The following, part of my free weekly e-mail newsletter, A-Clue.Com, is being reprinted at Always On next week as a guest column.
Given that we have successfully built a bridge to the 19th century it’s time to rediscover Frederick Law Olmsted (right and below).
Olmsted had one of the great lives of the 19th century. He was first a journalist, whose ground-breaking trip through the South in the 1850s helped put a new publication called The New York Times on the map.
Then he got interested in a contest to design a park in the center of Manhattan Island. His winning design became Central Park, and with that design he found his life’s work as "the founder of American landscape architecture."
Olmsted did not just design parks. He designed cities. The design of Buffalo, New York, for instance, owes a lot to Olmsted. Same with Cleveland, Ohio. Many of his unbuilt designs still influenced what finally resulted, as in Berkeley, California.
Olmsted’s last project is especially dear to my heart. It was a string of parks at the north end of a new city called Kirkwood, east of Atlanta, Georgia. The city was designed by its planners to orient on a north-south axis, with Olmsted’s parks along Ponce de Leon Ave. setting off the mansions of the wealthy, and a market street on the south along Boulevard Drive.
The 20th century would destroy that dream. First, economic hardship forced the city’s absorption by Atlanta, which gave the area an east-west orientation. Then open housing created a color line, black folks moving into the small houses south of DeKalb Avenue. Finally the MARTA rail became a physical barrier. Those north of DeKalb began calling their area Lake Claire, and Kirkwood became a ghetto.
Privatization and discrimination destroyed Olmsted’s last dream. Class and race mean few in what’s now called Druid Hills (north of Lake Claire, where the parks now lie) can ever imagine they were once part of the same city as those on what’s now Hosea Williams Drive (named for a black politician whose claim to fame was an annual Thanksgiving dinner for the homeless). Yet they were.
But back to Olmsted himself. Olmsted and his company worked on behalf of rich men and governments who wanted to leave something to the future. What he built were commons. Central Park, Prospect Park, all his great works, were designed and built looking nothing like they were intended to look. He spaced his trees wide apart, knowing it would take 50 years or more for everything to fill in, for the whole to look natural.
He built, in other words, for the future. His message to descendents was simple and profound. "Look! We did this for you!"
Olmsted worked within The Gilded Age (as Mark Twain called it in an 1873 novel) ), a time of wide and growing gulfs between the ultra-rich and growing numbers of poor. Despite this there existed three trends that prevented revolution from coming to America.
One was the myth of the West, which drew off many millions. Second was Horatio Alger, who taught that social mobility was possible, albeit difficult. Third was Olmsted himself, whose work made urban places tolerable for masses of new immigrants and their descendents.
The result of this noblesse oblige, and its success in mitigating the worst effects of the First Gilded Age, was Progressivism. It was moderate, it was business-oriented. Its achievements included the anti-trust laws, the civil service, and the progressive income tax. It built the economy we now enjoy. It prevented Communism or Fascism from gaining a foothold. It created American Exceptionalism.
It is these achievements that have been under the greatest assault in our time, Most especially it is Olmsted’s idea of a commons that is under threat. We even have a cliché about it – the tragedy of the commons.
I saw that recently when I visited Washington for the Freedom2Connect conference. The speakers, and the congregants, knew that open source, an open Internet and open spectrum are the proper models for 21st century economic success. Yet, as former FCC chair Reed Hundt told them, these simple, basic concepts are now apostasy in Bush’s Washington.
"This public space to which the public thoroughfare must take us is where democracy will be defined," he concluded. To which the first response was, you’re a socialist.
No. Hundt is an Olmstedist. And the business world is now aligned toward Olmstedism.
- Open source, a software commons, brings the benefits of Moore’s Law to software and provides more rapid progress.
- Open networks, specifically the Internet, is a commons that accelerates all knowledge, by distributing it to everyone.
- Open spectrum, unlicensed frequencies like those used by 802.11, are a commons that brings the Internet into the air faster than wires ever will.
What surprised and shocked me in Washington was that these basic ideas are now considered to be partisan. Republican groups like the so-called Progress & Freedom Foundation reject them out of hand. Instead they stand for:
- Intellectual Property, in which every bit of knowledge carries a toll paid to some corporation controlling it.
- Proprietary Networks, in which a network’s favored content gets a "fast lane" and monopoly rents can be demanded.
- Auctioned spectrum, in which all frequencies are sold by the government and controlled by single companies.
Corporatists seem determined to impose this latter regime on the Internet, destroying its American component in the process as an engine for world growth.
Fine, then. Let these be the partisan battle lines. I’ll take the side that guarantees progress, that grows the economy, which is the open source side of the argument.
And when we win, when the free, open Internet is the great commons of our grandchildren, we’ll all be able to turn to them and say:
"Look! We did this for you!"