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Civilizing American Cities, Autokind vs. Mankind and Anatomy of a Park

Vol. 60, No. 4 (July–August 1972)

CIVILIZING AMERICAN CITIES. Frederick Law Olmstead. Edited by S. B. Sutton. 310 pp. The MIT Press, 1971. $12.50.

AUTOKIND VS. MANKIND. Kenneth R. Schneider. 267 pp. W. W. Norton, 1971. $7.95.

ANATOMY OF A PARK. Albert J. Rutledge.180 pp. McGraw-Hill, 1971. $15.95.

Three books, all related in one way or another to the environment, each with a different approach to the problems caused by urbanization, the automotive revolution, and other such despoilers of the natural environment of our more humane past—to compare them would serve no purpose since each deals with a very specific aspect of the question. Of the three, Miss Sutton’s collection, subtitled A Selection of Frederick Law Olmstead’s Writings on City Landscape, is by far the most interesting; one should be grateful to the MIT Press for reviving these pieces.

The second part of the last century was one of the most vital periods for American design, and much of the interest in the volume lies in the insight it gives into the mind of an active designer of the era. Olmstead was proud of having upgraded the practice of landscape gardening to that of the profession of landscape architecture or, as he preferred to call it, “an art of design.” More than that, he was a pioneer city planner, and his thoughts on that subject are well represented in this book. For years to come, inhabitants of New York, Brooklyn, Montreal, Boston, and other cities will live richer lives because of Central Park, Prospect Park, Mount Royal Park, and the magnificent Boston system. It would be as hard to imagine these cities without their Olmstead parks as it would be to imagine American urban planning today had he not left his legacy to the men who followed him into our age.

As a result of the upheavals of the last few years, it has become customary to think of the city as a sinful hell from which one escapes and of the suburbs as the place to which one is condemned. Olmstead, unlike most of his contemporaries, foresaw the dangers inherent in uncontrolled growth of urban centers and, while he could not have foreseen the invention of the automobile, the chaos resulting has proved his vision of the city, its parks and parkway systems, and its connections to the suburbs to be fresh and vital to reflect the humanist, social reformer, artist, and realist that he was. In an age of strong individualism and laissez-faire, he fought for intelligently planned programs and was successful in convincing many that the common good could also be profitable. The essays in this collection demonstrate the combination of idealism and shrewd realism that constituted Olmstead’s strength. Even today, one is convinced, he would make the president of General Motors hear him out.

But will the president of General Motors listen to planner Kenneth Schneider’s angry Autokind vs. Mankind? I have serious doubts. Olmstead’s sometimes obscure, always old-fashioned and humorless style carries a more convincing argument than this later manifesto—which for all the truths it contains and despite its author’s justified anger is little more than a quixotic attempt to send exasperated victims of the automobile to the barricades. Anti-car protesters will not, however, find a slogan-filled hard-cover book too useful as a call to arms. In the past, citizen’s groups have had some limited, local successes in blocking the omnivorous car from destroying their land and community. Any such success has always been accomplished with the help of influential people working within the so-called system.

Although Schneider provides us with some of the most damning information about the “enemy” and although I have no reason to dispute his facts, his voice is too strident to appeal to those who could be most effective in the fight for public transportation and other means of reversing the trend. His strategy for action is too vague. Sooner or later the unbearable situation created by the importance given to the car will have to be reversed, but it will take more than a pedestrian’s revolt to persuade the American majority to walk, not drive, to the polls in order to vote for the candidate waving an anti-Detroit banner. For the injustice fighters, this battle has low priority.

As for Albert Rutledge’s Anatomy of a Park, it is a simple, direct, layman’s guide to park design, aimed at people interested in being conscientious members of their park commission. A clear, detailed, and well-illustrated book, it is aptly subtitled: The Essentials of Recreational Area Planning and Design.—Paul J. Mitarachi, New Haven, Connecticut

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