Best Planning Pamphlet in History Re-issued by TCPA – Unwin’s ‘Nothing Gained by Overcrowding’

If ever there was a ‘Town Planning Idol’ contest or ‘Greatest  Planner’ there would be an easy winner, edging past even Geddes, Howard, May, Abercrombie, Adams, Duany, Sitte, Karsten, Rassmussen, Calthorpe, Kohr and Nolen.

Why – because it was Unwin who properly integrated the conceptual ideas of the early Garden Cities and Town Planning movement with theories of urban design and actually getting places designed and built.  Through his freind John Nolen his ideas influenced North American designers and formed the basis of the new urbanism which has become the foundation of modern thinking on urban design and planning.

Not only did Unwin (with partner Barry Parker) design the first Garden Suburbs he masterplanned the first Garden City at Letchworth, did the first regional plan, wrote the most import pamphlet ‘Northing Gained by Overcrowding’ and most important book Town Planning in Practice (1909) in the history of planning (here is an online version  of the book for your IPAD), a book that should still be read by every planning student because as we have to relay less and the less on the motor car past peak oil his ideas become more relevant not less.

At the launch at parliament today  Kate Henderson, TCPA Chief Executive said:

“This publication is part of a resurgence of interest in one of the most successful stories in Britain’s social and architectural history, the Garden City movement. Although Unwin was writing one hundred years ago to address questions of housing layout, his ideas are more relevant than ever in our current social and economic conditions. Housing starts are at an all time low and new research has shown that the number of UK households with three or more generations living under the same roof has increased by 7% in the past five years, reaching levels last seen in Victorian times.

“Delivering more and better homes more quickly and more affordably is the defining challenge for our generation.”

The republication is available here 

Unwin’s argument was about the inefficiency of crude ladder lines of by law type housing, as you find for example in Noel Park next to Wood Green.  He showed how by a more rational layout you could use the saved land instead for gardens and children’s play areas.  Though a vast improvement on bye law layouts his scheme was designed to prove a point about use of space and he exaggerated his point.  The play and garden areas were huge and the densities too low.  He showed through diagrams that even with low densities land take from expansion of a town would become exponentially less with distance.  True but what we have seen in the C20th is densities falling exponentially too leading to vast sprawl in areas without land conserving planning rules.  Unwin also failed to properly understand that this only works in very small towns and suburbs where you can walk to a station.  If you require a whole city to be connected by buses and transit you need minimum densities to make that viable around public transport stops.  You can though still apply Unwin’s design principles and swap around the elements.  I would not discount for example, as Greg Clarke did in his talk at the launch, rear garden parking, this works well at Poundbury, and if parking is placed to the rear or the side as in many European compact city designs you can narrow down streets, make them pedestrian only, and have the sense of enclosure you get in historic towns.  There is nothing wrong with short permittee blocks, as long as the number of street with car access is limited as they turning, visibility areas and parking use so much space.  You can also move the open spaces to the front where children can be visually supervised playing, a problem with Unwins pamphlets layouts.  You can also increase the story height of Unwin’s layouts and have both the advantages of efficient layout and density.  What is really needed is a modern reworking of these principles showing a variety of layout options.  Of course what we got in the Garden Cities movement was some considerable experimentation at Letchworth , Welwyn Garden City and Hampstead Garden Suburb – with the greatest development in the  street blocks of Welwyn  (Samuels et. al. is the classic study) indeed scholars of Unwin (which sadly I would have to put myself in that category) would probably say that in practice Unwin used interior courtyards and irregular blocks more as it was a more practical way of laying out sites, indeed rear amenity areas tended to be used only on irregularly angled blocks where rear gardens would have been excessively long and that this pamphlet was more of a desk study designed to alter restrictive by laws than a design guide in the modern sense, and in that sense it was a huge success as those by laws swiftly changed.


Dr Patrick Clarke of URS does attempt to update the design layouts of the pamphlets, at more realistic densities, with far less wasteful use of land for vehicular manoeuvring and visibility splays, but it sticks a little too strictly to the original pamphlet layout with rear communal open space.  Indeed if doubled up his layout and replaced the centre block with an interior courtyard square you get the form that Unwin typically used as above.

 “The underlying argument of Unwin’s work was that with the correct housing layout you could build high quality, beautiful places that were also efficient and cost effective for both the developer and the resident. Re-imagining the Garden City planning principles for today can help us to unlock the delivery of attractive and sustainable neighbourhoods for the 21st century.”


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