Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

John Nolen’s Practical Planning

John Nolen: Landscape Architect and City Planner, by R. Bruce Stephenson (Library of American Landscape History, 2021), 304 pages. The lot of an urban planner is generally a thankless one. Most thoughtful plans are rejected outright, modified heavily, or altered beyond recognition. And yet, realizing even a small part of a sound town or city […]

John Nolen: Landscape Architect and City Planner, by R. Bruce Stephenson (Library of American Landscape History, 2021), 304 pages.

The lot of an urban planner is generally a thankless one. Most thoughtful plans are rejected outright, modified heavily, or altered beyond recognition. And yet, realizing even a small part of a sound town or city plan is a significant achievement; the creation of even a few sound streets can be success enough to buoy a planner on through numerous cul-de-sacs of civic indifference.

The least we can provide these unsung ameliorators of the public environment is recognition, and John Nolen, whose works span from San Diego to Savannah and Madison to Montclair, receives his due in R. Bruce Stephenson’s John Nolen: Landscape Architect and City Planner, the first book on his work. Stephenson, director of the Department of Environmental Studies and Sustainable Urbanism at Rollins College, has produced a very fine overview of Nolan’s unsung and very sound planning work. Readers will have probably seen a few of Nolen’s plans, but much will almost certainly be new; happily, the reader sees not just sketches, but also schemes realized in full or part.

Nolen was born in Philadelphia in 1869 and educated at Girard College and then the Wharton School of Finance and Economy. He had early work at a Catskills resort, learning fundamentals of landscape architecture on the job before his employment by the American Society for the Extension of University Teaching, an organization extending education beyond traditional college attendees. Early travels involved the standard Grand Tour, visiting Capability Brown and Humphrey Repton landscapes in England and a variety of European cities, travel particularly enabled by his year of study at the University of Munich.

He enrolled in the Harvard Department of Landscape Architecture in one of its earliest classes in 1903 (it was founded in 1900). Nolen, a natural flâneur through cities and countryside, chafed at the sheer amount of time spent inside, but Frederick Law Olmsted Jr.’s class was a highpoint, with Italian Renaissance gardens a particular inspiration. He co-authored a piece with Olmsted before graduation, “Normal Requirements of American Towns and Cities in Respect to Public Open Space.”

He received early work from a Charlotte park commission, devising a park plan that included the outlines of the city’s present Independence Park. Nolen ran up against a problem in his first work that would become familiar: as Stephenson observes, “there was, however, more enthusiasm than funding.” The commission’s total appropriation was about adequate to pay Nolen’s salary, but included essentially no money to actually acquire land.

Happily, some coffers were at least marginally fuller. He designed Daffin Park in Savannah and a plan for Roanoke, a far-reaching effort that involved everything from a civic center to a metropolitan park system. The plan knit together the city’s proposed parks with others in the surrounding countryside, with an effort to secure water sources nearby. Street-planning followed the contours of topography.

Off to sunny California: In San Diego, Nolen proposed a central boulevard, a waterfront park, and a number of beach preserves. The beach preserves were actually achieved, and the Mission Hills neighborhood followed the spirit of his plan.

His remarkable Madison plan has proven a benefit to the city for a century, providing park-lined lakefronts and knitting the city together in a variety of ways. Wisconsin was receptive to Nolen’s ideas; he conducted a survey of sites in Wisconsin for their state park commission, and three of four of his proposed parks were established.

Over time, Nolen drew increasing inspiration from planning developments in Europe, drawing upon garden-city plans and the work of Ebenezer Howard and Raymond Unwin. He authored a piece on urban planning in Dusseldorf, where integrated planning of boulevards, streetcars, and much else provided encouragement. German planning practices were well-advanced by American standards, addressing a range of concerns that rarely registered in American plans.

Some of these interests had crossed the Atlantic and could be seen in the efforts of Progressive reformers like Benjamin C. Marsh, who advocated for housing reform, poverty relief, and Georgism. These reformers often had regarded previous City Beautiful, aesthetically focused planning efforts as inadequate to solve core urban-planning concerns.

Stephenson observes Nolen’s straddling of these tendencies: “Nolen sought to find a middle ground between Olmsted and Marsh. Although devoted to German reform, he knew firsthand the difference between implementing a city plan in the United States in Germany. American planners needed to be educators capable of election the civic mind, not coercing it.”

Nolen was a pragmatic planner, not given to quixotic efforts, well aware that any plan would face high hurdles before adoption. Stephenson praises Nolen’s “acute understanding of the political issues that needed to be resolved to lay the groundwork for new city and town plans,” which frequently involved issues requiring state-level authorization or the navigation of various governmental and non-governmental bodies within and across municipalities. His pitches were practically minded and delivered as sober value propositions. As Stephenson writes, “a city plan was both an aesthetic guide and a public accounting ledger, a mechanism for disbursing and tracking monies to fund long-term municipal improvements.”

He continued to plan across the nation. His work included a Camillo Sitte-inspired plan for Montclair, New Jersey, the Queens College plan in Charlotte, a Tuskegee Institute plan, a Boston Metropolitan study, a preliminary plan for Country Club Plaza in Kansas City, a variety of industrial villages, plans for World War I workforce housing, and the delightful neighborhood of Union Park in Wilmington, Delaware. The latter was designed as workers’ housing in Garden City-style, featuring multiple-unit dwellings on a leafy site surrounding a parkway. Nolen, conscious of practical matters, proposed a co-partnership financing arrangement to assist with home purchasing.

Things that are now gospel in the world of planning were Nolen’s innovations, including his repeated efforts to provide varieties of housing from single-family to townhouses to apartments, and ensuring that planned amenities didn’t entirely accrue to the former areas.

Nolen did find typical American planning deficient in some key regards. As Stephenson writes,

In England, planners prepared a master plan and then followed up with more detailed town and neighborhood plans. Nolen felt that American planners needed such a system because zoning had proven to be an ineffectual tool. It was a “negative measure,” Nolen wrote, “it simply tells what private property owners cannot do with their own property.” In a free-market society city plans needed to be laden with incentives for private developers to make “constructive expenditures.” Nolen’s holistic approach embedded value in a range of properties, which allowed investors to assess a property rationally and estimate its future worth.”

Much work cropped up in Florida, which, by 1930 was the first with southern state with an urban majority. Nolen opened an office there to handle the sheer number of projects that arose. A wonderful St. Petersburg plan tried to step beyond the usually modest aims of American planning. It required a special city-planning bill from the Florida Legislature.

The St. Petersburg plan is a captivating document, establishing park, parkways, commercial centers at streetcar stops, and more. Some wanted the plan to purposefully obliterate African-American neighborhoods; Nolen refused to do it, and sought to improve lower-income neighborhoods. His plan encountered substantial opposition from the usual sort of local yahoos. One newspaper editor inveighed, “What red-blooded American citizen would want to buy real estate in St. Petersburg and submit to such dictation?” A referendum to approve the plan received just 13 percent of the vote.

Happily, Nolen had work elsewhere with numerous other Florida plans. Venice, a project of the unlikely city founders of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers, set up a charming Mediterranean revival plan, incorporating working-class and industrial districts. It is a historic district today, as with many other Nolan plans. But the 1926 Florida hurricane and subsequent collapse of Florida real estate, followed by the Great Depression, helped to bring his planning career to a close, with one final commission of note in Dubuque.

Tides in planning were also turning in unfavorable directions. As founding member of the National Housing Association, Nolan was an early advocate for mixed-income housing, but balked at trends that focusing purely on lower-income housing. Nolan had also resisted attempts to favor any particular style of construction, approving of both traditional and modern styles, but balked at an exclusive turn to the latter in his contemporaries. Nolan taught in later years at the department of Landscape Architecture at the Harvard School of City and Regional Planning, which fell prey to similar forces. Modernist Joseph Hudnut, the first dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Design, succeeded in shutting down the school and shifting its operations, in a diminished form, under the direction of the Graduate School of Design.

Nolen was largely forgotten for decades until New Urbanists began to exhume and extol his work in the 1990s. Andrés Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk drew upon his work for their Seaside plans and others began digging into archives to relearn his lessons. Form-based codes became an object of greater interest in an age of building that degraded significantly since the 1920s. As Stephenson writes, “Duany realized that there were few precedents for implementing the new plans, in part because Nolen ‘could count on the competence of architects to behave in an urbanistically responsible way.'”

The Congress for New Urbanism established an award named after Nolen in 2007. This book offers an eloquent argument for why Nolen’s name is a gold standard for planning sense.

Anthony Paletta lives in Brooklyn. This New Urbanism series is supported by the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation. Follow New Urbs on Twitter for a feed dedicated to TACs coverage of cities, urbanism, and place.