..Città in rete è un'associazione culturale che si occupa di indagare gli aspetti territoriali delle città sotto il profilo urbanistico, sociale, economico ed ambientale



martedì 22 ottobre 2013

Planning and nature in Riverside

Riceviamo e con piacere pubblichiamo il contributo inviatoci da Henry A. Calamia1 sul villaggio di Riverside (Illinois, USA), probabilmente la prima comunità pianificata negli Stati Uniti su progetto di Frederick Law Olmsted e Calvert Vaux (già progettisti del Central Park di New York, 1863-1870). Un'esperienza di pianificazione urbana sicuramente interessante e in sintonia con gli eventi di fine XIX secolo, periodo in cui negli Stati Uniti si sviluppò il City Beautiful Movement, di matrice estetica e paesaggistica, i cui principi ebbero ripercussioni in occasione dell’Esposizione Universale di Chicago2 (1893) nonché sulle origini del Piano regolatore di Chicago (Daniel H. Burnham e Edward H. Bennet, 1909). 

1. Henry Calamia vive e lavora a Riverside, Illinois, e recentemente ha ultimato un romanzo sulle partite truccate nel calcio italiano / lives and works in Riverside, Illinois, and has just completed a novel about match-fixing in Italian football. Contactsh.calamia@gmail.com   
2. La Chicago world’s fair tenuta al Jackson Park, sul Lago Michigan, si propone come il manifesto del Movimento della Città bella e fu progettata in gran parte da Frederick Law Olmsted e Daniel H. Burnham.

Proponiamo la lettura del testo in lingua originale  

Piano Generale di Riverside, 1869
In the United States, the concept of landscape architecture would be much different were it not for Frederick Law Olmsted. Best known for his work in designing New York’s Central Park, Olmsted was responsible for not only shaping the landscape of a growing country, but was also responsible for changing how Americans viewed public space. Perhaps one of Olmsted’s most dynamic achievements is the Chicago suburb of Riverside, Illinois, which is arguably the first planned community in the United States.

In 1673, French explorers Father Jacques Marquette and Louis Jolliet were returning from an expedition along the Mississippi River when Indian guides told them of a shortcut. Coming northeast from the Illinois River and up the Des Plaines River, they could portage their canoes a short distance to reach Lake Michigan, which offered a direct route home. This area would become known as the Chicago Portage: a crucial link for trappers and traders in a region that eventually would become the center of commerce for the Midwest. If not for the expedition of Marquette and Jolliet, and the guidance of local Indians, the city of Chicago might never have come to exist.
 Chicago rests on the southwest edge of Lake Michigan. Flattened by glaciers during the last ice age, the land developed into gently rolling savanna (prairie with sparse tree clusters) and marshland. Native American tribes, such as the Potawatomi and Ottawa, had used the river system and overland trails for trade long before there was a European presence. The trail system, which intersects near the Chicago Portage site, connected tribes in northern Wisconsin with others in the Midwest. As time passed, European settlers replaced the indigenous peoples – transportation evolved to included canals, roads, and railways.

The city of Chicago was incorporated in 1837. After the Civil War (1861 – 1865) it was the center of industry and manufacturing for much of the country – it was also crowded and polluted. This was the Reconstruction Era. The country was rebuilding after the devastation of the war. Chicago was still a young city but it was growing rapidly. Racial and class divisions intensified as immigrants and laborers from around the country competed for work. If this turbulence wasn’t enough, there were sanitation problems. These factors contributed to an idea – a goal – of an urban retreat: a quiet community in close proximity to the bustling city. Thus was born the Riverside Improvement Company.

In 1868, the president of the Riverside Improvement Company, Emery E. Childs, secured 1,600 acres of land less than ten miles southwest from the city and about one mile north of the Chicago Portage. The site that would become Riverside was ideal for residential living because the land was elevated from the Des Plaines River and surrounding marshland. While the concept of a ‘suburb’ was nothing new, the design of an independent residential community – that is, a modern community with roads, sewers, gas lines, and access to rail – was something that had never been attempted. The man chosen to design this new community would be Frederick Law Olmsted.

Olmsted was the son of a New England merchant and had no formal training in any particular field; he was a jack of all trades. In his youth he was a surveyor's apprentice, but never completed his training – it became a pattern. He had bounced from one career to the next, working as a clerk, a sailor, a farmer, an author, a journalist and managing editor of Putnam's Monthly Magazine before being hired as the superintendent of New York's Central Park, which at the time of his appointment in 1857 was without an approved design. His ability to organize labor and make recommendations foreshadowed his eventual success – it was clear that he had a unique combination of skills that would benefit the park's completion. He loved nature. As a boy, his leisurely strolls through the New England countryside gave him an appreciation of ambience. Furthermore, he understood modern drainage techniques, having, in his words, “visited as a student most of the large parks of Europe – British, French, Italian, and German.” His surveying skills and knowledge of horticultural were additional assets that impressed the Central Park's Board of Commissioners enough to earn him a raise – but the land was still not his to sculpt. Central Park – if not the career of Olmsted – would have been very different had the chief engineer's original design not been so banal. The Board of Commissioners needed a better plan – it would be a public competition. Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, an English architect working in New York, submitted the winning design.

Olmsted and Vaux’s plan for Central Park catapulted them to fame and by 1868 their services (Olmsted, Vaux & Co.) were in great demand; the Riverside Improvement Company met with Olmsted in the summer of that year.

To plan a community, rather, to plan an entire village containing all the amenities found in a modern, urban setting was something new, but not entirely original. There were two examples Olmsted would use as a template for his design: Birkenhead Park (Liverpool, England) and Llewellyn Park (New Jersey, USA). Olmsted had visited Birkenhead Park shortly after its completion in 1847 and incorporated in his designs an emphasis on natural, rather than artificial, elements; water and vegetation required no artificial enhancements. Llewellyn Park was an inspiration in that it designed to be a community from its inception (however, while Llewellyn Park is also considered as the first planned community in the United States, it is part of an existing township and has no municipal government). Olmsted not only borrowed, but improved upon, these plans.

The roads of Riverside would be curved and sunken, so that when human eyes looked upon the terrain there was nothing to break the sightlines. Sinking the roads also served to assist drainage, as the sewer lines would run underneath the surface. Parks and recreational areas were incorporated directly into the preliminary plan since Olmsted understood that to build parks in the future would require buying back land it had already sold to property owners/developers – as the village grew and more homes were built, the property value would be too great for the village to purchase again in case the need arose (the need for parks being interminable). Of the 1,600 acres constituting the village of Riverside, over 700 acres were devoted to recreation alone. Trees would be planted (almost 40,000 of them) along the edges of the streets, separating the traffic from the houses. Indeed, Riverside would be a “village in a park”.

In Olmsted’s preliminary report, he writes: “If the general plan of such a suburb is properly designed on the principles which have been suggested, its character will…be not only informal but…positively picturesque, and when contrasted with the constantly repeated right angles, straight lines, and flat surfaces which characterize our large modern towns, thoroughly refreshing”.

Picturesque and refreshing: these characteristics have changed little over the last century. The roads are now paved, but are still lit by gas lamps. The number of houses has grown, yet the feel of being in a park is ever palpable; in a modern suburb surrounded by a population of over 5 million people, preserving peace and tranquility is a near impossibility. This is a remarkable feat and credit goes to Olmsted’s obsession with accentuating the natural over the artificial.

Olmsted’s vision, over a century later, continues to reward those of us fortunate to live in such a well-planned community.


- Bassman, Herbert J. Riverside Then and Now. Riverside, 1936.
- Heidrich, Robert W. Riverside, a Village in a Park. Frederick Law Olmsted Society of Riverside, 1970.
- Olmsted, Frederick Law. Letter “to the President of the Commissioners of the [sic] Central Park.”  12 August, 1857.
- Olmsted, Vaux & Co. Preliminary Report upon the Proposed Suburban Village at Riverside, Near Chicago. New York: Sutton, Brown & Co. 1868. 25.
- Riverside in 1871 with a Description of its Improvements… Chicago: The Riverside Improvement Company, 1871.
- Rybczynski, Witold. A Clearing in the Distance. New York: Scribner. 1999.
- State & County QuickFacts. U.S. Census Bureau. 27 June, 2013.          

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