On the highway to grandmother’s house? Lessons from early automobile landscapes

This week in North Philly Notes, Amy Finstein, author of Modern Mobility Aloft, considers how American cities used elevated highways as major architectural statements about local growth and modernization in the early 20th century.

Ah, the winter holidays; that time of the year so often defined by highway car-trips to see family and friends—at least pre-COVID-19. Even as many stay home this year, the basic idea of that pattern—easy mobility—remains a cornerstone of modern American identity, and one indebted to a century’s worth of choices about making landscapes accommodate the scale and pace of the automobile.

As an architectural historian, I wondered if there was a way to measure this automotive shift in the history of the built environment. Historians have documented the design and societal evolution of automobiles and car culture; design and planning scholars have detailed the evolution of streets, roadside landscapes, and Interstate highways as interventions supporting our collective automotive enthusiasm. However, most of these examples thrived outside of city centers. Were there architectural projects that brought the prowess of mobility to bear on the physical landscape of existing American cities?

I found part of the answer to this question in my hometown of Boston, MA. From the 1990s through the early 2000s, the city endured the famous “Big Dig,” an enormous public works project that buried and threaded a tunneled 10-lane highway beneath a still-functioning elevated highway, eventually deconstructing and replacing the elevated highway (the Central Artery) with a surface network of public parks. For the fifty years before the Big Dig, the green steel of the Central Artery had provided a mechanized and looming presence in city streets, unabashedly pronouncing the importance of car travel while simultaneously failing to meet the capacity or speed demands of its automotive users. This, I thought, was a landscape that dramatically demonstrated the arrival of automobility in Boston, and the complexities of its lasting impact. Thus, the genesis of Modern Mobility Aloft was born.

With Boston’s Central Artery as my starting point, I honed in on two other examples of constructed roadways whose physical presences and legacies varied from that in Boston: Chicago’s classically-decorated and still-in-use Wacker Drive, and New York’s West Side Elevated Highway, an Art Deco hulk torn down in the 1990s. All three of these examples were designed in the early twentieth century, but faced hurdles about aesthetics, route, and cost that delayed their implementation; and that ultimately provoked their later reconsideration. Modern Mobility Aloft argues that these constructed roads synthesized architecture and engineering at the scale of the American city, and announced the importance of modern mobility to drivers and streetgoers in prominent visual and experiential terms. The book connects debates about design and transportation across disciplines, showing how the infancy of the automobile age laid the groundwork for landscapes and challenges that linger with us still.

Here are some things that can be learned from studying early urban elevated highways:

  • Before federal highway legislation, many highway initiatives originated locally to respond to local concerns for socio-economic and physical progress.
  • Early 20th century architects, engineers, science-fiction writers, and municipal leaders shared enthusiasm for utopian visions of multi-level streets weaving between and through soaring skyscrapers.
  • The insertion of elevated highways in existing cities became one way of realizing pieces of these utopian schemes.
  • Elevated railroads foretold some of the organizational, visual, and experiential problems of elevated highways, but did not dissuade planners from pursuing them.
  • Architects design more than buildings: high-profile designers planned highway superstructures, on-ramps, guardrails, sculptural reliefs, light fixtures, and balustrades.
  • Connections matter: design and transportation consultants brought similar ideas from place to place, spreading certain patterns across diverse landscapes.
  • Architectural modernity can be conveyed by many different visual languages.
  • The examples in Chicago, New York, and Boston define a pattern that is also visible in many other American cities.
  • Early elevated highways foreshadowed patterns of automobile prioritization and social displacement that came to characterize later federal road-planning approaches.
  • Impacted cities still sport the vestiges of early elevated highways—with varying incarnations of automobile dominance, architectural denial, and visible scars defining 21st century urban landscapes.

So, in many ways, American cities served as the testing grounds for new ideas about modern transportation, architecture, and urbanism. Early elevated highways combined these concepts in singular forms. Before highways stretched across the national landscape, they soared above individual cities, providing exciting yet contradictory visions of expected futures.

Golden nuggets for moving away from a technological culture to an ecological culture

This week in North Philly Notes, William Cohen, author of Ecohumanism and the Ecological Culture, writes about Lewis Mumford and Ian McHarg, who inspired his book and field of study.

I was a young city and regional planner in the 1970s. It was a turbulent time especially as there was a growing awareness that we are doing some fairly serious harm to our environment. I had heard about a dynamic professor from the University of Pennsylvania who was one of the organizers of America’s first Earth Day. He was scheduled to give a presentation in April 1970 at the University of Delaware and I decided to go and find out what was really going on. Well, Ian McHarg, a landscape architect and regional planner let his audience of over 500 people have it straight and to the point. We are despoiling our environment and if we don’t change our ways we may in fact be threatening our survival. He extolled us that we must embrace ecology in how we plan, design, and build our human settlements. The year before McHarg had published Design with Nature that immediately became a hallmark call for reversing current trends. It was a challenge not just to planners and designers, but to everyone else.

McHarg’s message to design with nature became my professional commitment that steered my professional life for over three decades and has lasted with me to this day. I would later study with McHarg at Penn and that educational experience became the icing on the cake.

Ecohumanism and the Ecological Culture_SMThose of us in both the professional and academic worlds that have a curiosity for discovery are continually looking for that little piece of wisdom, brilliance, or revelation that will bring about a new awareness—not just intellectually, but emotionally. We can find these “golden nuggets” almost anywhere as we proceed through life experiences. I discovered one at the University of Saint Andrews in Scotland in 2006 when I was part of a team that interviewed a number of forward looking thinkers concerned about the present state of our environment. It was Graham Leicester director of the International Futures Forum who somewhat casually remarked: “We are subject to rapid technological change, new interconnectedness, speed of advance; we are in a world we don’t understand anymore. The old rules no longer seem to apply. The new rules haven’t been discovered. What we need is a Second Enlightenment.” This was more than a discovery, it was a jolt of lightening.

In retrospect I can say that my professional work as an ecological planner discovered a new twist with this golden nugget. Yes, I concluded we do need to embrace a “second enlightenment” that will be a guiding mantra to move us away from a technological culture to an ecological culture. The evolution and development of the machine—from the earliest clock to today’s computer—has for sure given us great advantages to make life easier and more enjoyable. And this strikes at the center of the concern: Has the advance in technological achievement begun to steal away our basic humanity? Are we losing a connection with our natural environment?

These two points became the focus of the voluminous writings of Lewis Mumford, one of the great public intellectuals of the twentieth century. He bemoaned the reality that human aspiration and purpose was becoming overwhelmed by technological progress. Think about it; think about how our cities and small towns have declined and how suburbia has grown exponentially. Think about how we have damaged our cultural resources; how we have witnessed diminishing natural and agricultural areas; how we have to tolerate increasing traffic congestion; and how we have seemingly become addicted to our Smartphones and other electronic devices. If we all stand back for a moment and take an assessment of where we are in the continuum of history can we say we are satisfied with our lives, our living patterns, and our environment?

This overriding question gave me the impetus to write Ecohumanism and the Ecological Culture. I firmly thought when I began this enterprise that I could somehow meld historical trends with today’s realities and provide a future direction. It was not difficult to conclude that the work of both Lewis Mumford and Ian McHarg gives us a strong guiding light to examine and even project that the achievement of an ecological culture is both evident and a necessity. This transition takes on special significance when we look at our current educational system. How we prepare the next generation of planners and designers will be crucial to our success. By advancing an ecohumanism philosophy, as the premise to planning, designing, and building our human settlements, we can see the light of an ecological culture on a reachable horizon. We just need to get there to preserve our environment and our humanity.

 

 

Designing inspiring spaces for children

 This week in North Philly Notes, Lolly Tai, author of The Magic of Children’s Gardens, explains the purpose, beauty, and benefits of creating children’s outdoor environments in public gardens.

The focus of my research for the last two decades has been on designing outdoor environments for children. My deep interest was sparked by a schoolyard project that I assigned to my landscape architecture students almost twenty years ago when I was teaching at Clemson University. I learned for the first time in a very clear way that exposing children to nature and play are extremely important to children’s physical, mental and emotional health, and that today’s children no longer have ready access to natural environments, which are critical to their development. While I appreciate the need for outdoor space for children, to my dismay, I found very little information on the topic of designing for children at that time. That gave me the impetus to focus my research in this area. I learned a great deal about the design criteria for children. Scale, water, plants, wildlife, heights, retreat, enclosure, imagination, active play, and stimulation of the five senses are important considerations when designing for children. The culmination of my initial research resulted in a co-authored award winning book, Designing Outdoor Environments for Children, published by McGraw-Hill in 2006. The goal of the book was to encourage professionals and future generations to create more natural landscapes, creative outdoor play, and learning places for children.

My passion for exploring, learning, and writing about designing inspiring spaces for children continued to grow with each passing year. I recently expanded my research to include visiting children’s spaces in public gardens and interviewing garden administrators and designers. Each year, as an educator, I also provide my current Temple University landscape architecture students with the opportunity to experience a design project with special considerations for children. The Magic of Children’s Gardens is the culmination of my most recent research.

The Magic of Children's Gardens_smThe Magic of Children’s Gardens is the first book in the design profession that details nineteen outstanding case studies of children’s outdoor environments in public gardens. It presents inspiring design ideas for creating magical children’s spaces through examination of the gardens’ goals, concepts, design, and comprehensive collection of 700 images. The case studies are intended to serve as a broad platform to inspire the creation of more well-designed children’s outdoor spaces. The Magic of Children’s Gardens is intended to serve as a resource for design professionals, school administrators, botanical garden professionals, teachers, parents, students, and others who are planning to design and build children’s spaces.

Creating children’s outdoor environments is critical in today’s society as more and more children grow up in cities. According to the United Nations, just over half the world now lives in cities, and by 2050, over 70 percent of people will be urban dwellers. Children are spending less time outdoors. Sedentary lifestyles are contributing to obesity and other health problems, as well as a sense of disconnection from nature, for today’s urban children. That deleterious trend has to end and be turned around immediately. When nature no longer occurs naturally for children, it is imperative that we join our efforts to design spaces that benefit children’s health and well-being.

 

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