[URBANTH-L] Spain on Peterson, _The Birth of City Planning in the United States_

Angela Jancius acjancius at ysu.edu
Sat Mar 5 22:26:56 EST 2005

[x-posted from H-Urban]

Published by H-Urban at h-net.msu.edu (March 2005)

Jon A. Peterson. _The Birth of City Planning in the United States,
1840-1917_. Creating the North American Landscape Series. Baltimore
and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003. xv + 431 pp.
Illustrations, maps, epilogue, appendix, notes, index. $59.95
(cloth), ISBN 0-8018-7210-3.

Reviewed for H-Urban by Daphne Spain <dgs4g at cms.mail.virginia.edu>, 
Department of Urban and Environmental Planning, University of Virginia

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

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.[1]

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.


[1]. 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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