by Bruce Stephenson
The New Urbanism has invigorated city planning by invoking the tradition of American civic design to solve the conundrum of suburban sprawl. This “Florida-grown movement” originated with Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk’s plan for Seaside; a plan, James Kunstler writes, “straight out of John Nolen.” Nolen, America’s preeminent planner in the early 20th century, is a New Urbanist patron saint. It stands to follow that if the New Urbanism is to fulfill the historic vision it has unearthed, the visionary plans Nolen produced in the “great laboratory of town and city building,” as he called Florida, requires scrutiny.
In 1919, Nolen stood at the apex of his profession. He had edited two books, written two others, published over 50 articles and plans, and presided over the nation’s largest planning firm. Nolen’s success stemmed from a blend of idealism and business acumen, which gave his work an innovative, yet pragmatic bent. Still, the difficulty in implementing plans made him feel more a missionary than planner.
Two years later, Nolen concluded that re-planning the American city was hopeless. The nation’s cities were “cursed,” he wrote, “with nearly insolvable social and political problems.” To complicate matters, planners seemed more intent on drawing up zoning ordinances that secured mediocrity rather than on implementing new models for a nation that had over half its population classified as urban. After this revelation in the 1920 census, Nolen initiated the planning of new towns based on the garden city ideal. In this endeavor Nolen owed much to Englishman Raymond Unwin, the designer of the first Garden City.
From their first meeting in 1911, Nolen and Unwin became fast friends. Close in age and interests, these pioneer planners corresponded regularly for 25 years, exchanging social views, planning expertise, and their visions of a new civilization. Unwin’s plans for Hampstead and Letchworth greatly influenced Nolen’s most lasting presentation of the American Garden City, Mariemont, Ohio.
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