A Readers Guide to Unwin’s Town Planning in Practice – Part 8 – Site Planning & Residential Roads

Today we’ll cover chapter 8 of Raymond Unwin’s ‘ Town planning in practice; an introduction to the art of designing cities and suburbs‘  of 1909.

What is the difference between site planning and town planning

in site planning the first consideration will be the arrangement of the buildings and the development of the site to the best advantage, whereas in town planning the first consideration must be the general convenience of the town, and the arrangement of the main roads. When the main roads have been laid down and the main traffic requirements have been provided for, the spaces left between these through roads can be developed more from the point of view of making the best of the sites for the buildings, and less from the point of view of public convenience….

Site planning cannot be carried out successfully in too wholesale a manner, without monotony resulting. It requires a degree of thought for the individual buildings, for the aspects and minor characteristics of the site

To what extent do they interplay?

it is impossible when dealing with a plan of a very large area to take full advantage of each individual site, or to give sufficient time and play of fancy and imagination, to produce the best result. It may, indeed, be helpful when engaged in town planning, to work out tentative site plans for different areas. It may, for example, be necessary to do this to see whether the larger parcels of land, which are left between two main roads, are of such shape and size that they will cut up economically for building purposes ; but such tentative schemes if prepared should be left open for revision by the site planner when he comes to deal with them. My experience has been that when the town planner him- self becomes the site planner, and concentrates the whole of his thought on one portion of the site, arranging buildings and open spaces upon it, he can generally improve considerably in detail on the preliminary scheme sketched out in connection with his town plan.

Unwin was very critical o9f the Tableau Rasa approach towards site planning

It has been too common for site planners’ to work out their plans on paper only, and to save themselves trouble by clearing away trees and hedgerows, wherever these happen to come in the way of the plan. No system can be more foolish, for a new building estate, at best, looks raw and poor, the gardens empty or filled only with small struggling shrubs and plants ; and nothing so helps the early appearance of a building site as the preservation of, existing trees, and even sometimes of existing hedgerows.

On how an area should be laid out

In planning out a site, whether large or small, one of the first considerations should be to determine the centre point of ‘the design.  In  any but very small sites there are likely to be required some buildings of a larger or more public character than the dwelling-houses — such, for example, as churches, chapels, public halls, institutes, libraries, baths, wash-houses, shops, inns or hotels, elementary and other schools ; and it would probably be well, having decided which, if any, of these are likely to be required, to group them in some convenient situation, and of them to form a centre for the scheme….

In the case of shops and refreshment-houses, the requirements are rather different, the essential thing being that they should front to the roadway which has, or is likely to have, the greatest amount of traffic passing to and fro.

Shops, moreover, generally succeed best  when in groups of a sufficient number to form what is known among the shopkeepers as a ‘ market ‘ ; odd shops scattered about are not liked. Sometimes it would be best not to attempt anything in the way of a centre beyond a portion of wide roadway, which might contain shops and a few public buildings, on the lines of the main village street with which every one is familiar. In other cases it may be possible, while keeping the shops on the main streets, to  develop opposite them a green or square around which some of the other buildings may be grouped ; but whatever be the form, there can be no doubt of the importance, even on small sites, of having some central feature up to which the design may lead.

This is one of the few sections where Unwin goes beyond aesthetic considerations to talk of teh conveniences and benefits of walking connection’s, here referring in the concept of a ‘market; what today we would call linked trips.

Unwin is sometimes charactatured and criticised as someone who promoted low density for low densities sake, but the following puts the lie to this, he was simply a pragmatist knowing his clients tastes:

types of beauty must be sought which do not clash with strong prejudices or desires on the part of future householders. This will often lead to a greater degree of openness in the spacing of the houses than from a purely architectural point of view might be desirable. But here again it may be possible, by grouping buildings, for them all to command a wider outlook ana have a more general sense of space than could be obtained by scattr them ; and it may easily be possible to reconcile those whose first idea would be to secure a detached house in the middle of its own plot of ground, to taking a house forming one of a group, if the grouping is so arranged that there is obviously a considerable gain in the matter of outlook.

If the creation of street pictures, which we looked at in the last chapter was Unwin’s first lw of town planning then the following was his second.

It is far safer, whether one’s plan leans to the formal or informal, to do nothing for which one has not good reasons.

& small left over spots within plans can provide good reasons

We may well remember the value of little open spaces, spots where folk may repair from the bustle of the street to stop and rest awhile ; very small spaces may serve such purposes. Playing places for children may often be secured in the centres of building areas, which without the making of an additional and costly road would be of little value for building purposes; points too where fine views are obtained, and where the sunset can be seen, can often be preserved by the devotion of a very small area of ground and would add much to the pleasure to be obtained in the district.

Qouting Henrietta Barnett over the Hampstead Garden Suburb

Both in town and site planning it is important to prevent the complete separation of different classes of people which is such a feature of the English modern town….

It is not within the power of the town planner to alter the prejudices of people, or to prevent entirely the growing up of the East End and West End in a town ; but a good deal may be done in this direction by care and forethought ; certainly within limits, more or less wide, there is no difficulty in mingling houses of different sizes. There is nothing whatever in the prejudices of people to justify the covering of large areas with houses of exactly the same size and type.

The growing up of suburbs occupied solely by any individual class is bad, socially, economically, and aesthetically. It is due to the wholesale and thoughtless character of town development, and is quite foreign to the traditions of our country ; it results very often in bad municipal government and unfair distribution of the burdens of local taxation, misunder- standing and want of trust between different classes of people, and in the development and exaggeration of differences of habit and thought ; it leads, too, to a dreary monotony of effect, which is almost as depressing as it is ugly.

Unwin quoted the traditional English village street where (then) houses of the rich stood alongside the cottage of the farm labourer as an example of the aesthetic benefits of such mixing.  Today the concept of mixed and balanced communities has lost some of its lustre because it was not based on such pragmatic considerations but on the theory that was a ‘neighbourhood effect’ on poverty from living in a very poor community.  That theory has been blown asunder by research.

From a practical point of view Unwin recommends running rods along natural hollows rather than across them to aid natural drainage.

Unwins ideas on street bye laws were highly influential.

The question of the character of building roads in this country certainly requires much re-consideration. There are two circumstances which have complicated the situation. First, the width of roads has been used, under our form of building bye-laws, to determine the distance between the houses, and as a means of securing a greater degree of open space than would otherwise be obtained. The result is that the widths of roads under the bye-laws commonly in force in the English towns, are not regulated with regard to requirements of traffic, a minimum width for streets is arbitrarily fixed, 40 to 50 feet being usual, and all roads are required to be laid out at least this width ; usually there is no power for the local authority to require greater width, although 40 to 50 feet is as utterly inadequate for the main roads of a town as it is excessive for the purpose of giving access to a few cottages. As a consequence, roads have to be wide-eyed at vast expense to allow for trams and for traffic, while cottages are built fronting to dreary wastes of asphalte and macadam, one half of which could with great advantage be added to their gardens or laid out as grass margin.

The second problem was requiring all roads regardless of traffic , to be laid out at standard low maintenance high cpital costs standards.  Which at then time he considered unnecessary

it is virtually certain that the road will only be used for the d^ly visits of the milkman’s cart and the daily rounds of the coal merchant’s van or the doctor’s gig, it is clear that a well-made track, more of the nature of a gentleman’s carriage drive, with a grass margin on each side, and in some cases a simple gravel or paved footway of narrow width, for use in wet weather, is all that need be demanded.

We may laugh today but there is plenty of examples of small private estates which suffice with only gravel roads, where because they arnt through routes and have low traffic they manage. A good example is the Kent House Conservation Area in Bromley which manages despite the roads leading to a railway station.

Unwin recounts how at Hampstead Garden Suburb a special Act of Parliament had to be obtained to allow freedom in road widths and laying out roads around open spaces which would otherwise have been impossible, whereas in Letchworth there were no bye laws and so it was possible to experiment with road widths.

Unwin talks at length about laying out streets to maximise daylight whilst avoiding excessive summer overheating, as well as layouts in relations to the prevailing wind.

In areas where major traffic roads run through residential areas Unwin talks of building most houses faces subsidiary roads to reduce dust noise and small. alas this has been overused especially on characterless and often lightly traffic ‘local distributor roads’ in many sites.