The way we invoke the name of Frederick Law Olmsted around here, you would think that he and his partner, Calvert Vaux, brought forth landscape architecture and park design as a kind of received wisdom from on high. And perhaps rightly so. But while we should take their principles very seriously, they are received wisdom only in the sense of being derived from nature, and especially from human nature.
Thankfully, their principles aren’t as inscrutable as some of the other wisdom humankind has claimed to have received from on high. They don’t have to be interpreted for you by a priesthood of professionals. In fact, they are quite accessible to the interested layperson. An indispensable resource is the beautifully and simply laid out book on the subject by the nation’s top expert on Olmsted, Charles Beveridge. Frederick Law Olmsted: Designing the American Landscape is beautifully illustrated with photos by Paul Rocheleau, and is available in several Buffalo libraries. I first learned about Olmsted a quarter-century ago when I worked on creating a greenway, and have lived much of my life in two cities with Olmsted-designed park systems, so I fancied that I knew something about Olmsted. But Beveridge’s book taught me there was much more I didn’t know than I thought I knew, and that some of what I thought I knew was wrong. On the subject, it’s a vital read and reference.
Despite that high praise, one of my favorite stories about the origin of an Olmsted principle actually comes from another great book, this one about Olmsted and his partner Calvert Vaux’ first park: Central Park. In the award-winning book The Park and the People, Elizabeth Blackmar and Roy Rosenzweig tell the story of how the principle of “separation of ways” was not in the dynamic duo’s original “Greensward” plan, but rather was suggested by a park commissioner. Apropos to the issue of the 198 in Delaware Park, the Greensward plan actually included an early version of what we would now call “complete streets,” with the footpaths running alongside the carriage drives – early roadways. A reformist parks commissioner, horrified at the idea of proletarian families on foot being looked down upon by the carriages of the bourgeoisie, and having to choke on the dust, dried dung, and mud thrown up by the carriage wheels, called for the paths to be separated.
Olmsted and Vaux, to their credit, embraced this idea and made it their own. It helped that the idea was an extension of their own novel system of grade separations and overpasses to handle the four transverse roads that the City of New York required to traverse the park. That feature was included in the original Greensward plan, and has been credited with winning them the competition. As a 1982 New York Times article put it,
[Olmsted and Vaux] won because they had been able to solve the tricky problem of what to do with traffic crossing the park. Their plan for the sinking of the transverse roads allowing traffic to pass through with minimum intrusion was unprecedented in city planning.
The Greensward plan treated the transverse roads essentially as traffic waterways, even to the point of digging them into the ground like canals, with bridges carrying park traffic over them. Engineers had been creating these kinds of arrangements for centuries, when it came to actual waterways.
Olmsted and Vaux, in producing their revised park plan, adapted their grade separation system for the transverse roads to the carriage drives and foot paths of the Greensward plan. But they also took the commissioner’s further than he imagined by also introducing a third way to experience the park: on horseback, on bridle paths. Thus was born the Olmstedian principle of the “separation of ways” within parks.
You can see these same principles in operation in the design of Delaware Park. Despite alterations and obliterations over time – many thanks to construction of the 198 – you can still find remnants of the original carriage drives and bridle paths.
This system of keeping the three means of moving through the park separated, and also keeping the park separated from the transverse roads, gave birth to the many bridges that are a beloved feature of Central Park. Vaux, an architect by training, and other architects and artists lavished attention on them. And the next park Olmsted and Vaux cooperated on, Prospect Park, was designed around this concept from the beginning and took it to what is considered its highest level. In Prospect Park, many of the bridges would also serve almost as the frames of great landscape paintings, or portals through which a city dweller could enter another world – whether by foot, on horseback, or in a carriage.
But transportation modes have changed since those slower, simpler times. When planning transportation facilities in modern parks, especially Olmstedian parks, it is reasonable to ask what are the modern equivalents or analogs to those older modes. Except for changes in footwear, and the addition of jogging and running and dog walking, footpaths remain footpaths. The modern equivalent of the bridle path is probably the bike path. (Whether rollerblading is best accommodated on footpaths or bike paths would likely make for heated debate.) And carriage drives became, for better or worse, auto roads in parks. Although in many cases, such as much of the ring road in Delaware Park, in the automobile era carriage drives were simply closed to motorized vehicles and became multi-use.
But although changing times and modes has required adaptation of park infrastructure designed for another era, one aspect especially relevant to discussions about the 198 in Delaware Park that hasn’t changed involves how Olmsted Parks handle transverse roads: Olmsted put transverse roads below grade in his parks.
You can see this in pictures of Central Park. The transverse roads are sunken by as little as four feet, but generally six to eight feet. Sometimes more, where there are bridges over. On each side, there is vegetation and sometimes berms that additionally screen park users from the sights, sounds, and fumes of the transverse roads. That vegetation also serves to give a taste of the park, and a welcome glimpse of nature, to those passing through the park on the transverse roads engaged in the day-to-day business of life. The transverse roads also have gentle curves and elevation changes – and Olmstedian trademark – which today provides natural traffic calming, helping to keep them from being used as speedways.
Carrying park users over the transverse roads are stone bridges that are generally raised up above the surrounding landscape enough to provide adequate clearance for even trucks and buses. These bridges could be considered early “land bridges,” because the plantings along both sides of the wide bridges actually provide visual (and even some audio) screening of the park users passing over from the road users passing below.
To be clear: the transverse roads are not expressways – they are city streets. Therefore, almost by definition, they are “complete streets.” They have sidewalks, like city streets. They have not been widely used by cyclists, but that is largely due to their notoriously poor condition (they fall into a jurisdictional gray area, so have suffered years of neglect), and because they can’t be widened to add bike lanes. Otherwise, they are a model.
Delaware Park was designed with two transverse roads through it: Delaware and Elmwood Avenues. In both cases, they were grade separated from the park, although not in quite the same way as the Central Park transverse roads. At Delaware Avenue, Olmsted adapted the natural slope of the Scajaquada Creek valley to put the park over the road on a stone-arch bridge. At Elmwood Avenue, the reverse: designers put the street high across the creek valley on a stone causeway, with an arch underneath for a carriage drive to extend west along the creek. There is a well-known photo of that spot with an early automobile.
Where does this leave us? As I mentioned at the beginning of an earlier post, the discussion about the 198 for over 15 years has been predicated on making tweaks without more significant interventions such as grade-lowering, covering, or even removal. More recently, discussions have also included the “complete streets” approach.
In all this, we seem to have failed to recognize a couple of very basic principles that, ironically, are among the foundational park design principles created by Olmsted and Vaux:
- Olmstedian parks were not designed using a “complete streets” approach within the parks, with several modes of transportation occupying the same corridor side-by-side, and
- Transverse roads, or city streets passing through the parks, are “complete streets,” but are also sunken or otherwise grade-separated where they pass through the parks.
How do we apply all this to our own situation with the 198?
By going back to these original principles of Olmsted and Vaux, which have stood the test of time despite changes in technology and society, and also looking at their earliest parks, we see that those in Buffalo who want more “radical” solutions for the 198 in the park such as sinking, or even covering over, shouldn’t be considered on the fringe. Quite the contrary: that should be considered a natural starting place for discussions.
But while it should bolster those options, I’m not sure it helps those calling for the 198 to be removed entirely within the park. Sure, the 198 wasn’t part of the original park plan, and it’s an overwhelming intrusion. But removing it entirely is easier said than done. People need to get across central Buffalo from east to west, just as they need to get across central Manhattan from east to west. In large measure, the 198 is a creature of the expressways on either end, neither of which of which is going away anytime soon. In fact, with the 33, the discussion isn’t about removing it, but decking it over, retaining its expressway function. Also, the expressways at either end use the 198 to connect with the street grid of a large section of the city.
Also, along the 198 corridor is a string of vital institutions and culturals that weren’t imagined when the park was planned, and when much of North Buffalo was farmed and forested. Some are located in the park or near it, partly because of the setting and partly because of available land. They are not going away any more than the 198 is. But the difference is those institutions, for the most part, enhance the park and its surroundings. Architects – including some of the landscape variety – and urban planners were involved in their siting and design.
Not so the 198, which was designed from end to end, and from base to topcoat, by engineers who were not so much transportation Nazis as Nihilists. In their exercise of “because we can” annihilation they neither valued nor respected the park, scenic vistas, culture, heritage, neighborhoods, ecology, nor, especially, the beautiful and historic water body they turned into a drainage ditch.
Asking whether the 198, at this point, should even continue to exist is an important question. But if the roadway will continue to exist in some form – as it is almost certain to for the foreseeable future – questions of design become the most important.
And that brings us back to where we started. Central Park, one of the most significant and beloved parks ever created in human history, has not one or two but four transverse roads running through it. Two critical lessons from Central Park are 1) sometimes parks have to have roads through them, and 2) if so, there are design principles to follow that were developed by America’s greatest park designers. In Central Park, those principles have stood the test of time – even the transition to motor vehicles. Sadly, those principles were not followed by the engineers who created the 198. It’s doubtful they were even aware of them.
That leaves us with the question: is it possible to design a road that traverses this Olmstedian landscape, and the lower Scajaquada Creek corridor, using Olmstedian design principles? I think it is, and will be writing more to lay out one possible solution.
Please consider following along, giving your constructive feedback, and even sharing your own ideas.
Next up: Twin Circles