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The Best Urban Planning Book Is a Century Old

As today’s urbanists work to recover the art of planning, Raymond Unwin’s era remains uniquely instructive.

Andres Duany, the architect whose work is perhaps most closely associated with the New Urbanism movement in the United States, once described Raymond Unwin’s 1909 book, Town Planning in Practice, as “the best planning manual available.” For its aesthetic guidance, the quality of its writing, and the unique perspective of its time, it would be difficult to disagree.

The towns and cities of Unwin’s era—the late Victorian and Edwardian periods (1880-1910)—were often developed with an intense focus on efficient land use. Necessity drove this priority, but it also paid dividends in both beauty and practicality. The urbanism of the time also had another unique quality: it reflected the dizzying impacts of modern industry—including mass production, mass transportation, and commercial wealth—on the free-form traditions of town-building that Europe and its diaspora had refined since classical antiquity. For a better understanding of how modern town-building might incorporate the wisdom of the past, there is no more important period to study. And it would be hard to find a more thorough and clear introduction than Unwin’s century-old Town Planning.

Unwin’s 416-page volume is the product of a unique moment in planning history. Its timing endows it with a valuable perspective from which we may reflect on our own moment in the urban tradition. In Britain, where Unwin lived and wrote, and in the United States as well, the upheaval that had characterized urban growth in the late Victorian period was suddenly becoming subject to much greater analysis, criticism, and—importantly—law. Unwin’s work sought to influence the new and growing web of legal devices that played a key role in the transformation that was taking place. As Unwin was writing, governments were assuming greater powers over land development; reformers were pursuing cooperative organizations and founding garden cities; and a confident cohort of planners was fashioning new theories and approaches with an eye toward shaping a less accidental urban future. (Unwin himself was instrumental in developing the Hampstead Garden Suburb outside London.)

World War I had not yet shattered the idealism that prevailed in the West about the human ability to invent its way out of trouble. Unwin’s Town Planning is a snapshot of this cacophonous moment: his vision of urbanism is steeped in the beauty of old Europe and the possibilities of turn-of-the-century wealth; his critiques reflect an incredulous reaction to the ugliness of the pollution and poverty that characterized the darker side of urbanism at the same time.

Early in Town Planning, Unwin offers an extensive and detailed series of case studies of urbanism in the Western tradition—a survey of historical planning practices all the way up to those of his own time. This background establishes a context for the rest of the book.

Village Street in Dunster, Somersetshire.

He begins with the Italian colonies of ancient Greece, and the influence of Hippodamus, the first famous planner of the classical world. Unwin writes that Hippodamus sought to impose regularity on the Greek tendency to follow the contours of the land. He offers the gridded layout of Selinus in Sicily as a prime example of this influence. Unwin also includes examples from the classical East, including the Colonnade at Palmyra and the Temple of Diana at Ephesus. He discusses the forums of Rome and Pompeii, and the layouts of imperial towns on the Roman Empire’s western frontier. He explores examples of towns from medieval Germany, Renaissance Italy, and the City Beautiful era; and addresses a project from his own time with a discussion of Philadelphia’s Parisian-style plan for Benjamin Franklin Parkway.

Unwin’s series of case studies provide a sophisticated treatment of Western European cultural traditions and their expression through the urban form. The takeaway is not just a familiarity with the immense variety of urban forms within the broader tradition of European urbanism, but a recognition that urbanism is a social art, approachable in many ways, any one of which requires an intuitive understanding of human nature. That is to say, it is also not a strict science, as many 20th-century planners would naively insist.

In this vein, Unwin proceeds to address an interesting divergence between towns with plans that could be characterized as formal—those developed along regular grids with symmetrical parcels—and those with what may be called informal styles, which appear to have grown more incrementally, in deference to the contours of the land and the particular needs of individual sites:

It is true that the beauty of wild nature is usually informal in the sense in which we have used the term, but this does not mean that it is the result of chance, or of freedom from restraint. On the contrary, the forms which we find beautiful in wild nature are the result, so far as we know, of obedience the most perfect to laws the most complex, so much so that we may call the forms inevitable.

Unwin’s focus on a handful of specific design elements forms Town Planning’s most relevant contribution to the current conversation about real-estate development. These factors remain the salient characteristics of urban environments: compactness and variety. In America, they can be found in small towns and in large cities; in the forgotten, working-class neighborhoods of the Rust Belt; in the 1920s Gatsby suburbs of Long Island and New Jersey; in the mining towns of the old West; and in the most exclusive blocks of New York’s Upper East Side. Yet their absence from most neighborhoods built since 1945 is still manifest in the broken aesthetics and frayed social bonds of so many American communities. Often, these elements exist in older communities as a legacy of earlier times, but a failure of zoning to provide for their establishment in growing neighborhoods lies at the heart of their declining role in an expanding percentage of our communities. In regions that have largely developed since the postwar era, these elements may not exist much at all.

It is reasonable to presume that the relative compactness of historical towns and cities was in large part a byproduct of their intrinsic pedestrianism. That is to say, the most valuable land was that within walking distance of existing activities; and this consideration drove property owners to make the most intensive use of parcels within those limits. But Unwin addresses the shaping of compactness in at least one additional way that might not be evident to modern readers, particularly in North America: one of the main factors driving compact urbanism in the pre-modern era, Unwin notes, was the city wall. He writes:

Many ancient towns derive exceptional beauty from their enclosure by ramparts or walls. To this enclosure is due in no small measure the careful use of every yard of building space within the wall which has led to much of their picturesque effect. To this is due also the absence of that irregular fringe of half-developed suburb and half-spoiled country which forms such a hideous and depressing girdle around modern growing towns.

Unwin’s citation of compactness as a cause of not only practical but aesthetic benefits is astute. Still today, and far beyond the footprints of Europe’s walled cities, a disproportionate share of the world’s most photogenic urbanism, from San Francisco to Bodrum, Turkey—is located on narrow islands or peninsulas, where topography has created the physical equivalent of a defensive fortification. In light of this role of constraint in the development of compactness, Unwin advocates for a legal stand-in—the dedication of open space where construction will be off limits:

A certain concentration and grouping of buildings is necessary to produce the special beauties of the town, and this is inconsistent with the scattering of buildings which results from each one being isolated in its own patch of garden; but it is not inconsistent with the grouping of buildings in certain places and the provision of large parks or gardens in other places. If we are to produce really satisfactory town effects combined with the degree of open space now thought advisable, we must work on the principle of grouping our buildings and combining our open spaces, having areas fairly closely built upon, surrounded by others of open space, rather than that of scattering and indefinitely mixing our building and our spaces.

This is essentially a case for the establishment of greenbelts through local land-use planning.

In addition to definite growth boundaries, Unwin identifies another element of compactness: the well-defined town center. He describes an urban tradition dating from classical antiquity, in which public buildings are concentrated in a single, geographic space. This arrangement is practical, but it also has aesthetic value, creating a manifest concentration of important buildings that provides an identifiable core. The town center typically took shape around the agora, or public market, in the Greek world; or at the crossroads adjacent to the forum in Roman urbanism. By medieval times, Christians had replaced the classical assortment of pagan temples with a church or a cathedral; the adjacent spaces typically formed the center of European towns and cities, a pattern which persisted through the Renaissance and on down through the rise of industry. Then railroad stations were placed at the center of cities.

The arrangement of buildings to serve as vista terminations or create a sense of enclosure was frequently intentional. From this tradition of evolving public spaces, Unwin generalizes the concept of a place: a term used in French that shares its roots with the terms plaza, piazza, or platz; and that is echoed in the marketplace or the grassy commons of the English-speaking world. Unwin writes:

A place then, in the sense in which we wish to use the word, should be an enclosed space. The sense of enclosure is essential to the idea; not the complete enclosure of a continuous ring of buildings, like a quadrangle, for example; but a general sense of enclosure resulting from a fairly continuous frame of buildings, the breaks in which are small in relative extent and not too obvious. If we examine a series of ancient places we shall see that, whether from accident or design, the entrances into them are usually so arranged that they break the frame of buildings very little, if at all.

Compactness gives rise to variety, another essential element of urbanism, because in dense settings myriad activities are forced together; and the nature of commerce drives the increasing specialization and organic solidarity (to borrow a concept from Emile Durkheim), among participants in urban marketplaces. Accordingly, in traditional towns and cities, and in the absence of land-use zoning, a rich diversity of vital activities develops, logically, in overlapping space. This phenomenon characterized the blocks around classical forums and medieval cathedrals, much as it would the town centers of England and the British Empire (including many older towns and cities of the Colonial American eastern seaboard), and the Main Streets of middle America and the old West. All these compact loci shared the elements of public and religious spaces, as well as commercial and residential ones, within walking distance—and sight—of one another. In the absence of motor vehicles, this arrangement made a great deal of obvious sense.

Town Planning also addresses the basic elements of urban site plans and how an aesthetic approach to urbanism might inform the regulation of private development. This aspect of Unwin’s work offers a valuable snapshot of the legal and regulatory conflicts that were percolating at the time of his writing, as well as the technical dimensions and rules of thumb that were being considered as best practices in actual developments.

For all of the detail Unwin provides in this aspect of his work—including recommendations about lot coverage ratios, building massing, and other elements of construction that have long been included in codes—he remains quite conservative about the implementation of public dictates for the development of individual sites. In fact, Unwin seems somewhat torn on the prescriptive potential of planning, often supporting it in principle as a logical response to excesses of industrial urbanism, while voicing a deep skepticism about the potential to develop general rules that could be applied to achieve good results across a range of similar yet unique building sites.

Many examples in this part of Town Planning draw on the textbook Hampstead Garden Suburb project, outside London, whose planning Unwin helped to lead. Often, however, the elements of good urbanism that Unwin identified have been difficult to bring forth through the web of regulations that have been promulgated in the years since Town Planning was published. In his treatment of regulatory devices, Unwin seems to foresee the potential for this conflict. And if there is an overarching theme to Town Planning, it is the loss of the factors that once gave towns their character; and the question of how these might be recreated in the modern, industrial world.

In keeping with its physical, artistic approach to the subject, Town Planning is a visually compelling book. Its oversized pages are beautifully typeset and generously peppered with well-chosen photographs, drawings, and maps. Though not a comprehensive reference book, Town Planning contains a wealth of visual resources that planners, architects, and land-use attorneys might repurpose to illustrate the timeless spatial concepts of their own work. The same material constitutes a broad selection of the urban imagery and cartography of the early 20th century. Likewise, Unwin’s prose is clear, concise, and generally quite interesting; but the sheer quantity of examples that he offers can sometimes exceed what is strictly necessary to illustrate a concept. In this way, too, it resembles a reference book: its prose is more expansive, at times, than selective; and a reader who is not searching for a specific example may find that he or she has reached a point of diminishing returns before reaching the end of a chapter.

Dismantling some of the errors of more recent approaches to planning—especially the artificial separation of compatible uses, the centrality of traffic engineering, and the elimination of coherent town centers—requires us to look back to a time when the traditional art of town-building was still being practiced. It requires us to study the time-tested methods of incorporating the knowledge and wisdom of that tradition into the physical layout of neighborhoods. As today’s urbanists work to recover the art of planning, Unwin’s era remains uniquely instructive.

Theo Mackey Pollack practices law in New Jersey, is a consultant on urban-planning projects, and has worked on Hurricane Sandy recovery projects in New York City. He blogs at Legal Towns, and has also written for the Metro New York Transit-Oriented Development Newsletter and the Steven L. Newman Real Estate Institute’s white papers series. Copyright 2017 Theo Mackey Pollack.

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