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Paradise Lost

Greg Goldin, a contributing editor at L.A. Weekly, specializes in environmental reporting

If you want to review the blueprints for Los Angeles,"Parks, Playgrounds and Beaches for the Los Angeles Region” is the place to begin. Issued in 1930, this 178-page report is the culmination of three years of investigation and legwork by Olmsted Brothers and Harland Bartholomew & Associates, at the time the nation’s most renowned landscape and planning firms. A self-appointed “citizen’s committee” tied to the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce had paid Olmsted and Bartholomew $80,000 to come up with a plan to remedy what was already an obvious crisis. Los Angeles, the city promoted into existence as an idyll of boundless natural beauty, was about to “strangle itself” with willy-nilly speculative development.

The report warned: “The beaches are being fenced off and withdrawn from general use with alarming rapidity. There are no large parks or permanent public open spaces along the coast. . . . The mountains, which are dominant scenic assets, are slowly losing value because of the intensive urban growth [that] is steadily cutting off views. . . . The wild canyons are fast being subjected to subdivision and cheek-by-jowl cabin construction; the roadsides are more and more disfigured by signboards, shacks, garages, filling stations, destruction of trees, and multiplication of poles and wires.”

What worried the chamber was that at the time, barely 1% of the Los Angeles region was dedicated to public parks or beaches, the lowest ratio of public to private land holding in the country. By one account, there was a half an inch of public beach per resident. Scathing, clear-eyed, unflinching, the Olmsted-Bartholomew report diagnosed the present and sketched the future. If “the sharp practice of ruthless promoters” continued, it declared, “urban growth will fill in one after another of the open spaces . . . [leaving people] shut off from any considerable area of open land.”

This confident, wary assessment originated with Frederick Law Olmsted Sr., the designer of New York’s Central Park and the man responsible for the idea of putting nature, in the form of designed yet “wild” parks, into the hearts of American cities. The Olmsted firm, which by the time of the chamber’s commission was run by Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. and his brother John C. Olmsted, had built Boston’s park system, Chicago’s South Parks and Rock Creek Park in Washington, D.C. Together with Bartholomew Associates, they’d completed, in

1924, “A Major Traffic Street Plan for Los Angeles.” The Olmsteds had laid out Palos Verdes, and Bartholomew had completed the master plan for Glendale. These were, in short, veteran urban planners with considerable expertise and a keen sense of purpose.

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In one grand gesture, Olmsted-Bartholomew swept up “the hills and sightly eminences” in Los Angeles and worked them into the fabric of “the expanding structure of the city.” They proposed that nearly the entire coastline, from Malibu to Long Beach, be purchased and held, largely undeveloped, in the public trust. They wanted to build small parks within roughly half a mile--walking distance--of every household and scatter larger ones throughout the basin. They mapped out 95 parks linked in a 440-mile skein of “pleasureway parks.”

Pharaonic in scope, eloquent in optimism, hard-nosed in pragmatism, the report advanced nothing less than the transformation of a boomtown into a city of gracious motor ways, ample parks, accessible seashores, expansive nature preserves--what Garrett Eckbo, in “Landscape for Living,” called “the reintegration of man and nature.” Olmsted-Bartholomew is one of the best-kept secrets of L.A.'s history. Tracking down the original report, reprinted in Greg Hise and William Deverell’s new book, “Eden by Design,” was “akin to urban archeology.” Two hundred copies were printed in 1930, but the Chamber of Commerce buried the plan’s bold proposals before the binding was stitched.

Opposition congealed on many fronts. To implement the plan, a plenary parks authority would had to have been created, and that might have ignited a tussle for power in Los Angeles. Higher property taxes to fund the project, which was listed at $224 million, were certain to offend the formidable “Taxpayer’s Commission,” the Jarvis-ites of the day. Putting the plan on the ballot might have trumped a $220-million bond act to bring Colorado River water to Los Angeles County. And, the greatest evil of all, the plan’s radical reordering of public and private space and its potential to halt the unremitting land speculation were anathema to a cadre of city elites who’d profited from the landscape debacle in the first place.

Had it been aired, the report might have been greeted favorably by Angelenos alarmed about limited “public access to the beach and ocean and the desecration of this finite amenity through offshore and beachfront oil drilling,” Hise and Deverell write. Even the price tag, when amortized over the 40- to 50-year life span of the proposal, was inexpensive: $15 a year on a $10,000 house, three dollars on a $2,000 “worker’s home.” In any event, the Great Depression scuttled such heroic projects. Local, private initiatives like Olmsted-Bartholomew were eclipsed by federal spending, epitomized in Los Angeles by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ multibillion-dollar open-ended flood-control program.

In 1938, the corps set about doing exactly what Olmsted-Bartholomew railed against: Rather than sculpt Los Angeles’ river basins into “elongated parks,” the corps began to “armor” the rivers, thereby protecting vast tracts of industrial land near downtown and opening the flood plain to the south to residential subdivision while converting riparian habitats into concrete channels. The embrace of the natural order, carefully codified and distilled in Olmsted-Bartholomew into greenbelt parkways, it seems, would have been a practical solution to what has become a modern plague.

Of what importance or use is this 70-year-old blueprint today? Hise and Deverell correctly say, “In truth, the present challenge may lie in figuring out how we might do good in the midst of failure.” Which is not to say that had the 1930 plan been implemented, it could have averted all the ills that plague a big city like Los Angeles. Along with nature, urban landscapes have a way of resisting even the best of well-intentioned and well-thought-out plans.

Still, Olmsted-Bartholomew’s tightly woven conception of nature and its place in the city remains our best hope for relieving the relentless pressures of city life. Landscaped parks, open rambles, free-flowing rivers, incorporated into the urban terrain offer, “along with a sense of beauty, a sense of spaciousness, of freedom, and of contrast with urban conditions.”

Even now, 70 years after the report was consigned to the archives, Los Angeles retains scattered bits of unsubdued natural splendor. It is still tempting to jump in the car, much as the plan proposes, and head north from the McClure Tunnel onto Pacific Coast Highway. At moments like these, the Los Angeles that inspired Olmsted-Bartholomew pops up--a David Hockney swimming-pool mirage flickering into snapshot focus just long enough to click the shutter. Alas, nature, as Laurie Olin says in her afterword, “has been pushed to the horizon.” There may be no way to bring it back, except perhaps to stop suburbia in its tracks--as a few valiant citizens have tried to do at Playa Vista, in the Ballona Wetlands and at Newhall Ranch, in the citrus belt along the Santa Clarita River. Preserving these last authentic pieces of the Southern California landscape, making them part of the urban experience by leaving them untouched, might be a first step to doing good in the midst of failure. It would also, perhaps, help reinvigorate the legacy left to us in the long-neglected pages of the Olmsted-Bartholomew plan. *


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