Book on the Improvement of Towns and Cities ~ SD Union, November 16, 1902

November 16, 1902, 8:1


An Interesting Book on the Improvement of Towns and Cities
Renaissance of the Spirit of Civic Art is Beginning to Pervade the Municipalities

“The Improvement of Towns and Cities” is the title of a notable book recently published by G. P. Putnam’s Sons of New York, the author being Charles Mulford Robinson, secretary of the American Park and Outdoor Art association. The object of the author is to review the whole broad field of modern effort for municipal improvement. Among the topics treated are the site of the city, the street plan, making utilities beautiful, squares and playgrounds, parks and drives, popular education in art, work of individuals and societies, work of officials, etc. A striking illustration of what Mr. Robinson calls “the present movement for civic renaissance,” is given in a partial list of societies which have done some definite thing to improve a community’s appearance. More than one hundred such associations are named, devoted to municipal art and architecture, beautifying of school grounds and streets, establishment of playgrounds, forestry, abatement of smoke, checking abuses of public advertising, social settlements, protection of ancient buildings, parks, etc.

In the chapter on “Parks and Drives” Mr. Robinson says the aesthetic advantages of parks have had as great an emphasis as the philanthropic, since the rise of artistic concern. The assertion is made that parks and park systems are the most important artistic work that has been done in the United States. This view recalls Mrs. Schuyler Van Rensselaer’s statement in “Art Out of Doors,” that the art of landscape gardening has produced the most remarkable artist yet born in America. Mrs. Van Rensselaer goes on to say that this fact is reason enough why Mr. Olmsted’s fellow-countrymen ought to try to understand the aims and methods of landscape gardening. An additional reason is that “the art of landscape gardening is practiced much more often than any other art, in ignorant and impulsive ways, by people who never stop to think that it is an art at all.”

Mr. Robinson traces the influence of parks on the home-life of citizens in an interesting way, and says a beautiful park may awaken a desire for a lovelier home garden, and the wish for a beautiful home grows into the wish for a beautiful street. The efforts to bring vegetation into the city owe something, therefore, to the parks. And if these effort have grown rapidly, though only come to consciousness in late years, let it be realized that when in 1853 the purchase was authorized for lands for Central Park, New York, the acquisition and development were most bitterly opposed; that in 1869 there were but two well-advanced rural parks in the whole United States; that in 1886 there were only twenty. In 1898 a student of park development who had been in communication with the twenty-five principal American cities wrote to Mr. Robinson that, except in the larger cities, the rise of a general interest in park development had manifested itself only within a decade, and that in ten years, the park acreage in each of these cities had more than doubled. Parks for cities are a new demand, though one now so universally made that it seems as if parks had always had popular approval. The large parks have become the delight of the well-to-do quite as much as of the poor; and of the park acreage in American cities, it is probably not too much to say that at least half has been acquired by gift. For the rest, the initial demand is apt to come from the more enlightened, traveled, and prosperous members of the community. Like the whole movement for civic aesthetics, the wish for large parks is a product of mature civilization.

San Diego Union,
November 16, 1902, 8:1.


A large variety of gifts to parks are noted by Mr. Robinson, besides the donation of lands. Shaw’s endowment of a botanical garden at St. Louis is cited. The park at Springfield, Mass. contains considerable zoological and ornithological collections, for which not one dollar of public money has been expended for specimens. The list of gifts to the park in Scranton, Pa. In 1878 included a commodious kitchen for the use of picnickers, a lake, a menagerie, and a number of shelter tents. This record of a park in a coal mining town is rivaled in another unexpected quarter, and the little Pennsylvania-Dutch city of York, when setting about a rehabilitation of the old public common in the same year, found associations and individuals ready to present almost everything. A musical society gave the band pavilion, mechanics donated an iron flag staff and a flag. Each school in the city, private and public, planted a tree. Citizens gave benches and seats, and collectively a fountain for which the water company furnished free water.

A park established on such a basis of community spirit and interest has a value far beyond the ordinary public pleasure ground, in enlisting the interest of two generations and insuring a united, happy, aspiring body of citizens. The generous spontaneous gifts to San Diego park by present residents and by friends abroad, are a prophecy of accomplishment of many special features of the park after these shall be indicated in the landscape architects’ plan.

The free use here made of Mr. Robinson’s scholarly and sound exposition of his subject, indicates but a small part of the lore of three hundred pages, all of which should be read by every progressive citizen. Recognizing the new spirit of this age, Mr. Robinson in his conclusion differentiates between the civic art whose widespread renaissance is now awaited, and that which has been preceded. The civic princes of Italy in the time of the Medici, recognized that by beautifying a city with works of art, their subjects could be propitiated. Today cities are adorned by the people themselves, of their own free will, in love of home. Mr. Gladstone spoke of Americans as being conspicuous for combining enthusiasm for their country with love for their cities. Hence comes the spur for our civic art. The original motives of the new civic art will be the best that the world has had. The moral and spiritual standards of the people will be advanced, and their political ideals will rise. How worthy an end, then says Robinson, is municipal art for individual and associated effort. Could man or woman, woman’s club, or civic organization consecrate itself to a higher purpose? On how many sides — moral, physical, intellectual, political and economic — does an effort for beauty in towns and cities touch the welfare of mankind? The various civilizations of the past have left in cities the record of their art. We judge them, Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Medieval, by the degree of their urban culture, and we do not consider that we shall be judged as are they. In the newness of our country and the modern tendency to commercialism, civic art was overlooked for a while. We have now begun to remember; and remembering, let us strive to realize, for a hundred reasons, the vision of the artist and poet becoming humanity’s — the dream of cities beautiful. In the Bible itself, the progress of mankind is represented as ending in a celestial city, after having begun in a garden.

M. B. C.

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