The City That Could’ve Been: Eden by Design Book Review

Purple sky overlooking DTLA

The 1920’s were a time of massive expansion for Los Angeles, with the population growing from 102,000 in 1900, to 577,000 in 1920, and over 1.2 million in 1929. This growth was incredible, but it’s difficult for a city to be able to accomodate so many new citizens in such a short amount of time. Infrastructure had to be laid down, utility lines were set in place, and airports were being created, but this construction was coming at a cost of destroying the natural beauty that California was known for. Therefore, a Citizen’s Committee was created with the sole purpose of commissioning a plan for the future of Los Angeles, and they hired Olmsted and Bartholomew to create such report. The result was Parks, Playgrounds, and Beaches for the Los Angeles Region, a 178-page comprehensive study of Los Angeles whose “immediate purpose is to show why more parks and other means of recreation are now urgently needed; to suggest the most effective ways of meeting this need; and to point out the evils that will follow further delay in adopting and executing a sound and comprehensive policy”(P.83).

Unfortunately, the plan was never set in place. Many would look at the time of publishing of this report (1927) and state that it was a victim of bad timing as the Great Depression was right around the corner, and citizens were more concerned with how they were to feed their families rather than focusing on the need for parks and beaches. The truth is it came down to a fear of losing power by the members of the Chamber of Commerce, as the report called for the creation of a “regional park district” (p.128). “The planned park board… simply scared the Chamber members, many of whom clearly feared that the new body would exert powers over and above the Chamber itself” (p.39). The lack of support by the Chamber of Commerce sealed its fate before it even had a chance to go before the citizens of Los Angeles, and along with it went the hopes of becoming “the world’s dream of the City Beautiful”(p.12).

What’s worrying is that even though the Olmsted-Bartholomew report demonstrated the need to keep public access to beaches, we are still seeing this notion being contested by individuals who want to keep them private. There is an ongoing dispute right now regarding public access to Martin’s Beach, where the property owner believes it is his right to keep the access private. The Supreme Court rejected the billionaire’s appeal to keep the beach to himself, and though it is a victory for the right of public access, it is still an ongoing debate. What it demonstrates though, is that we seemed to have learned from the Olmsted-Bartholomew report that committees must be capable of overseeing and enforcing the right of the public to access beaches, parks, and playgrounds. In the case regarding Martin’s Beach, the California Coastal Commission, along with the California Coastal Act of 1976, were responsible for the Supreme Court’s decision to reject the repeal and enforce shoreline public access.

What’s interesting to see nowadays is how comprehensive plans continue to face scrutiny and opposition, much like Parks, Playgrounds, and Beaches did when it was published. The most prominent and recent project to face criticism is the proposed California State Rail Plan, which has been the focus of heated debates and even some outlandish conspiracy theories stating that the recent wildfires were started to clear the way for the rail construction. It’s not all bad news though, as 63% of Californians think the project is very important or somewhat important, with 50% in favor of building the system, though this number increases to 66% if costs can be reduced. These numbers don’t seem to coincide with a lot of the negative press that is being circulated about the rail plan, but one of the issues seems to be that the media and many who oppose the plan focus solely on the connection between Los Angeles and San Francisco, stating that a plane trip would be faster and deem the plan unnecessary. The truth is that the rail plan is about more than reaching from point A to point B, it is about the network that is being created, that will connect cities like Salinas and Kings to the rest of the state, allowing for smaller locations to become viable housing options for people who can’t afford to live in cities such as Los Angeles and San Francisco. It does not only address the topic of public transportation, but it also begins to tackle the topic of housing during a time when homelessness and a lack of affordable housing have become rampant problems in Los Angeles.

One aspect of Parks, Playgrounds, and Beaches that caught my attention was just how on-point the Olmsted-Bartholomew report was on the need for youth of a “dangerous age” to have healthful outlets for their energy in the form of athletic fields (p.91). This thinking goes along the lines of Dana Bartlett’s ideas from his 1907 book, The Better City, in which he states that “nature offered the regenerative powers to help the poor battle the temptations and vices of the increasingly congested city” (p.12). This thinking was later corroborated by Bruce Alexander’s 1978 scientific study, most notably known as The Rat Park experiment. In this study, rats were either placed in solitary cages or in a “Rat Park”, a housing structure that provided wheels and balls for play, plenty of food and mating space, and rats of both sexes mingling with one another. Both sets of rats had the option of drinking plain tap water or a morphine solution, and the rats in the “Rat Park” consistently resisted the morphine water, while those kept in solitary confinement opted for the morphine solution. Even rats in cages that were fed nothing but morphine water for 57 days chose plain water when moved to “Rat Park”, voluntarily going through withdrawal. While this study has been the subject of criticism, it demonstrates that addiction is not so much a matter of the drugs themselves, but rather the feelings of isolation, loneliness, and hopelessness brought on by unsatisfactory living conditions that limit the ability to play and socialize with one another. It causes one to wonder if the current addiction epidemic that we are seeing in this country could’ve had a different outcome if we were able to spend more time outdoors surrounded by nature and less time sitting in traffic.

It is nice to see that principles of the Olmsted-Bartholomew report are being acknowledged and put in place. The City Project has released Healthy Parks, Schools, and Communities: Mapping Green Access and Equity for the Los Angeles Region, a policy report that was inspired by the Olmsted-Bartholomew report and which “supports a collective vision for a comprehensive and coherent web of parks, schools, rivers, beaches, mountains, forests, and transit to trails that promotes human health, a better environment, and economic vitality for all”. Its purpose is to address the issue regarding low-income communities and communities of color having park, school, and health disparities, and a lack of transportation to reach places for physical activity, by creating programs that are now being implemented to alleviate these problems. One such program is Transit to Trails, a pilot project created by a partnership between the National Park System, the Anahuak Youth Association, The City Project, Mountains and Recreation Conservation Authority, and an anonymous donor, whose purpose is to take inner city youth and their families on different mountain, beach and river trips. It does so by providing buses that allow school and community groups to visit the Santa Monica Mountains national recreation area, in an attempt to bridge the gap between urban youth and the outdoors, which not only encourages physical activity, but also a healthy and better mental lifestyle.

Maybe one of the largest projects that demonstrates that the principles of the Olmsted-Bartholomew report are being implemented is the revitalization of the Los Angeles River. The report called for the Los Angeles River to be developed with an embankment and a parkway, something that is being proposed in the Los Angeles River Revitalization Master Plan. This master plan is focused on the long-term goal of restoring the River’s ecological and hydrological functions through recreating continuous riparian habitats and removing the concrete walls that surround the River. It also proposes the idea of creating a continuous “River Greenway” that “would link a reliable network of ‘green connections,’ bikeways, and pedestrian paths to the River and to public open space; ‘repurposing’ schoolyards, vacant lots and educational campuses could help serve open space and recreation needs, as well as hold and clean stormwater”. It’s an exciting project to see develop because it not only will revitalize the function of the Los Angeles River, but it will also change the perception that the community has of the River being a desolate and polluted location. As long as I have lived in Los Angeles, the River hasn’t appealed to me because i’ve always seen it as a place where trash is dumped and contaminated runoff is collected, so to see it become a place where families could gather and play would truly be incredible.

Reading Eden by Design creates a sense of despair because of what a beautiful city Los Angeles could have been, but it also creates hope for what we can create in the future. It is a critical time in the redevelopment of Los Angeles, and it’s promising to see designers and landscapers, as well as policy makers, embracing the principles that were proposed by the Parks, Playgrounds, and Beaches for the Los Angeles Region. Massive change will not occur in a few years, it usually never does, but the future of Los Angeles seems bright and it one day could become the epitome of the “City Beautiful” that Olmsted and Bartholomew, along with other great minds of the time, envisioned this city could be.

Eden by Design: The 1930 Olmsted-Bartholomew Plan for the Los Angeles Region

Book by Greg Hise and William Deverell

eden by design book cover


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