A Readers Guide to Unwin’s Town Planning in Practice – Part 7- Roads, Treatment and Planting

Today we’ll cover chapter 7 of Raymond Unwin’s ‘ Town planning in practice; an introduction to the art of designing cities and suburbs‘  of 1909.

Uniwn here moves beyond Sitte’s focus on individual places to look at town and city wide design issues.  Sometimes urban design is criticised as architecture writ large, te same skills used to design buildings just scaled up.  Unwin here and throughout showed how he never held this big architecture view, rather it looked at the city as a whole and zoomed in looking at the design ideas needed for each structural component of town planning.

ROADS are primarily highways for traffic. They serve also a secondary purpose in affording sites for buildings. They should therefore be considered in relation to both these functions, and in the order of their relative importance. For the roads in a town to satisfy properly their primary function of highways, they must be so designed as to provide generally for easy access from any point in the town to any other. But they should provide, in addition, special facilities for the ebb and flow of particular tides of traffic, such as that from the outskirts to the centre and back again which daily takes place in most large cities, or that across the town from a residential district to a quarter occupied by works, factories, or other places of employment, or to important railway stations, harbours, and other centres of industry.

The first decade of the C20th was also the period during which ideas on traffic/transport planning began to emerge.  In 1905 we had seen the first Royal Commission on the Traffic Problems of London.  It is too easy to forget that despite few cars towns were clogged with carriages and horse drawn trailers.

Unwin was critical of the typical grid/trellis arrangement

This arrangement, while it is convenient and economical for the building blocks, is open to serious objections ; it does not provide convenient roads for passing to and from the centre, and, except when going in two directions, all traffic must travel along two sides of a triangle to get from point to point. In addition to this, the arrangement produces a monotonous effect; the street pictures are not closed, and the vistas wander off in an indefinite, vanishing perspective, often devoid of interest or variety.

Today when layouts so often replace grids with main roads and culs-de-sac is is easy to miss some of the functional problems with a pure grid.

So what of introducing diagonal streets?

In many of the more modern systems the objection to the trellis arrangement of the roads is to some extent being met by introducing diagonal streets to accommodate the traffic to and from the  centre of the town; the result produced, however, is not entirely happy. The shapes of the plots, spaces, and road junctions which are created by these radiating streets crossing the square network of roads, are not such as to produce satisfactory buildings, or beautiful open spaces.

And historic towns

we find that to a very large extent they consist of main arteries branching out from the nucleus of the town in different directions—forming, in fact, an irregular radiating system; we find, further, that there has been a general tendency for cross roads to grow out from these main roads, approximately at right angles, and that these have in many cases been diverted or curved round to meet others ; and that in the end a very irregular network of streets has grown up, the outline of which would be  more nearly represented by a spider’s web than by any other figure.

In terms of designing modern towns

Except in cases where it is desirable to keep open distant views, straight roads indefinitely prolonged without change of direction or deviation of line are not only monotonous and destructive of satisfactory street pictures, but when running parallel to the direction in which high winds are liable to blow, are objectionable as developing their force to the utmost

The traffic problem is a complicated one, and there is a rather marked difference of opinion between the German and French schools as to the best way of dealing with it…German town planners now constantly break the direction of  their cross roads partly in order to secure increased  immunity from collision, but also to secure the closing of the street vistas…There is, however, much to be said in favour of the theory upon which the French school of town planners have acted, that it is in every way advantageous for traffic that a number of streets should meet at one point, and that ample provision should here be made for its circulation….in cases where the traffic is comparatively sparse, the chances of collision would be but slightly greater at a point where many roads meet than at the point where one road joins another. Danger arises, and delay is caused to traffic, by every change of direction of the vehicle, and it is obviously simpler, and less likely to cause confusion, to drive straight across a main street, when the condition of the traffic will allow it, than to drive into the street, take a turn, go along the street some distance, take another turn and go out of it; particularly is this the case with such vehicles as motorcars and electric trams, any turn of which, especially at right angles, always causes difficulty and danger.

Unwin thought such a geometrical approach did not fully take into account the human factor, what today we would call design by negotiation, that for example in complex junctions where traffic crosses drivers will slow down.  He goes on to discuss the French concept of the traffic circle, which became the Engliush Roundabout, the first of which was installed at Letchworth, which significantly reduce the number of crossing points.  He considered though in place formed by a large traffic circle

no sense of enclosure can be secured in a place of this character, and some care is required to produce anything like a satisfactory effect in the buildings themselves, so that one would regard it as an undesirable form of place except in cases where traffic considerations must be the all-important ones.

Unwin recognised the multiple functions that roads could serve

 For our most important and busiest highways we may well take a hint from the main railway lines, where central tracks are provided for the through expresses, and outside tracks for the slow stopping trains. This system has been largely adopted in continental cities, where on the main roads and boulevards multiple tracks have been provided. Through traffic in such a system is not impeded by vehicles stopping, turning, entering, or leaving the track, only by those which have to pass right across it; and the number of points at which these crossings can take place may be restricted. In many of these roads special tracks are provided for tramways, for riding,  and for cycling, in addition to those for the ordinary fast and slow traffic of vehicles. With such an arrangement a great improvement is possible in the position of the tram lines; these can be so planned that the trams pass along the side of the footway, so that people boarding or leaving the cars do so in safety. It is our English custom to run our trams in the centre of a wide roadway, and the poor pedestrian has to make a dash, at the risk of his life, through all the traffic of the street before he can reach the car. In the case of cars driven by electricity or motor power it has been found possible, both in America and on the Continent, to run the trams along a belt of grass, with a footway on each side, and thus the tramway becomes a street decoration, introducing a wide grass margin. These wide streets or boulevards are further decorated with avenues of trees, and are favourite promenading grounds in the evening, when the amount of traffic is reduced.

A great innovation of Unwins now widely used is to draw streets in section analysing the arrangement of multiple paths.  In criticising the one size fits all approach of English Bye Laws.

very great variation in widths should be provided for, and roads of different types and characters arranged.

And he argued that neither planning for beauty or planning for traffic need primarily triumph over the other

Roads, however, in addition to being avenues for traffic, serve the only less important function of providing sites and frontages for buildings, and it does not always follow that the form of road and road junction which would be the most convenient for traffic would necessarily afford the best sites for buildings, or provide the most beautiful grouping of these when erected ; it will therefore be necessary in some cases to concede something from one point of view or another, in one case sacrificing the beauty of the buildings for the greater convenience of the traffic and in another sacrificing a little of the directness of the traffic lines for the purpose of securing the more beautiful grouping of the buildings.

We see again in relation to streets Unwins key theory of the street picture

We have seen in speaking of places and squares how important to the effect is a sense of enclosure, the completion of the frame of buildings ; and much the tame applies to street pictures. When considering the buildings therefore, in order to secure a fairly frequent completion of the street picture, we shall desire to close from time to time the vista along the street; this result is secured by a break in the line of the street; or by a change of direction, or curve, either of which has the effect of bringing into view at the end of the street some of the buildings on the concave side.

Unwin then goes into an extended treatment about how roads meeting at different angles can be used to form places.  This is impossible to summarise and I can only recommend looking at the original text and diagrams.

Whilst acknowledging the advantages to creating street pictures of curving streets, Unwin giving High Street Oxford as an example, he also acknowledges the functional advantages of straight streets in getting from a to be and economy in services.  His recommendation to avoid the monotony of long lines of straight streets is to allow

judicious variation of the building line to build up a street picture in a straight street, in which a long  vanishing perspective is very largely replaced by portions of the sides of buildings seen in front elevation, and in this way quite picturesque street effects may be arrived at.  The setting back of some of the individual buildings in a street not only has the effect of breaking up the monotonous row, but affords an opportunity for the creation of forecourts to some of the buildings, which, when suitably treated, are very charming in themselves,

So if used carefully and judiciously that straight streets could be ‘freely used by the modern town planner’ ‘

For town and city centres Unwin favoured, at least when planning places for major public buildings straight streets ‘combined with some simple and regular curved lines’

On a regular site it is not difficult to erect an irregular, picturesque building, if such be desired ; but for an irregular site it may be very difficult to design a successful building in a style which depends largely on symmetry, balance of mass, and simplicity of line for its effect. In the suburbs of towns and in villages, where anything of a stately effect may not be attainable or even desirable, a much freer arrangement may be adopted.

Unwin concludes the chapter with an extended treatment of the landscape treatment of roads.  He was critical of the Victorian vices of overly formal and fussy beds and generally preferred simple, bold and more formal treatment.  His philosophy was that open spaces should be designed to meet a purpose, larger open spaces to meet multiple purpose in different areas and smaller open spaces only one.

The gardener, like the architect, has fixed his eye too exclusivdy on the individual plot; he has thought too much of the bulbs in his own individual beds. We need to think of the street, the district, the town as larger wholes, and find a glorious function and a worthy guidance for the decorative treatment of each plot and each house in so designing them that they shall contribute to some total effect. For is it not a finer thing to be a part of a great whole than to be merely a showy unit among a multitude of other units ?


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