Friday, January 3, 2014

The Garden City Begins

Riverside, Illinois and the Garden City

(Book excerpt from GI Town)

Riverside Plan 1870s
In 1868 Emery E. Childs, a Chicago developer, asked the noted American landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted and his firm, Olmsted, Vaux and Company, to design a “suburban village” on his sixteen hundred-acre property twelve miles west of Chicago. The plan for Riverside was revolutionary in its concept and breadth and unlike anything else in country. Olmsted and Vaux created a residential community along the banks of the Des Plains River, with a hierarchical plan of lot sizes, separated by generous open spaces and parks. Not having been designed to the current trend of the time, the grid pattern of streets in mid-American cities, Riverside’s residential roads curve in generous sweeps and meet with soft tangents at well-landscaped intersections. The only portions of the village which did not curve were the business streets that paralleled the Burlington Railroad. “In the highways,” said Olmsted, “celerity will be of less importance than the comfort and convenience of movement . . . we should recommend the general adoption, in the design of your roads, of gracefully-curved lines, generous spaces, and the absence of sharp corners, the idea being to suggest and imply leisure, contemplativeness and happy tranquility.”
Although its early days were financially troubled, the village’s overall design is a testament to the genius of the concept and the thoroughness of the execution. The automobile, thirty years in the future when the plan was at last completed, has not destroyed the village. Garages are placed in the rear of the lot, driveways are narrow, and the streets not overly wide. The design is still an example of melding the plan to the topography of the land. Riverside changed one of the fundamental concepts of town design more than any other American community: the integration into the standard grid pattern of streets curving streets with deep residential setbacks. Olmsted wrote that a well-designed suburb is “the most attractive, the most refined and the most soundly wholesome form of domestic life, and the best application of the arts of civilization to which mankind has yet attained.”6 The completeness of Riverside cannot be overlooked. It has stood unchanged in both plan and substance while, during the last hundred years, the area around it has grown, suffered, and deteriorated. The village’s strongest defenders are the current residents.

In 1869, as Riverside was being planned and built, a young Englishman set out from his London home looking for opportunities in the western United States. Nineteen year old Ebenezer Howard and two friends moved to Nebraska, tried farming, were quickly disillusioned, and within a few months Howard moved on to Chicago, where he lived for ten years. 

It was here in the Midwest of the United States that many of the most important ideas for twentieth-century town planning were initially formed. According to Howard, his stay in Chicago had a great influence on his life. It gave him a fuller and broader outlook on social and religious issues than if he had stayed in England. His time in Chicago helped to direct him: “greatly in the direction of perfect freedom of thought: and associated with this, a very deep sense of responsibility, and a clear perception that all values, to be rightly estimated, must be assessed mainly by their influence on the spiritual elements in our nature.”
Howard, court reporter by profession and land reformer by vocation, had by the end of the nineteenth century authored theories for radically reforming the community planning process. Those theories culminated in the Garden Cities movement. His experience in Chicago helped to account for the Americanism in his makeup. He believed in the American process of thought and action and that from it evolved the ideal to the real. This was contrary to his belief that in England the process went from the concrete to the abstract. This shifting of the creative process toward the ideal remained with Howard all his life. He became a stimulant and inspiration to the Garden Cities movement, and, as Dugald MacFadyen notes in his 1933 biography of Howard, “If Chicago did not fill his pockets with gold it did something better: it fitted him for world citizenship.”
Howard’s own thoughts on nineteenth-century American city planning are unknown because he wrote little of his experiences in Chicago but his inquisitive mind would not have allowed the efforts of Childs, Olmsted, and the Riverside community to pass unnoticed. It is not hard to imagine Howard visiting the Riverside development and that the impression it made stayed with him for almost twenty-five years, gestating.
The Chicago region continued to expand during the late nineteenth century, starting soon after the Great Fire in October of 1871. There was, even then, concern about the sprawl of development. One result was that Chicago and Cook County began a program of buying up swamplands, woodlands, and farmlands and setting them aside as permanent parklands. The Cook County Forest Preserve system was to have a fundamental impact on Howard’s theory for Garden Cities and the use of parklands and farmlands as buffers between communities. 
In his seminal book Garden Cities of Tomorrow Howard proposed dramatic changes in city planning. Initially published in 1898 and called Tomorrow: A Peaceful Path to Real Reform, it was republished in 1902 with the new name. Howard proposed that it was “universally agreed to by all men” that people must be stopped from relocating into the already crowded urban areas and cities. His theory was simple: “Town and country must be married, and out of this joyous union will spring new hope, a new life, a new civilization.” He believed people must be given opportunities to find better surroundings in which to live and to enjoy nature and be a part of it. This new village concept and its advantages would be a draw, or, as Howard called it, “a magnet,” attracting those believers to this new life. These town-country magnets would be called Garden Cities.