Imagining Uplands: John Olmsted's Masterpiece of Residential Design by Larry McCann (review)
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Imagining Uplands: John Olmsted's Masterpiece of Residential Design. Larry McCann. Victoria: Brighton Press, 2016. Pp. xxi + 356, $55.00 cloth

Uplands is an upscale residential development east of Victoria, British Columbia, in the suburban municipality of Oak Bay. In 1907, 465 acres of land was acquired from the Hudson's Bay Company by Winnipeg businessman William Gardner, who procured the services of American town planner John Olmsted to lay out the design of streets and lots. Author Larry McCann is professor emeritus of geography who possesses a long-standing connection with Oak Bay. This book is McCann's hymn of praise for Uplands, the subtitle declaring it to be Olmsted's "Masterpiece of Residential Design."

John Olmsted and his half-brother were the offspring of Frederick Law Olmsted who gained fame in the 1850s for the layout and construction of New York's Central Park. Eventually, the two siblings set up their own urban planning firm. When Gardner saw the Uplands property, he immediately decided that John Olmsted would be the best person to lay out a development that would sell well to prospective homebuyers. What particularly appealed to Gardner was the rolling open fields studded with Garry oak trees that reminded people of an English deer park. Of course, these fields were not simply the product of untended nature but had been originally created by the use of fire by Indigenous people for agricultural land and preserved by farmers and market gardeners for crops and livestock. What made Uplands all the more attractive was its rolling terrain with ledges and [End Page 824] knobs of rock and views over the Strait of Juan de Fuca with the snowclad Olympic mountains to the south in the state of Washington.

As hundreds of towns and cities laid out across North America from the late nineteenth century onward testify, the most economical method of subdividing large properties was into checkerboard patterns. Lots of various sizes could be laid out along straight streets that met at ninety-degree corners, even if that often meant ignoring natural features like elevation changes. In Olmsted, Gardner found a planner who preferred winding streets that reflected changes in grade and was eager to include a wide variety of lot shapes and sizes (some more than an acre). After visiting the Uplands property in 1907, Olmsted set to work to create a development that aimed to respect its natural features and to protect the ocean views. McCann's book contains numerous maps and illustrations that show what evolved as street layouts changed and houses were built, altered, and replaced from before the First World War up to the present.

Real estate development requires deep pockets as well as patience. It took several years for Oak Bay to approve the subdivision, and Olmsted never visited Uplands after 1911. The following year, Gardner took the opportunity to sell the property for a sizable profit to a French-based syndicate, though he retained a sizable area including several desirable shoreline lots. When the syndicate ran into financial difficulties after the First World War, Gardner reacquired control of all of Uplands and oversaw its growth for many years thereafter. Over time, the original street layout underwent some modifications, but the basic design survived.

The author has examined a great deal of material on John Olmsted and the years during which he was involved in the project. There sometimes seems to be more detail on that period than necessary: which hotels Olmsted stayed at, how he travelled to and from the site. The title is Imagining Uplands, but the book might have had better balance and wider interest if more attention was paid to the later years. One particular element that the author could have devoted more attention to is transportation. Before the First World War, it was assumed that the well-to-do residents of Uplands would travel to and from their homes to downtown Victoria on the electric trolley. The British Columbia Electric Railway Company (bcer) controlled public transportation on British Columbia's lower mainland, and securing the extension of its carline was a key to the success of the development. The backbone of Olmsted's...


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