Jon A. Peterson. The Birth of City Planning in the United States, 1840-1917. Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003. xv + 431 pp. $59.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8018-7210-5.
Reviewed by Daphne Spain (Department of Urban and Environmental Planning, University of Virginia)
Published on H-Urban (March, 2005)
Lofty Ambitions, Limited Achievements
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.
Burnham's 1902 plan for Washington, D.C. was the watershed event that defined, for Peterson, the birth of city planning. Special purpose planning already existed, but the McMillan Commission plan for the District of Columbia marked the first time professionals applied a comprehensive approach. The McMillan Plan successfully combined two previously unrelated nineteenth-century precursors: park system design and civic art. Burnham, landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted Jr., Charles Mulford Robinson, and John Nolen were the pioneers of this emerging planning profession.
Professionals began to refer to "city planning" in 1908 and the name was institutionalized in 1909 with the first National Conference on City Planning (NCCP). The NCCP sparked a battle for control between landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. and housing reformer Benjamin Marsh. Olmsted won, directing the profession toward a broader agenda than housing. Olmsted Jr. also believed planning was as much a process as a completed document.
Housing reformer Lawrence Veiller, among others, criticized planning for promising more than it could deliver. Surveys conducted between 1917 and 1929 bore out his assessment. Only forty-one cities adopted comprehensive city plans between 1910 and 1917. Of those, twenty plans had very little impact, and another fifteen reported only partial fulfillment. Since all but one of the six successful plans was for a small town or village, they offered minimal instructional value for city planners in Boston or Philadelphia. The incremental approach held more promise. When Harland Bartholomew was hired in 1916 by St. Louis to create a city plan, he devised separate studies of each city system: traffic, streets, markets, recreation, housing, and public buildings. Serial implementation of these components created an efficient traffic system for St. Louis when other downtowns were still gridlocked. If D.C. marked the birth of city planning, St. Louis signified the shift from comprehensive to incremental approaches.
According to Peterson, city planning was based on three ideas that eroded after World War I. The first was that the physical development of an existing city should (not could) be controlled by a single agency speaking for the public interest and presenting a comprehensive vision. Second, essential elements of the plan, like water and sewage systems, zoning, highways, and rapid transit, derived coherence from this vision. Third, the vision assumed the city was an interconnected, organic whole. After 1917, planners abandoned the big picture out of necessity because they had never achieved the authority to implement it . They turned, instead, to piecemeal "opportunistic interventions" to widen streets or establish zoning. If the success of city planning is gauged by its ambitions, it was a failure. But if it is measured by its incremental, small-scale achievements, as Peterson has, it left a significant legacy.
I was surprised by a few omissions from Peterson's account. Sanitary engineer George Waring was publishing and speaking extensively during the late-nineteenth century, but is not mentioned in the chapter on sanitary reform, despite his status as patron saint of the municipal housekeeping movement. And I looked in vain for more women in the story. The settlement house movement received a nod, but Jane Addams was credited only with displaying art at Hull House, not with her endless efforts to clean up the city, both literally and figuratively. A pantheon of women reformers influenced city planning. Mary Kingsbury Simkhovitch is mentioned, but Julia Lathrop, Lillian Wald, Vida Scudder, and Mary McDowell are missing. For balance, students who read Peterson's book should also read accounts by Eugenie Ladner Birch, Susan Wirka, and Daphne Spain.
Although historians may appreciate the distinction between city and urban planning, the typical planning student probably would fail to grasp the subtlety. For this reason, and because of its steep price, The Birth of City Planning would be a luxury in most planning courses. On the other hand, the book is blessedly free of postmodern jargon and accessible to a large audience.
. Eugenie Ladner Birch, "From Civic Worker to City Planner: Women and Planning, 1890-1980," in The American Planner: Biographies and Recollections, ed. Donald Krueckeberg (New Brunswick, NJ: Center for Urban Policy Research, 2nd ed. 1994); Susan Wirka, "The City Social Movement: Progressive Women Reformers and Early Social Planning," in Planning the Twentieth-Century American City, ed. Mary Corbin Sies and Christopher Silver (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996); and, Daphne Spain, How Women Saved the City (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2001).
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