We have in a former number said something as to the practical manner in which "graceless villages" may be improved. We have urged the force of example in those who set about improving their own property, and shown the influence of even two or three persons in giving an air of civilization and refinement to the streets and suburbs of country towns. There is not a village in America, however badly planned at first or ill-built afterwards, that may not be redeemed in a great measure by the aid of shade trees in the streets and a little shrubbery in the front yards, and it is never too late or too early to project improvements of this kind. Every spring and every autumn should witness a revival of associated efforts on the part of selectmen, trustees of corporations, and persons of means and influence, to adorn and embellish the external conditions of their towns. Those least alive to the result as regards beauty, may be roused as to the effects of increased value given to the property thus improved, and villages thus rendered attractive and desirable as places of residence.
But let us now go a step further than this. In no country, perhaps, are there so many new villages and towns laid out every year as in the United States. Indeed so large is the number that the builders and projectors are fairly at a loss for names, ancient and modern history having been literally worn threadbare by the godfathers, until all association with great heroes and mighty deeds is fairly beggared by this re-christening going on in our new settlements and future towns, as yet only populous to the extent of six houses. And notwithstanding the apparent vastness of our territory, the growth of new towns and new states is so wonderful — fifteen or twenty years giving a population of hundreds of thousands, where all was wilderness before — that the plan and arrangement of new towns ought to be a matter of national importance. And yet, to judge by the manner in which we see the thing done, there has not, in the whole duration of the republic, been a single word said or a single plan formed calculated to embody past experience, or to assist in any way the laying out of a village or town.*
We have been the more struck by this fact in observing the efforts of some companies who have lately, upon the Hudson, within some twenty or more miles of New York, undertaken to lay out rural villages with some pretension to taste and comfort, and aim, at least, at combining the advantages of the country with easy railroad access to them.
Our readers most interested in such matters as this (and, taking our principal cities together, it is a pretty large class), will be interested to know what is the beau-ideal of these companies who undertake to buy tracts of land, lay them out in the best manner, and form the most complete and attractive rural villages, in order to tempt those tired of the wayworn life of sidewalks into a neighborhood where, without losing society, they can see the horizon, breathe the fresh air, and walk upon elastic greensward.
Well, the beau-ideal of these newly-planned villages is not down to the zero of dirty lanes and shadeless roadsides; but it rises, we are sorry to say, no higher than streets lined on each side with shade trees and bordered with rows of houses. For the most part those houses — cottages, we presume —- are to be built on fifty-foot lots; or if any buyer is not satisfied with that amount of elbow room, he may buy two lots, though certain that his neighbor will still be within twenty feet of his fence. And this is the sum total of the rural beauty, convenience, and comfort, of the latest plan for a rural village in the Union.† The buyer gets nothing more than he has in town save his little patch of back and front yard, a little peep down the street, looking one way at the river, and the other way at the sky. So far from gaining any thing which all inhabitants of a village should gain by the combination, one of these new villagers actually loses; for if he were to go by himself, he would buy land cheaper, and have a fresh landscape of fields and hills around him, instead of houses on all sides, almost as closely placed as in the city, which he has endeavored to fly from.
* Since 1850, when this was written, town planning has become known as an art, a science and a profession, and the many glorious achievements in this field would greatly warm the spirit of Andrew Jackson Downing. Let us believe that in these good works his spirit is still marching on. — F. A. W.
† We say plan, but we do not mean to include in this such villages as Northampton, Brookline, etc., beautiful and tasteful as they are. But they are in Massachusetts! — A. J. D.
Now a rural village — newly planned in the suburbs of a great city, and planned, too, specially for those whose circumstances will allow them to own a tasteful cottage in such a village — should present attractions much higher than this. It should aim at something higher than mere rows of houses upon streets crossing each other at right angles, and bordered with shade trees. Any one may find as good shade trees and much better houses in certain streets of the city which he leaves behind him; and if he is to give up fifty conveniences and comforts long enjoyed in town for the mere fact of fresh air he had better take board during the summer months in some snug farmhouse as before.
The indispensable desiderata in rural villages of this kind, are the following: 1st, a large open space, common, or park, situated in the middle of the village, not less than twenty acres, and better, if fifty or more in extent. This should be well planted with groups of trees, and kept as a lawn. The expense of mowing it would be paid by the grass in some cases; and in others, a considerable part of the space might be inclosed with a wire fence and fed by sheep or cows like many of the public parks in England.
This park would be the nucleus or heart of the village, and would give an essentially rural character. Around it should be grouped all the best cottages and residences of the place; and this would be secured by selling no lots fronting upon it of less than one-fourth of an acre in extent. Wide streets, with rows of elms or maples, should diverge from the park on each side, and upon these streets smaller lots, but not smaller than one hundred feet front, should be sold for smaller cottages.*