Book Review: A Clearing in the Distance by Witold Rybcynski

Author: Witold Rybcynski
Title: A Clearing in the Distance
Publication Info: Scribner, 1999


This biography of Frederick Law Olmsted remains one of my favorite books of all time. Olmsted is a fascinating person and Rybcynski does a great job of balancing a lot of research with creating a flowing narrative of his life.

Most people know Olmsted as the designer (along with his partner Calvert Vaux) of New York’s Central Park and an originator of the field of landscape architecture (although Olmsted disliked the term). Oddly, the great majority of parks attributed to Olmsted were designed by the Olmsted firm when his sons took it over. But Olmsted’s own designs remain the most inspired and influential. These include the Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, Montreal’s Mont Royal, the US Capitol grounds, Buffalo parks system, Biltmore Estate in Asheville, NC, the 1893 World Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Belle Isle Park in Detroit, and my very own Emerald Necklace in Boston.

Interestingly, Olmsted was a bit of a late bloomer, well into his adulthood before beginning a career in landscape architecture. He was a many of many talents who had success in other careers before and during the time of his landscape firm. In the 1850s, Olmsted was a journalist, most significantly travelling through the Southern states and writing dispatches of the Southern people and culture from his perspective as an antislavery advocate. During the Civil War, he served as Executive Secretary of the U.S. Sanitary Commission, a precursor to the Red Cross. In the middle of the war, Olmsted left the Sanitary Commission to manage a gold mining company in California near Yosemite (the mine failed, but the landscape of the Sierra Nevada mountains inspired Olmsted). Olmsted also participated in founding The Nation magazine in 1865.

This is a great book about a great life and I enjoyed re-reading it.

Favorite Passages:

Olmsted was one of the first people to recognize the necessity for planning in a large, industrializing country—whether in peace or war. This recognition was not yet widely shared, which is why he was often misunderstood.

It was the future that concerned him, and he had the rare patience to successfully project his plans years ahead. I think that was one of the things that finally attracted him to landscape architecture. It is a field where a long time—sometimes generations—is required for the full realization of the designer’s goal.

Part of Olmsted’s problem was of his own making: he was overdoing it. “He works like a dog all day and sits up nearly all night,” Strong noted in his diary, “doesn’t go home to his family (now established in Washington) for five days and nights together, works with steady, feverish intensity till four in the morning, sleeps on a sofa in his clothes, and breakfasts on strong coffee and pickles!!!” No wonder he was short-tempered and picked quarrels with the Executive Committee.

Willa Cather would later make a distinction between wilderness and landscape. The American West, she wrote, is “a country still waiting to be made into a landscape.” The unique and affecting charm of Yosemite, as Olmsted perceptively noted, is that it is both wilderness and landscape. The craggy vastness of the chasm is older than any human presence, yet the valley floor appears comfortably domesticated. Olmsted appreciated this curious contrast; he and Vaux had created precisely this effect in Central Park, where the wilderness of the Ramble was side by side with pastoral meadows.

For Olmsted, recreation—or rather, re-creation—was paramount. When he discussed the recuperative power of natural scenery, he literally meant healing. He believed that the contemplation of nature, fresh air, and the change of everyday habits improved people’s health and intellectual vigor.

Olmsted agreed that what they had done in Central Park—and what he himself was doing in California—was much more than horticulture. It was art. It was, however, a particular kind of art. At one point he referred to it as “sylvan art.” “The art is not gardening nor is it architecture,” he wrote. It was certainly not “landscape architecture.” “If you are bound to establish this new art,” he wrote Vaux, “you don’t want an old name for it.”

More was involved here than landscaping; the park and promenade were conceived on the scale of an entire city. The ability to think on a large scale, to project himself into the future, and to quickly master broad issues were skills Olmsted acquired while he was directing the United States Sanitary Commission, managing the Mariposa Estate, and chairing the Yosemite Commission. All these projects depended on his ability to digest and organize large amounts of information, and to integrate diverse requirements. All involved planning in time as well as space. Even Yeoman’s first foray into journalism, which was an attempt to understand an entire region, was a useful preparation for Olmsted’s adopted role of city planner.

The subtle adjustments to the current policy of continuing the Manhattan grid produced a very different urbanism. The new parts of Morrisania had long blocks oriented north-south instead of east-west, so that all houses got some sun. West Farms consisted of a patchwork of grids whose slightly shifting orientation created variety, the same kind of variety that makes such cities as New Orleans and San Francisco interesting. The picturesque suburban layouts were derived from earlier projects, but what makes the Bronx plan unusual is that Olmsted showed how areas of low, medium, and high density could be combined into a seamless whole that would be “the plan of a Metropolis; adapted to serve, and serve well, every legitimate interest of the wide world; not of ordinary commerce only, but of humanity, religion, art, science, and scholarship.”

The fair was Olmsted’s creation, and not merely because he had contributed so much to the design. “Make no little plans,” Burnham is supposed to have said. Thinking big was something he and his generation had learned from Frederick Law Olmsted.

Olmsted was frustrated by people’s unwillingness to recognize landscape architecture as an art. Olmsted thought that this was chiefly because they confused it with what he called decorative gardening. According to him, landscape architecture involved composition and perspective in which details were subordinate to the whole, contrary to decorative gardening, which treated “roses as roses, not as flecks of white or red modifying masses of green.” He considered landscape architecture akin to landscape painting, except that the landscape architect used natural materials instead of pigments. That, of course, was the root of the problem. Since the medium—as well as the subject—was nature itself, the public often failed to discriminate between the two. No one would think of altering a landscape on canvas, but a garden was different.

That was the chief difference between Olmsted and the architects. They wanted to create order out of chaos. He wanted to accommodate order and chaos.

Recommended books:

Rating: *****

No Such Thing as Free Parking in Boston

A recent article in the Boston Globe asks “Are the days of free residential parking in Boston numbered?” Unlike neighboring cities like Brookline, Somerville, and Cambridge that charge $25 to $40 a year for parking permits, residential parking permits in Boston are “free.”  Of course, nothing is really free, and as the research of UCLA Urban Planning professor Donald Shoup shows in “The High Cost of Free Parking,” the costs of a city providing “free” parking are often shifted in inequitable ways.  This is why Boston City Councilor Michelle Wu is investigating charging an annual fee for Boston residential parking permits, an idea that I’ve long considered a good one and believe the city should pursue as soon as possible.

This is an issue of equity.  In a city where land is at a premium, a considerable amount of the public commons is given over for “free” storage of private property.  And it is a use of public land that benefits wealthier people who are more likely to own a car than poorer people, and in fact wealthier people are more likely to own multiple cars, as the article notes “at least 300 residences have more than five parking permits.”

With a major winter storm coming up, this is a time when many Boston residents are concerned with a shortage of on-street parking.  And yet this is a time when we can most see the negative effects of free residential permits.  Go down any street after a snow storm and you will find at least one car that remains unshoveled for days, or even weeks after the storm.  The owner of that car probably rarely drives but because there is no cost to them to store the car at the city’s expense, they keep the car there just in case.  Similarly, people who typically keep their cars off-street on driveways and in garages will move their cars on to the street before a storm because they know the city will plow the street, but they are responsible for clearing their own driveways.

Charging an annual fee for a residential would not be primarily for revenue, but a means of regulating the behavior of on-street parking in the winter and all year round.  It need not be an onerous amount, just priced enough to make someone who has one car that they rarely use but are keeping “just in case” to take the plunge and go car free.  Or for someone who has two cars to decide to go car-light.  Neighborhoods that are higher density, have higher property values, and/or have a shortage of on-street space would also obviously pay a higher annual rate than a neighborhood that is low-density, low income, and/or has surplus space. Major arteries can also be priced to reduce on-street parking and allow for dedicated bus and bike lanes. I’d also propose that while the annual rate for a single residential parking permit be relatively affordable, that permits for a second, third, or so on car be increasingly and prohibitively expensive.

The income that is raised from parking permits can be redirected into the neighborhoods.  Money can be invested into repairing and widening sidewalks, planting trees and improving greenspace, and constructing protected bicycle lanes.  In some places, the recovered space may even be used to construct new housing or retail spaces.

I hope that Councilor Wu and others in our community embrace paid residential parking permits as one means of increasing the quality of life for all residents of the city.

Write a Letter to Help Fix Cambridge Street

[cross-posted from my Boston Bike Commuter blog]


Wednesday is the deadline to help fix Cambridge Street by signing Fix Cambridge Street‘s community letter to MassDOT at


Please also send an email to with your own comments (mention “Project File # 606376”).


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My letter to MassDOT is below.

January 27, 2014

Richard Davey, Secretary and Chief Executive Officer
Frank DePaola, Administrator, Highway Division
Massachusetts Department of Transportation
10 Park Plaza,
Boston, MA 02114
RE: Project #606376 Cambridge Street bridge over I-90, Allston, Boston
Dear Secretary Davey and Administrator DePaolo:
I’m writing in regards to the Cambridge Street Overpass in Allston, Project #606376.  I appreciate that in recent public meetings and plans that community concerns have been incorporated onto the Cambridge Street renovations.  However, the street design is still geared toward high-speed / high-volume motor vehicle traffic, increasing the risks for bicyclists and pedestrians.
I work in Allston and live in Jamaica Plain, and whenever possible I prefer to commute by work.  Any route I take to work must cross the Massachusetts Turnpike, but crossings are few and far between with the majority of them designed almost exclusively for automotive traffic with wide lanes and high speeds (this includes Cambridge Street, as well as Carlton/Mounfort St, Beacon St, and Charlesgate).  These crossings are intimidating to bicyclists at best and downright dangerous at worst.  While the Cambridge Street crossing is the most direct route, I often go miles out-of-the-way to Massachusetts Avenue to avoid the stress and risks of biking on Cambridge Street.
With this in mind, and the concerns of Allston community members, bicyclists, and pedestrians, I would like to encourage the following modifications to encourage the goal of slowing automotive traffic speed and creating a safer street for pedestrians and bicyclists:
  • Do not install a median fence.
  • Reallocate excess space from roadway to bicyclists and pedestrians
  • The new pedestrian crossing should use a standard red/yellow/green traffic signal
  • Plant landscaping in the median between the Mansfield Crosswalk & Lincoln Street.
  • Use permanent coloring to distinguish the sidewalk and cycletrack
Thank you for your consideration and attention to my concerns and those of others who wish to transform Cambridge Street into a safe, accessible and attractive gateway to the Allston community.  Working together we can the project to remake Cambridge Street something we can all be proud of.

Book Review: Walkable City by Jeff Speck

Author: Jeff Speck
TitleWalkable City
Publication Info: New York : Farrar, Straus and Giroux, c2012.
ISBN: 9780374285814

A city planner by trade, Speck is aware of what works and doesn’t work in creating and maintaining thriving metropolises.  He blames many of his fellow planners for the big mistakes of repeatedly designing cities for the swift movement of cars and then for places to park those cars, destroying the city in the process.  The obvious solution is to make the city more “walkable” but many efforts to design cities as a place to walk have failed as well, often due to their half-hearted nature or lack of understanding of what makes a city walkable.  To address this, Speck created a ten step list (cited in its entirety below) with each chapter describing the facets involved in creating truly walkable city.

The Useful Walk

Step 1. Put Cars in Their Place.
Step 2. Mix the Uses.
Step 3. Get the Parking Right.
Step 4. Let Transit Work.

The Safe Walk

Step 5. Protect the Pedestrian.
Step 6. Welcome Bikes.

The Comfortable Walk

Step 7. Shape the Spaces.
Step 8. Plant Trees.

The Interesting Walk

Step 9. Make Friendly and Unique Faces.
Step 10. Pick Your Winners.

I read a lot of books about urbanism, city planning, walking, and bicycling (and against the prioritizing of automobiles), so I’m the proverbial choir being preached too.  Speck’s book clearly states the advantages of his model to everyone, and enunciates the steps in getting to that point.  For these reasons, this is the book I’d hand to an automobile-focused doubter to read and think it would have a great chance of making an impression.

Favorite Passages:

“The General Theory of Walkability explains how, to be favored, a walk has to satisfy four main conditions: it must be useful, safe, comfortable, and interesting. Each of these qualities is essential and none alone is sufficient. Useful means that most aspects of daily life are located close at hand and organized in a way that walking serves them well. Safe means that the street has been designed to give pedestrians a fighting chance against being hit by automobiles; they must not only be safe but feel safe, which is even tougher to satisfy. Comfortable means that buildings and landscape shape urban streets into ‘outdoor living rooms,’ in contrast to wide-open spaces, which usually fail to attract pedestrians. Interesting means that sidewalks are lined by unique buildings with friendly faces and that signs of humanity abound.”

“Since midcentury, whether intentionally or by accident, most American cities have effectively become no-walking zones. In the absence of any larger vision or mandate, city engineers—worshipping the twin gods of Smooth Traffic and Ample Parking—have turned our downtowns into places that are easy to get to but not worth arriving at.”

“Engineers design streets for speeds well above the posted limit, so that speeding drivers will be safe—a practice that, of course, causes the very speeding it hopes to protect against.”

Recommended booksStraphanger: Saving Our Cities and Ourselves from the Automobile by Taras Grescoe, Green Metropolis: Why Living Smaller, Living Closer, and Driving Less are the Keys to Sustainability by David Owen, Triumph of the City by Edward L. Glaeser, and Pedaling revolution : how cyclists are changing American cities by Jeff Mapes.
Rating: ****