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Planning for the Urban Century

The 21st century will be an urban century.

In the urban century, cities that build and maintain great park systems will be great, livable cities. Those that do not will ultimately fall behind and be forced to catch up through retrofitting, a politically challenging and expensive process that is limited in terms of design and ecological outcomes.

Central Park under construction (Smithsonian Collection)

Central Park under construction. (Smithsonian)

Planning for the urban century requires a global revival of two critical concepts pioneered by Frederick Law Olmsted, Sr. in the 19th century, as the United States went through a similar shift of rural to urban migration that the rest of the world is experiencing today. Olmsted recognized that parks are city-shaping infrastructure, and like all forms of infrastructure, they work best when installed before the city grows. Central Park in New York, Olmsted’s most famous park, epitomizes this vision. It was built 30 blocks north of the edge of the city, but named Central Park, reflecting his confidence that the park would become the heart of the city.

Cherokee-Park-Map-1024x648

Cherokee Park in Louisville, KY (Olmsted Online)

Fast forward almost half a century to Olmsted’s last design for a park system, in Louisville, KY. Olmsted had by this stage of his career firmly arrived at his second major realization: Parks designed as complete integrated systems result in the best outcomes. So in Louisville, he envisioned three major parks, each one serving a different section of the city, and each encompassing a unique natural landscape–limestone uplands, shale knobs, and the Ohio River floodplain. All of the parks in Olmsted’s vision were connected by a series of parkways, and together they sketched a framework of urban form. Many cities engaged Olmsted in park design, but few actually carried it out; Louisville did build out his vision. The result: In the 20th century, Louisville formed around this system, making it one of the few cities in the world to have its period of industrial growth completely shaped by a grand Olmstedian vision.   Continue reading