Recently, I’ve taken to nature as a way to temporarily escape the near-constant reminders of war, floods, famine, drought, nuclear apocalypse, wildfires, methane-belching rivers, Donald Trump and Elon Musk.
This summer, I wandered the expansive, 180-acre Buffalo Creek Reservoir in Long Grove, a quaint little town known for its historic covered bridge about a half-hour drive from the west suburbs, and quietly paced the boardwalk that meanders through the wetlands at Lippold Park in Batavia.
A few months ago, I randomly drove to Riverside, the small suburb in a garden that was officially recognized as an arboretum in 2015. Designated a National Historic Landmark in 1970, the village may be the first planned community in America.
It was designed by the famous landscape architects Calvert Vaux and Frederick Law Olmsted in 1869, according to Olmsted’s principle that the suburb isn’t to be an escape from the city but “a delicate synthesis of town and wilderness,” according to historian Kenneth T. Jackson.
Olmsted’s Riverside is perhaps the best argument there is against the religion of runaway capitalism and the zany idea that any degree of centralized public planning is somehow tantamount to socialism or a communist coup.
“When Emery E. Childs and a group of Eastern investors established the Riverside Improvement Company in 1868, it seemed possible that the undeveloped site on the Des Plaines River might be based on a philanthropy that transcended mere money-making,” Jackson writes in his seminal Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States.
“Childs gave Olmsted and Vaux virtually complete freedom,” Jackson adds. “They meticulously planned the water supply, drainage, lighting, schools, and recreational facilities and set aside seven hundred acres for public use. Parks were an essential part of the overall design: the most prominent being a 160-acre reserve along a three-mile stretch of the river.”
Today, much of Olmsted’s and Vaux’s vision stands as a monument to what proper urban planning looks like. If you haven’t already, when you get a chance, walk from Riverside on Millbridge Road over the bridge into Lyons and a few blocks south on Joliet Avenue and stand at the first intersection you see, which happens to be near a strip mall.
If you’re relatively sensitive to things like what the Greeks called eudaemonia, or the Good Life, which loosely translated means a state of fulfillment or human flourishing, you’ll get this queasy feeling that, boy oh boy did we screw this up. That dreadful consumerist, car-oriented, concrete Joliet Avenue landscape happens to combine both the worst aspects of communistic central planning and our religious devotion to hyper- capitalism.
The people who made our cities and suburbs had a model. They could’ve gone the way of Olmsted. Look at what he left behind: Central Park in New York City, Washington Park on Chicago’s South Side, Prospect Park in Brooklyn.
Instead, post-WWII urban planners went wild with designing around the automobile rather than designing for humans and our quality of life. Look at how those Olmsted gems of landscape architecture have held up compared to the cathedrals of car culture.
North Riverside Park Mall, for instance, opened less than 50 years ago and it looks like a high school jock who peaked his senior year, started balding in his 20s, was raised on ESPN and is now into the wisdom of Joe Rogan.
If Riverside is closer in aesthetic value and character to the Chartres Cathedral in France, Lyons (and most municipalities, really, with their boring square grids designed to maximize efficiency over human flourishing), is the municipal equivalent of Blockbuster.
Riverside is Teddy Roosevelt. Lyons is Ted Cruz. Riverside is FDR eating steel-cut oatmeal on the Hudson. Lyons is Bill Clinton buying gluten-free Domino’s Pizza and a Diet Coke on his way from a $100,000 speaking gig at Goldman Sachs.
Riverside represents one of the best examples in American suburbia of relatively sound (albeit pretty strong-handed) urban planning with values that transcend our present politicians’ and planners’ single-minded focus on sales and property taxes.
There are criticisms to be made of Olmsted’s and Vaux’s top-down approach and the biases inherent to it, not least of which was their intention that Riverside would “attract the more intelligent and more fortunate classes,” an opinion that resonates with the fact that the suburb is more than 80 percent white and less than 1 percent Black — some 150 years after its establishment.
And the great city scholar Jane Jacobs might as well have been describing Olmsted and Vaux when she once said of 20th-century urban planner Ebenezer Howard’s “Garden City” concept, that his “aim was the creation of [self-sufficient] small towns, really very nice towns if you were docile and had no plans of your own and did not mind spending your life with others with no plans of their own. As in all Utopias, the right to have plans of any significance belonged only to the planner in charge.”
But on the whole and especially in comparison to its surrounding counterparts, Riverside represents a high point in suburban planning that, unfortunately, never became the standard for most other suburbs around the country.
I believe most people know intuitively what makes for great places to live. The rich know better than all of us and the places they inhabit tend to look much closer to Riverside than to Lyons or Melrose Park. Just drive through suburbs like Winnetka or Glencoe. Since the pandemic, I’ve been exploring more and more these good and great spaces, which I’ve realized are typically opposite the privatized spaces that now dominate so many suburban landscapes.
The Cook County Forest Preserves are the rare spaces that are free and open to the public, where you may have chance encounters with strangers, and where you can just be, without having to be busy. They allow anyone to partake in the eudaemonia-building activities that Olmsted designed Riverside around: contemplativeness, happy tranquility, spontaneity, openness.
Riverside and the county’s great Forest Preserve system are monuments to what urban historian David Schuyler called, the “nineteenth-century search for an urban compromise.” Jackson said Riverside in particular “helped set the pattern for future attempts to preserve natural topography in innovative urban design.”
Like Riverside, the Forest Preserves represent the culmination of publicly-minded central planning that was focused on the whole person instead of Economic Man, that one-dimensional, uninteresting (and always cis-engendered in the economic texts) being whose ultimate desire is to maximize his individual happiness, assuming that happiness is defined strictly in monetary terms.
The Forest Preserves, the result of a vision outlined in 1904 by landscape architect Jens Jensen and architect Dwight Perkins, were created after voters approved a referendum in 1914.
The results of that referendum are some 70,000 acres of natural area that people of all cultures, ethnicities, ages, and income levels can enjoy at no immediate cost.
Of course, nothing’s free. The Forest Preserves are maintained largely through property taxes that amount to a few dollars a month from the average county household.
On Nov. 8, in another milestone referendum, voters will be asked whether they agree or not with the average county homeowner contributing about a buck more a month so that the Forest Preserve can have access to about $43.5 million more in funding.
The money, Forest Preserve officials have said, is critical to pay for staffing, pension obligations, acquiring more lands to protect, address deferred maintenance, and remain financially solvent in the future, among other concerns. I think our collective sanity is worth a few more bucks.
Besides, we’ve had a half-century of this global experiment in growth premised on planned obsolescence and artificial needs. The road it’s taken us on is akin to my walk from picturesque and pedestrian-friendly Riverside into car-oriented Lyons (which is kind of like daydreaming that I’m at a Wynton Marsalis concert at Ravinia only to be snapped out of it by a notification on my iPhone telling me, in great detail, how Madonna’s been playing out her geriatric adolescence on TikTok). Tragic.
I’d like to turn around and go back now.