Re-Evaluating the Dynamic Duo: Olmsted and Moses

Anthony Flint examines the commonalities—and disparities—in the historic legacies of Frederick Law Olmsted and Robert Moses.
June 24, 2014, 6am PDT | James Brasuell | @CasualBrasuell
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For two of the most prominent figures in the history of American planning, the legacies of Frederick Law Olmsted and Robert Moses could not be much more different, yet the two had much in common. According to an article by Anthony Flint: "They both were top-down, hard-charging master planners, creatures of authorities and commissions that helped them get things done. Both perturbed by the jarring cacophony of the city, they sought the best for the American people, and produced glorious public recreation facilities known the world over. They both had a fondness for poetry, and both were accepted at Yale."

Flint's argument, however, is that Moses's strengths were traits he shared with Olmsted: "Olmsted built beautiful parkways, too, and undeniably looked at public works and city-building at a grand scale. His firm’s blueprints were wonderfully regional. He thought comprehensively, encompassing public health benefits, sanitation, circulation, and increases in property values. And he was every bit as dogged, in his own way, as Moses, willing to get his hands dirty, immersing in necessary politics, and practicing wait-them-out patience with great skill. As I’ve said myself about Moses, those are qualities we need today—a regional vision, the skill to align bureaucracies—as coastal cities attempt to build resilience and prepare for the inevitable impacts of climate change."

Moreover, although it's still common to vilify Moses as a symbol of top-down planning, to completely disregard his skill and accomplishments is still likely dangerous: "The warning is clear: the rest of the world shouldn’t fall into the same old trap and practice the top-down planning that Jacobs rebelled against a half-century ago. But it would be a shame if Moses’s excesses have permanently given large-scale planning a bad name, even as conditions on the ground warrant a more regional vision." 

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Published on Friday, June 20, 2014 in CityLab
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