterior architectural detail we once saw.

For all the attention to detail paid to computer design, where has the real architecture gone? I am not a huge fan of Victorian frills. Bauhaus aesthetics were a response, simplifying the ornate form without function, but seemed far more skilled than what we get now. Why did detail (not frills, but details) never recover. Notably, the cornice disappeared with masonry.  Whatever we call late 20th century and early 21st century architectural styles,  future decades will not appreciate the way we appreciate the surviving buildings of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Apartment building near Powderhorn Park
Apartment building near Powderhorn Park
Apartment building near Powderhorn Park
Apartment building near Powderhorn Park
Apartment building near Powderhorn Park
Apartment building near Powderhorn Park
Apartment building near Powderhorn Park
Apartment building near Powderhorn Park


The Edge on Oak Street
The Edge on Oak Street
Mill Quarter Municipal Parking Ramp
Mill Quarter Municipal Parking Ramp
Thresher Square and Old Spaghetti Factory
Thresher Square and Old Spaghetti Factory

Journal of Transport and Land Use.

We are pleased to announce the Journal of Transport and Land Use.
What, you ask? Another journal amidst an already overcrowded field?
Yes, we respond enthusiastically! Several journals touch on the interaction of transport and land use; however, they do so peripherally. This new venue puts both transport and land use front and center. We seek to be the leading outlet for research at the interdisciplinary intersection of these two domains, including work from the domains of engineering, planning, modeling, behavior, economics, geography, regional science, sociology, architecture and design, network science, and complex systems.
The Journal of Transport and Land Use (JTLU) will be peer-reviewed, web-based, open-content, subscription-free, and free to contribute. All of this is enabled by support from the Center for Transportation Studies at the University of Minnesota, where the journal will be housed. The advantages of this new journal and new process are several:
1. With a rigorous peer-review process, only quality papers that meet scientific standards will be published within the journal.
2. By being web-based (and web-only), we reduce costs significantly compared with paper journals. Web-based publication allows a much faster turnaround time than paper publication. Our goal is six weeks between submission and first reviews returned to the author. Being web-based also allows the inclusion of full color graphics and multi-media content, and the inclusion of datasets with the publication.
3. By being open-content, papers published in JTLU can be freely distributed (with attribution), increasing the value of papers published in the journal, and increasing their likelihood of being used in course readers and being read by the public.
4. By being subscription-free, we overcome a fundamental problem of today’s expensive journals published by for-profit publishers, which many libraries can no longer subscribe to.
5. By being free-to-contribute, we overcome the burden of the open-content journals that charge the authors to publish their paper.
We are now soliciting papers covering topics at the intersection of transport and land use. Details about the journal, its editorial process, and paper submission can be found at the journal’s website http://www.jtlu.org .
If you are interested in organizing a special issue, please contact one of the editors.
There will be a meeting at the World Conference on Transport Research in Berkeley to discuss the journal, contact the editors for details.
We look forward to any comments, questions, or suggestions you may have.
David Levinson and Kevin Krizek
David Levinson
Richard P. Braun/CTS Chair in Transportation Engineering
Director Networks, Economics, and Urban Systems (Nexus) Research Group
University of Minnesota (612) 625-6354
Kevin J. Krizek
Associate Professor, Urban Planning & Civil Engineering
University of Minnesota (612) 625 – 7318