Frederick Law Olmsted’s Riverside: the First Planned Suburb

When I think of “planned community,” pristine lawns, curving curbs, and happy little driveways come to mind. Maybe it’s even a “gated community” with three or four house designs repeated along the block. Interestingly the roots of the ‘burbs came from mastermind of landscape design Frederick Law Olmsted (think 1893 World’s Fair or NYC’s Central Park) with Riverside, located right outside of Chicago’s southwest borders. Let’s not forget his lesser known partner, too. His name was Calvert Vaux.

Riverside, Illinois was the first planned suburb, and the Chicago suburbs of the mid-19th century weren’t exactly suburbs yet but towns near the downtown. Today planned communities are churned out left and right. Back in the 1800’s though? This approach to city-building was revolutionary stuff.

We research stories from Chicago history, architecture and culture like this while developing our live virtual toursin-person private tours, and custom content for corporate events. You can join us to experience Chicago’s stories in-person or online. We can also create custom tours and original content about this Chicago topic and countless others.

Original Map of Riverside

A New Type of Community

As you can see from the map, Riverside is designed as a commuter suburb around the train station. It’s also notably not laid out in a clean grid like the city of Chicago. Instead, Olmsted insisted there be no right angle intersections and laid out streets that curved with the natural contours of the land. His landscape-design-inspired approach would beautify the two-square-mile area of little Riverside. It would be great for recreational use by residents, who would be blessed with the beauty of the country without forfeiting the benefits of the city. Essentially, Riverside was to be a self-contained community, a sub-urban place outside of Chicago.

If Olmsted was just a whatever landscaping gardener, perhaps history would have treated the town differently. Yet, Olmsted was “the father of landscape architecture” and Riverside accordingly fixed an image of its urban design that has yet to be altered. Today antique gas lanterns illuminate the streets at night, and giant green parkways contribute to the lawn-saturated neighborhood.

Frederick Law Olmsted

Old Man Olmstead’s Plan

You can see Riverside’s strict adherence to Olmsted’s plans in this excerpt from a 1974 newsletter.

“The zoning that Riverside has had for nearly 50 years has assured our village of remaining a lovely, low-profile, low density community while other towns in surrounding areas have changed drastically…The same zoning has done an excellent job of retaining Olmsted’s original plan and the character he intended.” – March 1974, Frederick Law Olmsted Society of Riverside Newsletter

Strict zoning was a natural part of Olmsted’s plan as regulations were needed to keep Riverside small, quaint and lovely. The only problem was that the world progressed. Technology changed, businesses came and went, and Riverside had pressures to modify. It has to balance the romantic perfect suburbia against Chicago.

While researching at Riverside Public Library, I stumbled upon a curious 1869 argument in one of F.L.O Society’s newsletters. The argument was between Olmsted and the city. The city was thinking of allowing a private house to be built on a park land called Longcommon. Olmstead was putraged when he heard this and fired off an angry missive to the city. He said that they were pretty much going to ruin his entire plan because Longcommon was “key” to its design.

“View of Long Common and Junction of Roads” – 1871 illustration

Fast forward a century and in 1995 a citizen of Riverside proposed to build a playground on that plot. This sparked a heated debate in the community. After all, Olmsted said that nothing should be built there.  If you look at a map of Longcommon Park, you’ll see that there still is no playground, just a baseball diamond within an open field.

How’d Riverside Turn Out?

Has Riverside’s extreme focus on preserving Olmsted’s original plan been for the best? Has Olmsted and his planned community succeeded as the perfect community? Can a community planned by an architect 150 years ago still be relevant to lifestyles today?

Riverside Train Stop and Water Tower

I’d say it has and it hasn’t. If you visit Riverside you’ll see a perfectly preserved town. The buildings, the streets, the train tracks, the river, the forest, the parks – all of the physical embodiments of Olmsted’s Riverside – are extremely well intact.

However, I got a strange feeling interacting with the space. I felt like I was walking through a Hollywood set or visiting a “country” at Epcot Center; something about it doesn’t seem real. And where is everyone? It’s beautiful, it’s interesting, yet you wonder. How such a place can exist for so long and so close to bustling Chicago without changing much at all.

Things have certainly changed over history, so what does that mean for a community like Riverside? It’s a broader question that would require greater length than a blog post to elucidate. But perhaps you should go see for yourself and take a day trip from Chicago to tour Riverside and make up your own mind about Olmsted’s vision of community living. Find details on 2013 historical walking tours of Riverside and architecture by Frank Lloyd Wright and William Jenney here.

-Jenna Staff, Chicago Detours Editorial Intern


Chicago Detours is a boutique tour company passionate about connecting people to places and each other through the power of storytelling. We bring curious people to explore, learn and interact with Chicago’s history, architecture and culture through in-person private group tourscontent production, and virtual tours.


Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on pinterest
Share on linkedin

be a



Private Tour Coordinator and Tour Guide

There is no shortage of things to discover in Chicago—I love being an urban explorer and uncovering its hidden places. I have an MA in Public History from Loyola University Chicago, and I have worked as a museum educator and kindergarten teacher. My desire to learn new things fuels my passion for educating others, which I get to experience every day as a Chicago tour guide. I live in the northern neighborhood of Rogers Park.

“Our guide Ellen was exceptional and gifted with a great personal touch.”


Tour Guide

Whether you are a first-time visitor or a lifelong resident, the vibrant history and modern majesty of Chicago never ceases to amaze. I’m a graduate of Columbia College with an M.A. in Interdisciplinary Art. I’ve worked for many years as an educator at City Colleges of Chicago. As tour guide at Chicago Detours, I integrate my enthusiasm for culture and architecture with my passion as an educator. West Town/Noble Square area is home for me.

“Jen was a perfect storyteller and kept us spellbound for hours.”


Tour Guide

With our Chicago neighborhoods, vibrant cultural institutions and nearly two centuries of larger-than-life stories, there’s never a dull moment here! I’m a fifth generation Chicagoan and a graduate of Washington University in St. Louis. In addition to guiding tours, I’m a creative writer and amateur genealogist. I also enjoy the city’s dynamic theater scene. You can also read overlooked stories from 19th-century newspapers on my “Second Glance History” blog. I live in River North.


Tour Guide

Chicago is unique as it always evolves into the future while holding on to the past. I’m fascinated by how people latch on to old architecture but happily pave over others. My background is in theater and performance and I’ve been a tour guide here for more than 10 years. Currently I’m finishing my Master’s in Public History at Loyola University because I love to teach the history of this scrappy city. I’m in the Edgewater neighborhood.


Operations Coordinator and Tour Guide

Chicago’s history is so fascinating, you could spend a lifetime uncovering its secrets…I’m willing to give it a try! I have an M.A. in US History from the University of Nevada-Las Vegas and then pursued doctoral studies in Urban History at the University of Illinois at Chicago. I love to learn new aspects of Chicago’s rich history and then share my knowledge as a tour guide with Chicago Detours. I live in Ravenswood.

“Marie was a bubbling fountain of information and contagious enthusiasm.”


Operations Coordinator and Tour Guide

As a fourth generation Chicagoan, I have been living and loving Chicago by bike, on foot, public transit or automobile. I am a graduate of UIC where through the College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs, began my eagerness to understand the nature, history and impacts of urban planning and development. It is incredibly rewarding to give back to this wonderful city by helping out in the office of Chicago Detours. I live in the incredibly diverse neighborhood of Albany Park.
“Sonny was extremely knowledgeable about all things Chi-town.”
Wade K


Content Manager and Tour Guide

Chicago has so many neighborhoods, buildings, and by-ways that it’s hard to go long without seeing something new, or something familiar from a new angle. I studied Cinema History for my M.A. from the University of Chicago. I’ve worked as a culture writer for various publications and as an educator of the humanities at the City Colleges of Chicago. I’m thrilled to share my love of this city’s busy past and unique architectural spaces with Chicago Detours. I live in the Chicago neighborhood of Lincoln Park.

“Alex was fascinating to listen to. He clearly knows his history and it shows.”
Katie K

Amanda Scotese

Executive Director and Tour Guide

I’m an interpreter of personal stories from the past and the city’s landscape. I love to imagine what originally happened inside old unmarked buildings, and what forces have shaped their design. I studied Chicago history, architectural history, and anything Chicago-related through my M.A. in the Humanities at the University of Chicago. My love for stories was enriched by my B.A. in Literature from the University of Michigan. I’ve written travel articles for publications like Rick Steves’ Italy best-selling travel guides, the San Francisco Bay Guardian, and The Chicago Food Encyclopedia. I live in the Chicago neighborhood of West Avondale.
“You can TELL Amanda is hyper-passionate about doing the research and getting the story that nobody’s heard before.”
Shelby F

Book a chicago event

Let’s Connect!