Tuesday, June 22

John Nolen: New Ideals in Planning

I've resumed my practice of reading old (read free) city planning books from the early 20th century to try to mine some insights that may still be useful. Hopefully, this slightly editorialized summary of John Nolen's New Ideals in the Planning of Cities, Towns, and Villages from 1919 may be helpful for anyone who is curious but doesn't have the time to read the whole thing.

Probably more than anyone else, John Nolen was the voice of the early American city planning establishment. He studied under Frederick Law Olmstead Jr. in one of the first graduating classes at Harvard, sat on the board of more professional organizations than you knew existed, and compiled an impressive resume of plans from around the country. New Ideals is both an amalgamation of the basic planning platform of the time and a passionate plea to carry it into action. What stands out to this reader, at least in contrast to the current climate, is the almost uncontrollable optimism written into every page of the book. Just a taste,

"Almost anything is possible through the cooperative effort of such men as are now permanently pulling together toward definite ends in the civic and commercial organizations of scores of cities that might readily be named."
I haven't heard exuberance like this since the brief period between Obama's election and his inauguration, and especially not from hardened planning and development types. Nolen really did believe he was part of something moving history unequivocally forward. 

The case for thinking before acting

The gist of Nolen's defense of planning can be boiled down to simple financial terms. The requirements imposed upon cities by modernity would need to be met somehow. Either local governments proceed through trial and error, leaving a trail of expensive mistakes in their wake, or they think carefully from the outset and get it right the first time. Nolen was fully aware that it was the local Chambers of Commerce, in the end, that would be making decisions for their communities, and he knew exactly how to speak to them.

But his argument is also founded on two more core values: local collectivism, or the ability for a community to make decisions cooperatively for the common good, and local individuality. Nolen bemoans the growing homogeneity of urban landscapes throughout the country and urged community leaders to search for a distinctive identity, whether in nature or culture, and assert it through design. Today, we may view these values as clashing with his more fiscally conservative sensibilities, but many in the business class of his day were equally motivated by a deep sense of civic responsibility. Even when reaching the loftiest heights of idealism, Nolen seems fully aware of the influential audience he was addressing.

Everything is connected to everything

Nolen was what we might call a systems thinker. Here he is on transportation,
"The component parts of a problem cannot properly be separated ... Whenever possible, the entire problem should be considered and attacked as a unit, and the development of the system as a whole should entail the consideration of all transportation routes."
and on parks,
"Just as a city needs a street system, a school system, a water system, a drainage system, and systems to provide for its other municipal activities, so it needs a comprehensive, well-distributed, well-developed system of parks and pleasure grounds."
His goal is to position the newly-formed Planning Commissions as the experts who could see through these moving parts to the "organic whole" and pull it all together. Although staff would aid in data collection and writing, the commissioners themselves are not professionals (compensation is optional, he says) but citizen-activists. They ought to represent the full spectrum of community members - even laborers and women. Although Nolen's writing is a far cry from the full participation that has been strived for since the 1960's, there is a certain sense of real democracy interspersed with some of the admittedly heavy-handed prescriptions.

The primacy of streets

Nolen understood that the street design is the main physical framework of a city. Once they have been laid out, development arrives, and they are very difficult to change. Future widenings for the sake of circulation should be avoided as much as possible, and the widths should vary according to their hierarchical function. He still holds on to the old notion that wider is always better. He simply thinks over-building local roads is too expensive. He then indulges in the perennial planners' debate between the boring, systematic grid-iron and the interesting, albeit somewhat confusing, radial pattern of streets.
"From the point of view of traffic facilities, as well as city attractiveness, the radial system has proved the better one in use"
But in the end, he settles for a hybrid of the rectilinear pattern with radial avenues emanating outward - presumably, once again, to save costs.

Nolen has the habit of treating every individual topic as if it's the single most important topic of all, neatly combining his overall giddiness with his comprehensive attitude toward planning. So street railways are "the chief agencies in promoting progress in cities." Parks are "the most necessary and valuable antidote to artificiality, confusion, and feverishness of life in cities." Zoning is "as far-reaching and important as each of the others, but it is singular in this point, that it costs the city nothing to put it into execution." If you're a mover and shaker in post-Great War society, no matter what interests you have Nolen is squarely (and sincerely, I believe) on your side. This new city planning may be a science, but it's also a coalition.

Learning from Europe while being America

For most of the book, he cites example after example of the British and the Germans getting things right. Forced to rebuild after their various wars, the Germans "achieved success in the replanning of towns for modern life." The English Housing and Town Planning Act of 1909 gets a special mention as a model policy to be imported across the Atlantic.

Meanwhile, American cities were stirring up trouble. New York City decimated their natural features and topography with a rote grid, and everyone else followed suit. Land subdivision was carried out on a strictly proprietary basis, and individual landowners would suddenly find themselves abutting a mismatched street configuration on the neighboring site. Lack of foresight for future public facilities required the destruction of existing structures and payment of higher land values when the need was eventually determined. Cities in America have "but limited powers as compared with cities of Europe." He even insinuates that the poor condition of many neighborhoods may start draining its residents of their patriotism.

Just as all of this starts to feel a little nagging, he turns things around at the end and appeals to a uniquely American art of planning,
"The promise for the future is bright in this field of city improvement in the United States, because we realize that change in our cities, if they are to be permanent and far-reaching, must spring from the people and be at bottom and expression of the life of the people. We do not want mere experts' cities unless those various experts - engineers, city planners, landscape architects and architects - show themselves capable of expressing and interpreting the best impulses and highest ambitions of business men, of citizens, of wage earners, and of fathers and mothers and children."
"When we are stirred in this matter, we shall not be content with a bright promise of cities, nor with visions, dreams, nor even paper plans. We shall insist upon the adoption of methods that will bring definite and satisfying results."
Mixing the art and science of city improvement with American democracy, empiricism, and tough pragmatism is a winning combination, as far as Nolen is concerned.


Eric Orozco said...

Yes...what an interesting mixture of values. (Kudos for tip-toeing across this retrospective without indulging into easy 21st century urbanist critique.) I admire that about Olmstead and Nolen's work: how easily their work communicates their values and loves. Those values continue to be manifested today.

I'm about as pro-grid as anybody, hah, but the principal thing that communicates to me about Nolen's curvilicious pre-war suburbs are their fantastic openness and interconnectedness. They really are places that invite public use, places of well-being for citizens. They destroy all sense of orientation, sure, but their draw teaches you to read them through experience first, and they really invite you to learn them.

This is a big difference from today's residential streets. Walking on Nolen's streets you are always in a shared public space. You are in a community open to interchange. Here in Charlotte, Nolen's suburb Myers Park attracts scores of users on a daily basis. Far more people enjoy walking, running or cycling down Nolen's shady avenues around the clock than on the streets of our gridded Uptown. There's a reason we call the Myers Park cycling route the Booty Loop. Drinking fountains on front yards are not rare in Myers Park and surrounding neighborhoods.

It is somewhat interesting for me to witness how a seemingly quiet (and, yes, wealthy) environment like Myers Park can attract so much diversity and conveyance of public life. All classes and kinds of people proliferate here in these public places. The events and activities that take place in Myers Park are central to Charlotte civic life. You could say Myers Park also radiates civic life. It truly is that kind of center in our city. Not many neighborhoods can claim that.

LH said...

Daniel, nice book summary and glad to hear you're into the old books too! Might other books of the pre-highway era hold particular usefulness to us now as we seek to de-emphasize cars and re-affirm the primacy of non-car modes? Perhaps we will see some of the books and concepts of that era return to prominence for this reason?

The Loosh said...

It is interesting that even in 1919, an urban planner was bemoaning the rising homogeneity of cities across the American landscape. It is a refrain we hear just as loudly now.

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