Can change be good for Olmsted’s model suburb?
By Frank Edgerton Martin
Willard Clay and Hand Erdman
Just after the end of the civil war, Frederick Law Olmsted forged a new and optimistic definition of the ideal suburb as a haven for
natural joys and civic refinements. Neither urban nor rural, rich nor poor, the community of Riverside that he proposed in 1868 on
the Des Plaines River west of Chicago was to be an entirely new invention, a hybrid of past ideas and experiments—rather like the
United States itself. With underground urban utilities, ecologically sensitive parks in floodplains, and a fast train line, Riverside,
when built, was also one of the world’s most modern towns.
Much of Olmsted’s success in creating “a village in a park” grew out of strategies for building setbacks and manipulating perceived
space. With the Des Plaines and its floodplain parks as the defining armature of open space, the Olmsted plan weaves together railroad,
commercial, civic, and residential areas in a coherent whole. Individual lots take on grandeur through borrowed views across parkways and
into the roughly 83 triangular pocket parks in the middle of road intersections.
Riverside’s 1871 prospectus boasted that “residence sites are of liberal dimensions, affording sufficient ground for extended lawns,
the cultivation of trees, shrubs, flowers, small fruits...remote from the house, and for roads and walks. In no instance are these
sites less than 100 feet front by 200 feet deep, and according to the curvilinear lines of the roads, and on the ends of the blocks,
Today, Riverside’s historic integrity and economic relevance are threatened by a lack of local consensus over how to steward the
town’s past and future. Should home owners, for example, be allowed to alter the scale of their houses even though such expansions might
ruin the parkway-like setbacks envisioned by Olmsted?
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