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Room and a View: Rutherford Platt’s Reclaiming American Cities

By Peter Harnik

A city is much more than merely a physical entity. But for our purposes, as park lovers, let’s stay in that place for now: the physical city as the sum of its physical parts. What is the proportion of structures and open space that we seek? And of the open space, how much is for pure utility (fast-moving streets) and how much for social intercourse (sidewalks, plazas, boulevards and parks)? How do we get things cooking economically while keeping the kitchen tolerable? Too many buildings means too little breathing room—like a smoky wood stove choked with oxygen-starved logs. Too much open space means not enough humanity—the stove with just a few twigs, unable to heat up.Reclaiming American Cities Cover

Getting this balance right is remarkably difficult. A look back at the wrenching changes that have wracked our cities over the past century—booms, busts, blights, renewals, fads—reveals that neither government nor the private sector uniformly understands what makes for excellent urbanity. And, frankly, the conflicting pressures from different flavors of citizen activists hasn’t helped.

One problem is that advocates for conservation and advocates for housing barely interact. This is due to both philosophy and language. The two sides tend to disagree about what needs fixing most—environmental pollution or poverty—and they also literally cannot understand each other. The acronyms, descriptions and explanations, the methods for solving problems, particularly the government and private programs that are available, are unintelligible to the uninitiated in each camp. One side talks only about “housing the poor,” the other only about “saving nature,” and the gulf remains unbridgeable. We need a new paradigm: making cities great places to live, for rich and poor alike.

Rutherford Platt has started us in this direction. Reclaiming American Cities: The Struggle for People, Place, and Nature Since 1900 (University of Massachusetts Press) is perhaps the only historical narrative that seeks to gather up the disparate physical urban threads—housing, transportation and parkland—in a complete package that reveals the contradictions and blind spots (as well as brilliant insights) that have guided our lurching city building movement for the past century.

This book is not about parks, per se. It is about what Platt sees as the 20th century’s three waves of urban planning styles—“patrician” (top-down and inspirational, a la Burnham, which he says is bad), “technocratic” (top-down and scientific, a la master builder Robert Moses, also bad) and “humane” (small-scale and locally-based, a la urban gardening guru Will Allen, which he likes). Platt is strongly infused with a Jane Jacobs mentality, although he is probably more pro-planning than she was. Though not solely about parks, I read it of course with park-oriented eyes.

Platt, himself, is an unusual collection of disparate parts—a geographer, lawyer and historian, and also an optimistic liberal. But I must jump immediately to the revelation that sticks most vividly in my mind: the delicious irony that Daniel Burnham’s 1909 Plan for Chicago would have resulted in the destruction of Jane Addams’s Hull House.

Burnham was the leading exponent of the parks-oriented City Beautiful movement. Addams was the leading exponent of the anti-poverty-oriented Settlement House movement. Both were national figures of the highest order, and their offices were both in Chicago, scarcely two miles apart. This almost poetic confrontation provides Platt with a neat opportunity to teach about the two political viewpoints and the many ensuing movements and programs that grew from them over the decades, including “Radiant City,” “Garden City,” parkways and boulevards, “Model Cities,” “urban renewal,” “urban removal,” housing vouchers and a whole lot more. (He also uses the Chicago locale to weave in a discussion of the battles over “nearby wilderness” by telling of the epic struggle over the once-wild Indiana Dunes southeast of the city.)

Minor spoiler alert: Burnham’s grand plan was not fully realized, so Hull House was not razed. However, half a century later, a vast highway-and-renewal scheme with Burnhamesque hubris, took out the entire impoverished Halsted neighborhood that Hull House had been serving. Hull House itself was preserved as a historic landmark.

How many conservationists talk about poverty, race and housing? How many housers and poverty activists talk about urban wilderness and natural refuges? This is a conversation that needs to happen, and Reclaiming American Cities provides an excellent study guide for just this in-depth discussion, both within and between these groups. Of all general-purpose urban histories, it provides the best elucidation of the role that parks play (and don’t play) in the swirl of forces that constitute the urban conversation.

Peter Harnik is director of The Trust for Public Land’s Center for City Park Excellence and author of Urban Green: Innovative Parks for Resurgent Cities.

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