Last edited 20 May 2018

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Institute of Historic Building Conservation Institute / association Website

Towns and cities in history

The year 1961 was a propitious one for sustainable urbanism. It saw the publication of three important books with several characteristics in common: Lewis Mumford’s 'The City in History', Jane Jacobs’s 'The Death and Life of Great American Cities' and Gordon Cullen’s 'Townscape'. All three were highly influential at the time; they have all remained relevant to the present day to the extent that anyone involved in urbanism, urban politics, urban planning or urban design should consider them essential reading. Very readable they all are, being accessible to professional urbanists and the general reading public alike.

A fourth common feature is the authors’ demonstration, in three contrasting ways, of how much historic urban environments can teach us about urban planning. All three expose the faults of post-war urban theory and practice which have, nonetheless, tended to continue in use to the present day. This rather sad fact means that to me, at least, all three might now be read somewhat pessimistically; and doubly sad because the standpoint of all three authors in 1961 was optimistic.

'The City in History', is a tour de force. It is written in an engaging narrative style from the perspective of the personal experience of the author, making its arguments highly compelling. One thread, running through the whole book, is of particular importance for the present day. The successful city rises by its success as a marketplace and ultimately falls by the congestion that the successful marketplace brings. Mumford’s final paragraph on the fall of Rome gives rise to a sobering thought: ‘whenever crowds gather in suffocating numbers, whenever rents rise steeply and housing conditions deteriorate... these are symptoms of the end: magnifications of demoralized power, minifications of life… Necropolis is near.’

Thus successful urbanism must ultimately be based on the management of both the marketplace and congestion. Post-war urban theory had two schools of thought: centralist, which sought to accept the inevitability of the growth of the marketplace and to deal with urban congestion on the basis of predict and provide; and dispersalist, which sought to spread the marketplace to far-flung locations. Both approaches were tainted with futuristic visions such as those set out by Le Corbusier in 'The City of Tomorrow', despite the dispersal model also having roots in Ebenezer Howard’s 'Garden Cities of To-morrow'. Both models suffered from inadequate answers to the problems of congestion, particularly the overloading of major urban and inter-urban transport corridors and their limited number of intersections.

Jane Jacobs’ perspective was that of an activist. She promoted the example of a historic urban area, Greenwich Village in New York, as a template for successful urbanism in her campaign against the despoliation of urban fabric, and its social and economic uses, caused by the supposed importance of catering for ever-increasing numbers of cars. Her model for successful urbanism exposed the centralist-dispersalist question as a false dilemma. It promoted the alternative model of urban diffusion: reducing travel demand and its impacts through mixed land uses, the promotion of a wider choice of transport modes, particularly walking, and increasing the variety and numbers of transport intersections. These techniques all quickly found their way into accepted practice but not, regrettably, at the expense of traffic engineering.

The appeal of historic places for people to live, work in and visit is well documented. The reasons are many but in urban planning terms, it is often those represented by Jane Jacobs in Greenwich Village, which we might term ‘liveability’, that dominate, and no more so than in our market towns. Lewis Mumford notes in his analysis of the Roman world that, while Rome itself was in many ways dysfunctional, the very successful Roman model of planted town, which occurred all over the Empire, was generally one for a population of 50,000. Allowing for today’s lower occupancy, rates this might equate in physical size to a modern population of 15–20,000 – a typical market town.

Thus, before we embark on the more detailed aspects of urban design, we would do well to consider historic patterns of urban life, which were predicated on transport being slow, for guidance on what is likely to work in the modern era: how a highly permeable, within-walking-distance approach to travel might benefit the economic and social functions of places. There are many places where historic environments and transport systems have provided opportunities for this, but these successes should be promoted as the norm.

'Townscape' continues to be the leading reference book for urban design concepts, and it has always been heartening that so many of these remain pertinent. But it is worthwhile reflecting that, while the techniques can be clearly postulated, the practice of urban design has many complexities to trip up the unwary. When 'Townscape' was republished in 1971 as 'The Concise Townscape', the version that has had many reprints over the years, it included the all-important sections Casebook and General Studies, but was shorn of its Town Studies and Proposals sections. The reason is easy to discern: in those 10 years many of the 18 case studies had been overtaken by events, and in some instances Cullen’s application of his own techniques could already be shown to have been somewhat wanting.

The 1963 ‘Buchanan Report’, 'Traffic in Towns' represented a turning point for urban transport. While many of its proposals were to do with catering for traffic growth, the ultimate limitations of this, as set out by Jane Jacobs, were recognised, and the need to address environmental impacts in general, and those of the historic environment in particular, were clearly delineated. So it is perhaps surprising that only two years earlier Gordon Cullen, in 'Townscape', had presented some case study proposals that were more drastic than those of 'Traffic in Towns'.

Cullen’s proposal for the St Paul’s Cathedral precinct follows a typically careful review of the merits of all the historic plans for the area, and would have provided all the spatial drama and sequence one might have hoped for. But the proposal depended on driving a new street through the urban fabric on the line of Carter Lane to the south, and gave no consideration to the townscape implications of this or how it would connect with Ludgate Circus at its western end.

The later controversies over successive developments at Paternoster Square to the north illustrate just how difficult these things can be. Cullen comments that it was ‘the intractability’ of London that gave rise to Wren’s townscape proposals for St Paul’s being abandoned. It struck him as odd that the same problem persisted after 300 years. (Now make that 350 years, if ‘problem’ there be). Perhaps we can be pleased that intractability is an inherited trait: a cousin of the ‘precautionary principle’?

Cullen was not averse to major intervention in townscape in one location if it were necessary to deliver improvements in another. A second example is his proposal for the High in Oxford, in which he espoused Thomas Sharp’s 1948 plan for a new road across Christ Church Meadow. The justification for running a motor road through one of Britain’s finest examples of rus in urbe was to remove traffic from the High, which nearly everyone agrees is one of the world’s finest townscapes and which Mumford described as ‘consummate’.

Sharp’s urban analysis of the High was highly regarded, but his plan was abandoned, as was the later Geoffrey Jellicoe plan, but not without much ado. Sharp, Jellicoe and Cullen all made the unfortunate error of supposing that the presence of the road could be made acceptably palatable if you could not see it from some key viewpoints (Vine Street, Philadelphia, is a bad example, not a good one), and that such a proposal could be justified by the supposed benefits elsewhere. We must be grateful that the precautionary principle (or Oxford’s intractability, if you prefer) prevailed – but the High still has too much traffic.

In the end we must return to Jane Jacobs’s approach. Urban congestion is getting worse. The issue has become a problem of health as well as convenience. We need to continue to develop diffuse land-use and travel patterns that reduce demand and crowding at transport intersections. Technology may come to our aid. Real-time, GPS-enabled transport applications for mobile phones might easily advocate alternatives to the quickest route – such as the nicest route, the walk through the historic centre or along the canal. But these options will be useful only if the historic environment can provide sufficient diversity of interest with all its lessons and opportunities.

As Mumford tells us, urban congestion is as old as urban areas themselves. On 21 April 1667 Samuel Pepys first moots in his diary the idea that he might buy a coach. His logic is that he is spending too much on hackneys (taxis), but it flies in the face of frequent references in his diary to ‘stops of coaches’ (traffic jams). But his biggest obstacle to having a coach is having somewhere to park it. He buys a coach but his friend ‘finds most infinite fault with it, both as to being out of fashion and heavy’, so he buys a racier model and finally, on 25 November 1668, three days before the coach is delivered, ‘this evening, to my great content, I got Sir Richard Ford to give me leave to set my coach in his yard’. Such is our love-affair with the private car.


This article originally appeared in IHBC’s Context 150, published in July 2017. It was written by James Caird, Chair of IHBC.

--Institute of Historic Building Conservation

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