A Readers Guide to Unwin’s Town Planning in Practice – Part 4 – The City Survey

Today we’ll cover chapter 4 of Raymond Unwin’s ‘ Town planning in practice; an introduction to the art of designing cities and suburbs‘  of 1909.

The first half of the book covered Unwins design philosophy.  The second half covers his ideas on good planning in a systematic way.

He starts this with the city survey, Patrick Geddes concept of ‘Survey Before Plan’ reigns here.

Professor Geddes has published some most helpful and stimulating essays on this subject ; and although it may not always be practicable to carry the survey to the extent suggested by him, there can be no doubt about its importance

Unwins form practicality is again centrepiece

we cannot rightly say the practical considerations come before the artistic, or the artistic before the practical ; they are interdependent, and must be worked out together. But there is this difference between them, that the practical considerations are often fixed, while the artistic expression may take varying form. Drainage will not run uphill to suit the prettiest plan ; nor will people, to please the most imperious designer, go where they do not want to go or abstain from going where they must needs go, and from taking generally the shortest route to get there. Lines of drainage and of traffic may indeed be modified, but only within fairly narrow limits ; and the planner who pits the form of his plan against the forces which define these limits will but wreck his scheme.

If GIS had been around in Unwin’s day he would certainly have used it

[the survey] should be sufficiently thorough to enable maps to be prepared, based on the Ordnance Survey, coloured to indicate such matters as the degree of density of population in the different parts of the town and any insanitary areas or areas of special poverty ; the distribution of residential, business, and manufacturing areas, with such subdivisions of each as may seem desirable ; and the distribution of parks, public and other open spaces, and the extent of each…here should be collected a series of maps, showing as completely as possible the past development of the town ; and in addition plans should be prepared showing all public buildings, and all buildings or places of historic value, general interest, or special beauty ; while a collection of photographs of these taken from points of view exactly indicated on the plans would have great value. The geolicical maps of the Ordnance Survey will be useful, and any other results of local geological investigations should be collected, together with statistics of wind and weather, from which diagrams showing the climatic conditions could be prepared…Particulars of local industries and of those which show signs of increasing would be needed, with the nature of any special requirements, such as their dependence on water or railway frontage, and the area of land required per hundred employees….All existing drainage systems and water supplies, with the height and depth to which they are available and their capacity for increased use, should be scheduled.

Unwin did not neglect transport

Where the town to be dealt with is at all a large one, there should also be a careful survey made of general traffic ; statistics should be prepared of its distribution and of the relative intensity from different districts of the daily inward and outward flow of population. All existing traffic facilities should be tabulated and their capacities estimated, whether consisting of rdlways, tramways, Waterways, roads, subways, or bridges, and both proposed and desirable extensions noted, so that proper provision could be made for them in the new plan. …

But a weakness in Unwin’s writing was the lack of any concept of fully integrating the design and planning of transport with that of urban forms.

Unwin stated that it was ‘very important’ that cadastral maps were prepared.

Local requirements, customs, or prejudices affecting the desirable size and shape of building plots for various purposes and so influencing the distance apart of new streets, should be stated, and the widths, character, and treatment of new streets suitable for the locality might be suggested.

Character and treatment was an innovation, Unwin did not just consider streets as serving different functional needs in the distribution of traffic as places with their own defining character in a place.  This he elaborates on in much greater detail in future chapter.

Conditions as to building materials and traditional methods of building found in the locality, types of trees and shrubs prevalent or suitable for planting, and any other characteristics which go to make up the individuality, economic, historic, and artistic, of the town should be very carefully noted with a view to preserving and fostering such individuality.

Some estimate might well be made of future requirements in the way of schools and other public buildings, and of parks, playgrounds, and open spaces, so that suitable sites could be provided tor them ; while general suggestions as to special spots of natural beauty; as to the historic or legendary associations attaching to buildings or places ; as to special prospects, of the sea, river front or distant scene, or views of beautiful buildings or groups of buildings, which should be preserved or opened up, could not fail to be of great value.

It is interesting to compare the evidential requirements that Unwin set out with those in the NPPF of England today.  There is a great deal of overlap, and no obvious omissions in Unwins list.  What Unwins list that the NPPF does not however is any sense of learning a place, its history or potential.

The city which seeks to design its future developments must first know itself thoroughly, must understand its own needs and capacities. On the thoroughness of this understanding will depend both the economic success of all its plans, and the preservation of its individuality of character, by which alone the poetry of its existence can continue to cling to its enlarged self. The sacrifice of this individuality is to a city a vastly more momentous loss than we are to-day apt to realise.

what folly it is, surely, that we should allow our cheap transit to reduce all our towns to one dead level of characterless jumble instead of preserving in each its natural characteristic, which for ages has lent an interest and variety to the towns and villages of Britain, hardly to be found elsewhere.

In terms of planning the site.

The first thing the designer will do is to make sure he has all the needful plans ; these should include a survey of all the trees worth preserving on the site, and a contour plan showing by the contour Fold Map lines every five feet of height. Except on sites so level as to be  quite exceptional, this contour survey will be found not only invaluable to the designer but also a source of economy.

And Unwin was very much a barefoot planner

As the designer walks over the ground to be planned, he will picture to himself what would be the natural growth of the town or district if left to spread over the area. He will try to realise the direction which the main lines of traffic will inevitably take, which portions of the ground will be attractive for residences, and which will offer inducements for the development of shops, business premises, or industries. As he tramps along there will arise in his imagination a picture of the future community, with its needs and its aims, which will determine for him the most important points ; and the main lines of his plan should thus take shape in his mind before ever he comes to put them on paper.

Ill quote at length the following paragraphs at it is almost a direct line to Unwins thought processes as he tramped around.

An existing or probable railway station will at once give focus to the lines of traffic, and may be regarded as a centre from which easy access should be provided to all parts of the town or district, a provision the character of which will be affected by all existing highways or waterways. Existing bridges or points where the conditions are favourable for constructing bridges or subways over or under railways, rivers, or canals will suggest themselves as additional centre points in the system of roads, to which they would naturally converge. The grouping of the town or suburb upon the hills or slopes available will also be thought out most readily on the spot ; there, too, will most easily be selected suitable sites for factories, where they will have all the necessary facilities of rail and water carriage, and, if possible, where the prevailing wind will take the noise, dust, smell, and smoke away from the town. If such a site can be found screened somewhat from view from the residential districts and parks of the town, so much the better ; for, unfortunately, it is not yet generally thought necessary to consider the appearance which a factory presents, though there are to be  found many notable exceptions of factories and works designed to afford a comely exterior. The selecting of suitable positions for central squares or places round which may be grouped in some dignified order such public buildings as may be required for municipal, devotional, educational, or recreational purposes will be done on the site, and will require much thought For such purposes places must be chosen that will not only offer adequate architectural possibilities, but will also be suitable in character and position to form centre points in the plan, at which it may be reasonable to hope the common life of the city or district will find a focus.

The picture will grow in the designer’s mind as the various needs are considered and met ; and all the while he is thinking out the main points of his problem he will be finding spots of natural beauty to be preserved, trees to be guarded from destruction, distant views from the town, and views into it of the fine buildings he hopes some day to see rise on their allotted sites, to be kept open. There will be steep places to be avoided or overcome, the cost of roads always to be remembered, and a due relation to be maintained between this and the building areas opened up. But, while the problem seems to become more and more complicated, it is really solving itself ; for every fresh need and every circumistance considered is a new formative agency, determining for the designer the lines of his plan ; and his chief aim at first must be to determine and to keep clearly before him the right proportional importance of each and to give it due expression ; and only when, on the ground, all these formative influences have been balanced, can the designer safely commence to draw out his design. There will come a stage when the main lines of the plan as determined on the site exist in a flexible condition in his mind, when he feels the need of something more definite. This is the time for his designing genius to seize upon the ductile mass of requirements, conditions, and necessities, and, anchoring itself to the few absolutely fixed points, brushing aside minor obstacles or considerations where necessary, modifying or bowing to the major ones as each case seems to require, to mould the whole into some orderly and beautiful design.

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