Frederick Law Olmsted | A Passion for Parks, National Geographic: Train Crossing In A Historic Town

Flashing lights of a railroad crossing light the night sky in front of the water tower on central village square in Riverside, Illinois. Riverside is the first planned community in the United States, and was commissioned for a design by well-known landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted and his partner Calvert Vaux. An affluent suburban community nine miles west of Chicago, Riverside maintains the original aesthetic charm that was planned to appeal to people desiring a “rural” location.

The town might not have ever been popular had it not been for the disastrous Chicago fire of 1871 which served as an impetus for people to move away from the crowded, urban setting.

In 1868, an eastern businessman named Emery E. Childs formed the Riverside Improvement Company, and purchased a 1,600-acre tract of property along the Des Plaines River and the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad line. The site was highly desirable due to its natural oak-hickory forest and its proximity to the Chicago Loop.

In 1869, the town’s plan called for curvilinear streets that followed the land’s contours and the winding Des Plaines River. The plan included a central village square, located at the main railroad station, and a Grand Park system that uses several large parks as a foundation, with forty-one smaller triangular parks and plazas located at intersections throughout town to provide additional green spaces.

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