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The City Beautiful Movement

Frederick Law Olmstead's Ideas Developed the City Beautiful Movement

By Adam Sowder, Guest Writer

At the beginning of the 20th century, a leading urban designer named Frederick Law Olmstead was highly influential in transforming the American landscape. The industrial revolution was replacing American society with an urban economic boom. Cities were the focus of American enterprise and people flocked towards manufacturing centers as jobs in industry replaced jobs in agriculture.

Urban populations rose drastically in the 19th century and a host of problems became apparent. The incredible density created highly unsanitary conditions. Overcrowding, corruption of government and economic depressions promoted a climate of social unrest, violence, labor strikes and disease.

Olmsted and his peers hoped to reverse these conditions by implementing the modern foundations of urban planning and design. This transformation of American urban landscapes was showcased at the Columbian Exposition and World Fair of 1893. He and other prominent planners replicated the Beaux-Arts style of Paris when designing the fairgrounds in Chicago. Because the buildings were painted a brilliant white, Chicago was dubbed the "White City."

The term City Beautiful was then coined to describe the movement's Utopian ideals The techniques of the City Beautiful movement spread and were replicated by over 75 civic improvement societies headed mostly by upper-middle class women between 1893 and 1899.

The City Beautiful movement intended to utilize the current political and economic structure to create beautiful, spacious, and orderly cities that contained healthy open spaces and showcased public buildings that expressed the moral values of the city. It was suggested that people living in such cities would be more virtuous in preserving higher levels of morality and civic duty.

Planning in the early 20th century focused on the geography of water supplies, sewage disposal and urban transportation. The cities of Washington D.C., Chicago, San Francisco, Detroit, Cleveland, Kansas City, Harrisburg, Seattle, Denver, and Dallas all showcased City Beautiful concepts.

Although the movement’s progress drastically slowed during the Great Depression, its influence led to the city practical movement embodied in the works of Bertram Goodhue, John Nolen and Edward H. Bennett. These early 20th century ideals created the framework for today’s urban planning and design theories.

Adam Sowder is a fourth-year senior at Virginia Commonwealth University. He is studying Urban Geography with a focus on Planning.

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