Monday, December 01, 2014

Ebenezer Howard, 3 Magnets and the bad bad City Beautiful

Just below the surface of the best new place in Olympia, the 3 Magnets Brewpub, is a fascinating way to look at cities and communities.

One of the 3 Magnets owners vaguely references the ideas of Howard here:
“Three Magnets is based on a 115-year-old book called Garden Cities of To-morrow by Ebenezer Howard,” explains Sara. ”Basically, Ebenezer considered himself an inventor of the perfect community. He thought he could take the best of both rural and urban living and blend them into a perfect town-country. When reading this, everything called out to us as Olympia, either what we are or what we strive to be.”
So, to delve more specifically into the imagery, the three magnets are "Town," "Country," and "Town Country."

It proposed the creation of new suburban towns of limited size, planned in advance, and surrounded by a permanent belt of agricultural land. These Garden cities were used as the model for many suburbs. Howard believed that such Garden Cities were the perfect blend of city and nature.Howard believed that a new civilisation could be found by marrying the town and the country.The towns would be largely independent, managed by the citizens who had an economic interest in them, and financed by ground rents on the Georgist model. The land on which they were to be built was to be owned by a group of trustees and leased to the citizens.
So, in at least not in an intentional way, this sounds a lot like what people in Olympia would like Olympia to be, post Growth Management Act. Lots of rural space around us for small scale agriculture, vibrant urban community on a human scale.

So, if you're following me so far, this sounds pretty typical. Nothing special here, just a reference back to a nice idea that we might draw from.

But, then there's the City Beautiful Movement. If you've listened for more than five minutes about any discussion about Capitol Lake or the so-called isthmus, you're familiar with this term. I think its a bunch of bunk myself. It was a short lived, classist and based on importing old world esthetics and pasting them onto North American cities. Just dumb.

Both the Garden City (Howards') and the City Beautiful movement came along at the same point in history, when people were facing the pressures of dealing with industrialization and urbanization:

While the Garden City movement shaped a design aesthetic and pattern for satellite towns, the City Beautiful movement was aimed at restructuring American downtowns around a coordinated ideology and strategy. Just prior to the 20th century, America was becoming an international economic power, and its cities were in need of an urban form indicative of the new national identity. America's cities were fraught with problems, and the City Beautiful movement helped provide a physical form for the previously established Public Health Movement. The City Beautiful movement envisioned the city as an entire work of architecture; its practitioners insisted that all construction conform to a singular vision. They believed that cities had failed and that a new expression of values would inspire good government and public stewardship.

He envisioned Garden Cities as compact, transit-oriented communities surrounded by greenbelts of natural landscape; they were to contain all the pieces of a town, integrating residential, commercial, industrial, landscape and agricultural uses. Howard authored the first radial city plan, which is a useful diagram for city planning even today. Garden City architectural styles were diverse but inspired by expressive, picturesque and romantic designs appropriate to natural settings.
We're not facing the same pressures that urban leaders in the 1890s faced. Instead of trying to make urban areas livable because of pressure from industrialization and population growth, we're trying to make them vibrant to fight against suburbanization. Thurston County is already one of the most sprawled counties in the country. We want people to be in downtown Olympia because it is a nice place to be.

And, it seems like the diversity offered in the Garden City ideal, rather than the monolith of the City Beautiful Movement, offers a much better answer. It speaks to making the country productive while also making our city livable.

1 comment:

TVDinner said...

There are other models, of course. I think the Congress on New Urbanism has done a good job of distilling the design principals needed to establish strong, healthy cities in a way that Howard and the City Beautiful curmudgeons missed. They weren't even designing in the age of the automobile, the singlemost damaging factor in our urban fabric, and the very thing much of our city was designed around.

We are at a very interesting and unprecedented moment in history. Retrofitting a built environment that was designed around the automobile is a herculean task. I won't live long enough to see the results of the effort, but it sure is interesting to watch.