“Nature led the way”: The legacy of city planner John Nolen

Almost everyone in Madison, Wisconsin has driven on John Nolen Drive—the boulevard that runs along Lake Monona—but few know much about the influential landscape architect and city planner from whom it takes its name. This April, the Library of American Landscape History published the first book-length biography of Nolen, written by R. Bruce Stephenson, a professor of environmental studies at Rollins College in Florida. In it, Stephenson explores how Nolen evolved from a progressive reformer working in university extension to a landscape architect captivated by natural beauty, and finally to a city planner who established the discipline’s technical and political legitimacy in the United States. I recently spoke with Bruce about how studying Nolen’s work helps us understand environmental thinking in the early twentieth century, and how that perspective can help us shape landscapes today.

Garrett Nelson: In spite of Nolen being such an important figure in founding the profession of city planning, up until now he hasn’t received the scholarly attention or public recognition that, say, Frederick Law Olmsted or Frank Lloyd Wright have. Could you say why you think it’s worth scrutinizing Nolen more closely?

John Nolen in the early twentieth century. Library of Congress.

John Nolen in the early twentieth century. Library of Congress.

R. Bruce Stephenson: Arguably, I think the New Urbanism is the most important movement in city planning in the last generation. What was fascinating for me was the fact that when the New Urbanists came forth they wanted to reintroduce traditional town planning. The figures they held up as their patron saints were not the Olmsteds, not Wright, but John Nolen and [the British planner] Raymond Unwin. In 1990, the University of Miami School of Architecture and Art Museum had an exhibit of John Nolen’s plans for Florida, and I was invited to be one of the speakers. It was really amazing to see Nolen’s plans in the art museum; they’re really works of art. Nolen was pretty much buried at the time. I found out while doing this research that he had been teaching at Harvard, and I think the important item that we often forget is that city planning as a profession grew out of landscape architecture. Then there was this coup d’état where Nolen was teaching in [Harvard’s] city planning program, with a cohort of landscape architects. Then the program was put on hiatus for a year, and was moved to the Graduate School of Design under [the German Bauhaus architect] Walter Gropius. So that history is pretty much erased, and you don’t get it back until Ian McHarg revives the idea of environmental planning. But McHarg never got to the concept of traditional town planning. So it’s time for a kind of revival, and I think it’s taken 50 years for people to appreciate Nolen’s plans.

GN: You are both a historian and academic, as well as a practicing planner, and therefore somebody who has to think towards plans actually getting done. Can you talk about how that shapes your approach to Nolen?

Nolen proposed a civic corridor from the Wisconsin State Capitol to Lake Monona. The proposed esplanade, which took decades to finally complete, is now John Nolen Drive. University of Wisconsin Digital Collections.

Nolen proposed a civic corridor from the Wisconsin State Capitol to Lake Monona. The proposed esplanade, which took decades to finally complete, is now John Nolen Drive. University of Wisconsin Digital Collections.

RBS: I never originally thought to do a PhD or write a book. I had an internship where I was doing digitized mapping, the basis of today’s GIS. I got a job in a great town, Clearwater, the county seat of Pinellas County, which is the most urbanized county in Florida. In 1980, it was importing half its water—it gets 53 inches of rain a year and it was importing its water. We were doing an analysis of the county to decide which lands needed to be preserved to protect the water supply. We finished the study, turned it into the county commissioners. The plan was fitfully followed; I was dumbfounded that they wouldn’t protect their water supply. I went back to get my doctorate. Long story short, I found this guy John Nolen, who produced the first comprehensive city plan in Florida in 1923. I was going through the archives at Cornell, and I pulled out a black slide, and I said, “Oh my God, it’s the same plan we did!” And nobody knew it existed. That’s how I became entranced with Nolen: the fact that he had done a soil analysis, using baseline data for an environmental plan. Yet he was also trained in landscape paintings, and translated those concepts to city plans. I think that every planning student needs to know that.

GN: You note how deeply Nolen cared about aesthetic beauty and the natural world, but also how he introduced a kind of planning that emphasized rational efficiency, bureaucratic administration, and statistical data. How did those fit together for him?

Wyalusing bluffs

A 1908 photo of the Wyalusing bluffs from Nolen’s report on potential state parks sites in Wisconsin. UW Digital Collections WI.bls0684.bib.

RBS: His book, New Ideals in the Planning of Cities, Towns, and Villages, was really a textbook of how to do planning, and I think it still holds: you start off with an analysis of the natural environment, that’s step one. That really gives the landscape architects the informal design of a town or city and relates the setting to aesthetics. Nolen spent a couple of years in Germany studying planning—both the Renaissance and German city planning. We all know how efficient the Germans are! He was able to overlay this German efficiency on the landscape architecture view of the world. I think that’s where it was an art and a science, meshing the two together. Boundaries were set by the natural environment. Each home would have a ten minute walk to a park and a ten minute walk to a transit stop. What he learned over time was: you have this basic layout, then you can go into more intense studies.

GN: In addition to aesthetic and technical aspects in Nolen’s work, there’s also a political claim. He came to Wisconsin early in his career, and was drawn to the Wisconsin Idea, to Bob LaFollette’s politics, to Richard Ely’s economics. Can you say how Nolen’s political ideas shaped his approach to planning?

Private vs public streets

Comparing private versus public regulation of the street landscape, Nolen argued these photos left “no further comment necessary.” University of Wisconsin Digital Collections

RBS: Right now I’m living in Portland, and I’m seeing the same thing as in the twenties. I think the safe word is the celebration of democracy. There was a realization that in America—much like the Florentines in the Renaissance—there was this new business class and great wealth, and they had to find a way to invest the wealth with a civic return. I think what we’re all searching for is: if you actively design an environment that celebrates democracy and encourages citizenship, I think that’s the political logic that Nolen embodied. In his first plan, for Roanoke, he set up a design that called on Jefferson’s plan for the University of Virginia, which I think is an iconic statement about civic values and politics. Nolen and his compatriots believed that you could design a city in such a way that it would bring the populace together in these spaces, so they could recreate their minds and adopt the idea that they are invested in a community. He’s talking about this concept of identity and idealism. I think he realized that the politics were never going to be like Germany, where you could rationally tell somebody “here’s the most efficient thing,” but instead wanted to embrace the idea that a free people could construct an environment that is beneficial to them.

GN: I can see you trying to grapple in the book with the racial legacy of these plans. You note how Nolen was uncomfortable with segregation, and how he worked to ameliorate racial persecution as best he could, but nevertheless he still acquiesced to what was possible in the South. Do you read that as a pragmatic choice, or a deal with the devil?

Nolen urged Roanoke and other cities to take immediate action against the squalid housing conditions were the result of public disinvestment in black and working-class immigrant neighborhoods. From Nolen, Remodeling Roanoke (1908).

Nolen urged Roanoke and other cities to take immediate action against the squalid housing conditions were the result of public disinvestment in black and working-class immigrant neighborhoods. From Nolen, Remodeling Roanoke (1908).

RBS: VIEW magazine has an article out this week called “John Nolen: Racism and city planning.” I think what’s unique about Nolen, especially in comparison to Olmsted, and why he’s maybe more important, is that he grew up in an institution for homeless kids. He depended on civic institutions for the improvement of his life, and he went into city planning with that as his focus. Nolen’s kind of an oddity in this way amongst city planners. I think it’s key for us to understand that his view of the city was that it was an organism, and there was no way an organism could live if part of it was severed. It needed to have all its arteries and everything flowing together. When he did his first plan in Roanoke, and a third of the town was African-American, he saw that these people were living in barely human circumstances, and argued we have to invest comprehensively in every part of the city. That was his rational German thought. When he puts that in the plan, the powers-that-be said, “we’re not going to pave roads in the black section of town, or make those types of investments.” He struggled with that for the rest of his life. What I just realized was that he was excited about Florida, because his plans to improve African-American conditions in Virginia, North Carolina, and Tennessee all failed, but when he came to Florida there was the assumption that they were going to create a world-class tourist destination to rival the French Riviera. He thought, very logically, there’s no way you’re going to compete with France if you have 20% of your population living in a ghetto that doesn’t have basic utilities. So he thought: here’s a chance to make a statement about how city planning can further the quality of life for everyone. Sadly, that fails—in the book I get into more detail about how racist Florida was.

GN: You deliberately use words like “walkability” and “sustainability”—words that wouldn’t have been used in Nolen’s day—to describe his plans in a way that seems to draw a bridge between the concerns of then and now. What are some lessons from Nolen that would be wise to pay attention to when building modern cities?

Nolen recommended an extensive system of street railways closely regulated by municipal authorities. University of Wisconsin Digital Collections.

Nolen recommended an extensive system of street railways closely regulated by municipal authorities. University of Wisconsin Digital Collections.

RBS: One important thing is the circumstances he was operating in. Some consider planning in the 20s as the Golden Era of American city planning. New Urbanists like it, because of the simple fact that in the 1920s, one out of every three trips is by foot, one out of every three is by car, and one one out of every three is by transit. And if you look at today in terms of sustainability, that’s the mix we need to get back to. I don’t necessarily think of Nolen as a genius. He was operating a time in history when the car was an option, not a necessity. I firmly believe that the future is telling us we’re going to have to figure that out the same way.

Featured image: John Nolen’s 1910 plan for Madison, which he suggested could be a “model city” for the United States. University of Wisconsin Digital Collections.

For more information about John Nolen, Landscape Architect and City Planner, please visit the book’s Facebook page.

R. Bruce Stephenson is a professor of environmental studies at Rollins College, as well as a former public planner and consultant. An advocate of New Urbanist design, Stephenson works on sustainable solutions to urban sprawl. Website

Garrett Dash Nelson is a graduate student in geography who works on historical geography, landscape and community planning, and intellectual history. His dissertation research follows the search for the “unit landscape” at different geographic scales across a 150-year arc of American land planning. WebsiteTwitterContact.

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