Community by design—But what community?

The Library of American Landscape History has a new short film out based on Morgan, Cushing, and Reed’s 2013 book Community by design: The Olmsted firm and the development of Brookline, Massachusetts. It’s worth watching:

Like the other films from LALH’s North America by Design series, the emphasis is on landscape designers and their designs–and, since Brookline was full of both in the late nineteenth century, the film does a fine job making the case that here was the command center for the group of landscape architects, trained under Olmsted, who would rule the discipline and set its priorities for the next thirty years.

Fairsted in the 1890s was, in fact, a remarkable nursery for ideas and projects. Yet in addition to churning out a remarkable number of lovely and influential designs, the Olmsted firm also cast an ideological mold for how the new generation of landscape architects would envision their role in larger questions of social design in the years to follow, as city and regional planning increasingly became the concerns of state bureaucracies. It’s no surprise that some of these ideas had their birth here: Olmsted Sr., after all, always saw his work as a way of challenging the disorder and decay of cities left in the hands of profit-seekers, and he remained ambivalent throughout his life about the high-society work that he did for wealthy clients like Leland Stanford and George Washington Vanderbilt. This idealistic imagination of the landscape architect as a servant of the public good would become even more emphatic in the next generation, as landscape architecture and especially city planning became political axioms of the Progressive movement.

As it happened, Brookline itself became the target of reform campaigns at just about the same time that the Olmsted firm was in its heyday. Because Brookline had maintained its independence from Boston even as waves of development and interconnectedness progressively absorbed it into the metropolitan region, reformers began to argue that it should be subjected to some sort of broader metropolitan authority. One of the loudest voices clamoring against Brookline’s special privileges was Sylvester Baxter, who, together with Olmsted Sr’s protégé Charles Eliot, pushed to create a regional park system governed by an agency with authority over all of Greater Boston. Baxter considered Olmsted “one of the greatest figures in the history of his country,” and praised him especially for his “truest sympathy with the common people, with whom he always felt identified.” This same socialist-tinged politics of the public good led Baxter directly into war with Brookline. He loathed the “selfish interests” which had kept Brookline from identifying with the common good of Greater Boston. For decades, Baxter fought to wipe out the “legal fiction” which allowed Brookliners to live off the economic activity of the city without contributing to its working classes.

In an “Allegory of Metropolitan Planning” written for the state’s Metropolitan Plan Commission in 1912, John Nolen spoofed the idea of trying to build a metropolis by piecework. Likening Boston’s 38 jurisdictions to 38 families trying to build a house together, Nolen described the chaos that would ensue. “When the plans were completed,” the story went, “the heads of families held an interesting meeting at which each proclaimed his own needs and intentions to be carried out regardless, or else he and his would go on living in a back street in an inconvenient ugly house all by themselves.” But finally reason prevailed and the families brought in a master architect (a cipher for the metropolitan planner), who could stitch the “brilliant but inharmonious efforts” of the Brooklines and the Newtons and so on into a single design.

Strangely, though the topic is “community by design,” the film steers well clear of this paradoxical quality inherent in defining the edges of the “community,” a paradox for which Brookline is one of the very best examples. (The book on which the film is based does delve into this more thoroughly.) Olmsted had come to Brookline because, in a bit of apocrypha which the film repeats, he saw its publicly-financed snow plowing as a mark of “civilization.” For Olmsted, exasperated at the time over the cronyism in New York City politics, this small-town fantasy represented exactly the kind of whole community that the fractured, disorderly city was not. But from the perspective of the next generation of reformers, this appeared to be a failure of the imagination—a failure to realize that all of Greater Boston could and should think of itself as an interrelated whole. And it was just the kinds of projects that the Olmsted firm had its hands in—like the construction of streetcar boulevards and the building of the Emerald Necklace—which lent material credence to the argument that all of Great Boston had, by the early twentieth century, been knit into a “single” place.