The Best Planned City in the World?

Edmund Burke (1729-1797) famously said, “Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.”  George Santayana, (1863-1952) apparently did know history and repeated Burke’s quotation as “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Kurt Vonnegut (1922-2007) took exception.  “We’re doomed to repeat the past no matter what. That’s what it is to be alive.”

I’m with Vonnegut.  Human nature never changes.  But it’s not all doom and gloom.  We will repeat a lot of mistakes, but also a lot of good stuff.  Which brings me to the subject of this blog, the December 2013 Landscape  Architecture Magazine review of Francis R. Kowsky’s book, The Best Planned City in the World: Olmsted, Vaux, and the Buffalo Park System.

Kowsky book coverThe reviewer Alex Krieger starts by commenting, “This good book’s attention-grabbing title is cleverly borrowed from a statement made by an ever-entrepreneurial Frederick Law Olmsted, as he showed off his own work for Buffalo at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia.”

Olmsted’s work holds up very well.  Witness his extant body of work and prolific writings that employ cadres of scholars, landscape architects, planners and parks staff studying and interpreting his words; maintaining and rehabilitating his works.

The lengthy, glowing review was interesting, but it was the last paragraph that really caught my attention.  Krieger observes in concluding his review that Kowsky’s book, in addition to its scholarship, relates the legacy of Olmsted and his contemporaries to Buffalo’s present economic development initiatives.  “This is the best kind of history:  informative, revealing, and directly useful to the current needs of the city.”

Why is it important to know our history?  Instead of starting over with each project, we can start where we left off.


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