Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Book review: The Birth of City Planning in the United States, 1840-1917

by Daphne Spain

Jon Peterson's Birth of City Planning is a traditional history that expands his earlier work on the City Beautiful Movement (1893 to 1910). It differs from the previous work by identifying sanitary reform and the civic art movement as antecedents to the City Beautiful (hence the "1840" in the title), and by tracing the contributions of the City Beautiful Movement to the emergence of city planning as a profession responsible for the public good. The birth of city planning is dated variously as 1901, with Charles Mulford Robinson's book, The Improvement of Towns and Cities; as 1902 with the McMillan plan for Washington, D.C.; as 1904 with a New York City comprehensive plan; as 1908 with popular usage of the term; and as 1910 with the ascendance of Frederick Law Olmsted Jr.'s vision for planning. Peterson chose 1917 as the "end of the beginning" because it marked the point at which, he believes, the ideal of the comprehensive plan died.
In addition to differentiating the City Beautiful from city planning, Peterson makes a somewhat forced distinction between "city" planning and "urban" planning. According to Peterson, generic urban planning refers to the broad array of ideas, techniques, and procedures by which people have shaped urban form since the founding of cities. American "city" planning is a distinct chapter in that longer history. City planning was born during the Progressive Era as an effort to make existing cities function more efficiently. When it died is less clear, although it clearly no longer exists in its pure form. The grand ambitions inherent in a comprehensive vision were undermined by planners' inability to implement them. Instead, planning has evolved into a piecemeal endeavor, but one, ironically, suitable for the contemporary fragmented metropolis.
Peterson highlights three developments during the late-nineteenth century that proved crucial to the development of city planning. The first was recognition that sanitary reform was necessary to reduce the public health risks of crowded tenements. Second, large parks were identified as another antidote to urban congestion, and, third, American cities were perceived as more visually chaotic than Europe's grand cities. The Chicago World's Columbian Exposition of 1893 and the subsequent City Beautiful movement addressed all three of these concerns. Civic commissions in Chicago, Manila, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C. hired architect Daniel Burnham, principal designer of the Chicago World's Columbian Exposition, to impose order similar to that of the fantastical White City.

more planning book reviews:

Book Review: Instant City

Book Review: Waiting on a Train

Book - Architecture and Violence

Urbanism in the Age of Climate Change

Book Review - City Building: Nine Planning Principles for the Twenty-First Century

Planning book: Forty years of Limits to Growth

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