Revisiting Riverside: A Frederick Law Olmsted Community
A Master's Project completed for the School of Natural Resources & Environment, University of Michigan
Riverside, IL is a suburban village designed between 1868 and 1869 by the landscape architects Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux. Riverside is located along the Des Plaines River, nine miles west of Chicago. The design of Riverside is significant because the character of the community created by the designers was unlike that of other suburbs of the time. Olmsted and Vaux prescribed well-built, well-drained roads with gracefully curved lines and generous plantings. The idea was to create attractive and highly functional access interspersed with public grounds for rest and recreation: a community with the best attributes of the country and city.
Today, Riverside remains a vibrant community. The significance of the landscape architecture of Riverside has been recognized at the national, state, and local levels. In 1970, Riverside was designated a National Historic Landmark, in recognition of its historic landscape architecture. The residents' and village leaders' interest in the study and documentation of Riverside has helped to preserve the original design.
Although much has been written about Riverside, our research did not reveal any drawings or illustrations that effectively aid in the understanding and visualization of Olmsted's design process and his intended design. Therefore, a key focus of this master's project is to effectively organize and communicate the principles of Olmsted's design for Riverside, using both written and visual methods. Through literature reviews and site visits, we identified Olmsted's design principles for Riverside and organized them into four goals. For each goal, we identified specific elements of Olmsted and Vaux's design that help achieve the goal. We developed three-dimensional models and interactive drawings that illustrate how these design principles were achieved and where these principles are evident in today's Riverside landscape.
We also investigated the residents' perception of the Riverside landscape and how this relates to Olmsted's original design principles. We created and administered a survey in order to learn more about how residents of Riverside perceive their historic landscape. By posing questions that specifically address the resident's preferences for landscape features, it was possible to begin to understand what areas or views of the landscape residents perceived as their favorite or least favorite. From the responses, it was possible to investigate how the spaces and views mentioned by the respondents related to Olmsted's design principles. In general, the spaces and views most preferred by residents strongly exhibited the design principles. Spaces and views that were least preferred by residents were incongruous with the overall design and feeling of Riverside.
A final goal of this project is to understand whether or not the design of Riverside has influenced subsequent suburban community design. We explored the trends in suburban development including the romantically designed suburbs (1850 - 1920), a category that includes Riverside; garden cities (1920s); greenbelt towns (1930s); new towns (1960s - 1970s); and the ecologically and culturally sensitive models of the 1970s through today. We found that these models built upon the successes and shortcomings of the development models that preceded them. Riverside's provisions for open space, preservation of natural site features, and separation of vehicle and pedestrian routes has served as an inspiration for many of these models. Olmsted and Vaux focused on creating a socially and aesthetically pleasing community. The recent ecologically and culturally sensitive models seek to combine these goals with the preservation of and restoration of ecological processes. Interestingly, the influence of these suburban models on each other is not a one-way process. Advances in ecological understanding are influencing the maintenance and restoration of today's Riverside landscape.
Riverside is a designed landscape that merits preservation, but this can only occur with a thorough understanding of the original design intent, of the design as it was constructed, and of the design that has survived. The intent of this master's project is to increase the understanding of the principles Olmsted used in the design of Riverside, and the understanding of the relevance of these design principles in the modern Riverside landscape. We hope that the organization and presentation of the design principles, together with the visual products produced by this master's project group, will contribute to a unified sense of stewardship among Riverside's residents, its leaders, and the many private groups within the community. The written and visual products of this project will be donated to the Village of Riverside for educational purposes.
Portions of the project are available in PDF Format by individual chapters:
Please note that due to the large size and detailed nature of many of the graphic images developed for this project, it is not possible to offer the entire project online.