A Readers Guide to Unwin’s Town Planning in Practice – Part 5 – Boundaries and Approaches

Today we’ll cover chapter 5 of Raymond Unwin’s ‘ Town planning in practice; an introduction to the art of designing cities and suburbs‘  of 1909.

It is this chapter that sets out Unwin’s ideas on Gateways most firmly, arguably where he has had most influence on urban design practice.

Historic towns are girdled by walls, with careful use of every part of space within, avoiding

that irregular fringe of half-developed suburb and half-spoiled country which forms such a hideous and depressing girdle around modern growing towns.

It is undesirable to fortify modern towns but

is most necessary in some way to define our town areas, and in the case of large towns to define and separate new areas and suburbs. It would seem desirable to limit in some way the size of towns, but how far this may be possible we have yet to learn.

Unwin was speaking well before any Green Belt was defined beyond the scale of that he himself proposed for Letchworth and he himself proposed for London a few years later.

Unwin then uses the example of Faubergs built outside of city gates, built in peace but abandoned in war to lend doubt the possibility for highly restrictive containment.

we may well doubt whether it will prove possible for us to limit the population of a modern town to a given number, should the town become so prosperous and popular that natural tendency would cause that number to be greatly increased. The attempt would bear some resemblance to King Canute and the flowing tide. There can, however, be little doubt that it is possible to set a limit to the size to which a town shall extend continuously without some break, some intervening belt of park or agricultural land ; and this at least it is most desirable to secure.

So here we see the origins of the concepts of regional planning, seeds already sown in Howard’s idea of the Social City, with urban containment not seen in isolation but one component of a policy to manage not twart urban growth.

the line of limitation may take many forms. Where woods exist and cannot be entirely preserved, a narrow belt of woodland, just enough to serve as a screen, may be secured, and through it may be taken a path or drive. An avenue of trees requires some years to mature, but a wide grass glade with such an avenue would be in time a most successful feature ; and while the latter trees were growing it might be  rendered delightful if planted with fruit-trees or other blossoming trees or shrubs. In large towns or areas it would be desirable to secure wide belts of park land, playing fields, or even agricultural land. In any case, we should secure some orderly line up to which the country and town may each extend and stop definitely, so avoiding the irregular margin of rubbish-heaps and derelict building land which spoils the approach to almost all our towns to-day. These belts might well define our parishes or our wards, and by so doing might help to foster a feeling of local unity in the area. As breathing spaces, they would be invaluable ; as haunts for birds and flowers, and as affording pleasant walks about the towns, free from the noise and worry of modern street traffic, they would give endless pleasure and would in a very true and right way bring into the town some of the charms of the country.

But this is hard as ‘the attempt has often led rather to the destruction of the beauty of both.’

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. 

Unwin even wished to make allotments harmonious through arrangements of hedges, walls and sheds.

Having dealt with open space and edges Unwin turned to Gateways

we must not forget the gateway and the importance of marking in some way the entrances of our towns, our suburbs, and our districts. The character of treatment will be quite different from that of the ancient gateway… but in many ways it would be fitting to mark the points where main roads cross our boundaries and enter towns, or new districts within the towns. For example, some little forecourt of green surrounded by buildings and led up to by an avenue of trees would strike at once the necessary note ; and many other simple devices will occur to the designer for giving the required emphasis and dignity to these points of entrance.

But Unwin noted that in modern times far more people will arrive by rail (still true in the centres of most great cities) where Gateways can be created.

The great archway at King’s Cross Station has about it such suggestion ; and if an open space in front of it could have replaced the low mean buildings and the narrow entrance lane, where the cabs and omnibuses jostle one another and threaten destruction to the arriving and departing passenger, some little dignity could have been given to this one of London’s modern gateways. Too often, as at Paddington, the station is entirely obscured by the hotel building In front, and the actual entrance and exit is nothing but a mean gangway on each side of, or through, the hotel building ; but one can imagine other treatments of railway stations with ample space in front for traffic, and with the hotels flanking the entrance, leaving the opening of the station with some genuine suggestion of gateway as the central feature.

Unwin will have been pleased that the masterplan for in front of Kings Cross is doing precisely this.  Lets hope the lesson is learned as well at Euston, where Unwin complained that the design was compromised because the only way for the station to expand was through Euston Square.

Unwin also wrote about how to make bridges more gateway like and recommended placing buildings servicing useful purposes in the abutments.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s