Old Towns and New Needs; also the Town Extension Plan/Old Towns and New Needs
Old Towns and New Needs
By Paul Waterhouse, M.A., F.R.I.B.A.
Every art and every method has some object or end. It was Aristotle who said this, and knowing the authorship we claim the dictum to be beyond controversy true.
But what of its converse?
Has every object an art or a method which leads up to it? That is the question which we find before us in our present subject.
"Town-planning" is now an accepted expression. What is its meaning? Can we define it? Still more, I ask, can we go beyond a mere academic definition and give it practical illustration? Can we in fact proceed from our definition to the exposition of universal working formulæ capable of concrete and uniform issues.
In other words while we admit that the expression townplanning at least implies that there are certain human activities which have an object—the creation of perfect towns—can we go the length of stating that those activities and those desires may be formulated into anything resembling a science or a method?
I had well nigh begun my essay with the statement that town-planning is as easily defended by logic as it is defeated by history.
What is town-planning?
From the point of view of clearheaded lecture room reasoning it is the application to a town of that process of ordered forethought which we habitually apply to individual buildings.
Nothing could be neater as a definition, nothing more reasonable as a proposition.
Let us think of it thus:—the social and economic philosopher observes that houses on the whole are successful creations and that towns on the whole are—from his social and economic points of view—failures. In fact he might even say that the more important are the towns the greater are the failures. And why? Pure reason leaps to the answer. "The man" she says "who builds a house, even if he only spends three hundred pounds upon it, takes the precaution of spending three hundred shillings on an architect and a plan; but the town which is worth a hundred thousand times as much, perhaps a million times as much, is built by random accretion, by accident, by whim, by error.
So the social economic philosopher brings forth town-planning and makes it as clear as daylight that the newborn craft is to be the mother of millennium.
In short, to go back to our bit of Aristotle, if there is an art and method to which the name town-planning can be applied there is no doubt as to the existence of its aim. The aim is indubitable, but does the method, does the craft exist?
Please believe me, I speak in no mockery of town-planning, and if I am about to suggest to you that it is impossible to lay down a general code or science which under that name can be said to have universal application, it is not because I ignore the need of such a science but because I have some facts to put before you which show how impossible it is to secure that uniformity of circumstance upon which alone a science can be built.
There are three considerations which I wish to present, considerations which have an irresistible influence upon the subject we have met to consider.
(1). One is that towns, whether they receive regulated control or not, take and continue their disposition in accordance with certain influences which cannot be wholly checked by any laws or for that matter by any by-laws.
(2). Another is that for obvious reasons a town of size and importance cannot be planned as such from its birth.
(3). The third, and I don't mean to suggest that these three are all the disturbing factors I might catalogue, is that towns however perfect are always changing the units of their formation.
Each of these considerations in itself is so complex that I purposely refrain from attempting to give them names.
You will have gathered from my title, and from what I have already said, that I am abstaining almost entirely from the study of town-planning in its idealist aspect, the delightful and unusual pastime of pegging out a whole bran new city on a houseless thousand acre field. (This has been done, of course, by Romulus and other Romans, by Alexander and by American pioneers).
I am also keeping away from the subject of suburb plotting around existing towns, a fascinating theme on which you will hear Mr. Unwin, a specialist—and, what is more—an expert.
May I take my last difficulty first? A traveller, he was an American, was asked what he thought of Rome. "I guess," he answered, "it'll be a nice place when it is finished." This was a trans-Atlantic way of restating the old saying that Rome wasn't built in a day. It certainly was not. Rome had been Rome-building for 25 centuries when this good man made his observation, and it is probable that she will be still hard at work with bricks and mortar (or ferro-concrete) when this poor planet utters the first rumblings of dissolution.
Apart from all questions of growth of population, of traffic needs, and of city improvements, there goes on in every town a ceaseless substitution of new for old, which is so persistent that ordinary humanity does not even notice it. Very few folk observe the fact that the show streets of their favourite town are perpetually unfinished. If they do observe it at all, they will assure you that the prevailing scaffold-poles are merely temporary, and that everything will be straight and tidy by next season. They would honestly mean what they say, but you and I know that the time of tidiness will never come unless it is brought about by an age of universal poverty and apathy. So long as there is health there is wealth; so long as there is wealth there is change. And if things beautiful and old are spared who should complain? Certainly not an architect.
So here, at least, is one factor—perpetual flux—that defeats the theoretic town-planner.
And here is another, coming under my first heading, that, whatever planners may plan, there are certain laws differently operating in different localities which automatically affect city growth.
I am going, for purposes of illustration, occasionally to take London as an example. In so doing, I do not forget that I am lecturing in Manchester, a city with problems of her own and a history of her own, nor do I forget that I was born here, but I find several points which make London the most useful field for the illustration of the historical phenomena which we desire to study. It is, in the first place, a town of which most Englishmen know something; it is, with few exceptions, the most interesting town in the world, and as regards the problem of expansion in area and in population it has no rivals on this globe. Lastly, it is easier to secure facts (as to the successive alterations of plan) from London than from other English towns. London, poor thing, is very far from the ideals of the Psalmist. It may be a fair place, and the joy of the whole earth, but it is certainly not built as a city that is at unity in itself.
Any plan of London, selected from any period since plans were made will illustrate the rudimentary element of all city growth. Every town, however small its beginnings, and however large its developments is the subject of its own servants, I mean its roads.
In every kingdom certain towns establish themselves early in history as road centres. They may have sprung up at the junction of cross roads already existing as routes to other more important places—or they may as in the case of London be the object, the main and primary object, to which the roads tend.
At all events there came a time, early in our civilization, when London was a comparatively small centre of a comparatively large road radiation. That centre was no doubt the subject of a certain amount of deliberate town-planning; the mere fact of fortification which implies, inter alia, concentration within a fixed boundary, must have produced a measure of thoughtful disposition within the boundaries. But even inside the city walls there probably began a demonstration of the subjection to roads, which is one of the strongest factors that defy the economic occupation of land. Every house must have access, and consequently the houses are so built as to line the roads.
As soon as this process is continued outside any town there immediately arises with it a conspicuous hindrance to the profitable distribution of population on the soil.
Any suburban plan will illustrate my meaning. Wedge-shaped spaces of unbuilt area are left between the roads, and access to these spaces for further development is barred by the continuity of the dwellings or shops which line the roads. This difficulty is one which a town-planner with a clean sheet of paper to work on would easily foresee and overcome—but historically it is met by expedients of a makeshift nature, with various uncomfortable results. I should take up too much of your time if I were to describe fully the unsatisfactory consequences of this perfectly natural tendency. I need only mention two. One is that the later development of the land in the wedges leads to its occupation being of a different social character from that on the main roads, either better or meaner, the other that the subsequent widening of the roads, when required for the increased traffic is rendered costly or impossible.
Perhaps the most important considerations which I have to offer you are those which come under my second class. With the best intentions in the world no town-planner could possibly plan a large town as such. Certainly an expert might as an academic study take the needs and the opportunities of our present London and replan the town on its present site. He might say "here is a bit of ground measuring ten miles each way with certain natural features—the Thames for example—that must not be disturbed, which piece of ground is occupied by a million houses very badly arranged. I will rearrange them." He sets to work on paper, and let us suppose that on the night when his plans are finished there comes an earthquake and a fire.
In the morning all is ready for a start—the expert's new city can be begun. Happily there is no stint of money and no opposition, for his plan is acclaimed by all surviving London as ideal.
What then? It gets built, and we come back to look at it in two centuries' time. It is perfect then? Probably not, and I will lay before you a rather curious instance in proof.
In 1666 the heart of London was destroyed. The moment had come; and the man came too. Sir Christopher Wren was a combination of artist and scientist without equal since Leonardo da Vinci. He made his ideal plan and as it happened it was never acted upon. But it might have been. And what would have been the result? Here is an illustration of Wren's plan, placed as it might actually be at the present time in present London. (Fig. 1.)
What do we notice in regard to it? First that in spite of the admirable widening of the roads they are not as wide as we to-day should consider necessary; secondly that Wren's notions of the central requirements of London are inadequate; thirdly and this is most strange of all, we see that Wren had not the slightest fore-shadowing in his mind of the possibility that any bridge beside London Bridge might some day be necessary. We could hardly expect him to foretell railways and certainly the horrors of Cannon Street Station and Cannon Street Bridge could never have found a place in such a beauty loving mind, but one might have expected him at least to see the possibility of a reduplication of such a bridge as already existed. As it happens there are four additional bridges all affecting the area which Wren re-planned; and the Fleet ditch which Wren regarded as a fixed feature in the landscape has been submerged past all discovery except by the sewer men. Moreover Wren was unconscious of the future growth of London and imagined a concentration of functions which subsequent history has proved impossible.
We may understand from this illustration that even a supreme mind with a mass of data to work upon cannot form a scheme for a city which will hold its own as long as the buildings he erects endure. The very stones that Wren handled are smiling down on the accumulated facts which would have impaired his scheme in eight generations.No one knows to what size a city will grow. No one
knows in what direction it will grow, and no one knows what developments will take place in methods of transit. Here are three obscurations casting impenetrable shadow on the clearest of logical forecasts.
And now in order that we may get these disheartening considerations out of the way I will deal with some further difficulties which I may put roughly and generally into my last category.
I said that towns, however perfect, change the units of of their formation. The constant flux, or change of units applies not merely to the supplanting of old buildings by new, but to the rise, fall, change and development of individual districts under the influence of absorption and of the readjustment of social and commercial equilibrium. The simplest illustration of this is again found in London.
In a nice old book on our metropolis, I often read the account given of the habits of that manager of the Bank of England who held office in the lifetime of my great grandfather. Compelled by the duties of his post to sleep always at the Bank, this manager used nevertheless to drive out to dinner so that he might enjoy the country air of his home at—Islington. Three generations ago then Islington was an isolated village becoming a country residence for city men, its next stage was to become a suburb, from that it rapidly became part of outer London, now it is indistinguishable from London itself, but has undergone, like other absorbed townships a civic revulsion towards independence by promotion to Borough-hood. This process has gone on all round London, and the decentralisation produced by the elevation of the old Vestries into Boroughs, is a tribute to the enormity of the process of absorption in spite of the fact that this decentralising is counteracted and neutralised by the over-control of the County Council.
The fate of the shop centres is another symptom worth notice. Villages in process of absorption naturally grew. In fact, it was their growth that assisted the absorption by joining the ever increasing village group to the town group. The increased population made increased trade, and the village of Hackney for example turned its High Street into a bustling thoroughfare of shops. Though brought into closer touch with London it nevertheless developed its own trade resources and became a trade centre. But this centre soon had further centres outside it and became more than a mere passage or thoroughfare. For a time the transit of more passengers past the shops increased their notoriety and their trade, until the increasing speed of locomotion and the improvement of large shopping opportunities in central London began in recent days to withdraw custom from the Hackney centre.
Here we see a series of fairly rapid changes of economic equilibrium producing shifts of trade centre too swift and too uncertain to allow any established groundwork for a town-planner's schemes.
Parallel with these economic changes is a subtle, social and architectural change equally baffling to scientific study.
When land becomes vacant near enough to the town (by the town's advances) to be available for suburban building, it is rapidly occupied by builders and filled with houses of the type that lets most readily at the time. As further and more outward land is occupied, the outer houses are erected in a style and with accommodation suited to still newer and relatively more luxurious needs, and they consequently (thanks to our improving means of transit) supersede the more inward suburb, which thereupon sinks to a lower value, until the increasing needs of the centre again raise its character and supplant its buildings possibly by substituting commercial for domestic houses.
There is thus, even in residential property, a fluctuation of character and value which, unless a town-planner is able to prophesy future rates of increase in population and trade, will certainly baffle that town-planner's calculations.
All these foregoing considerations seem to point to the distressing conclusion that as far as large and established towns are concerned town-planning projects are of no value. But I have no wish to sum up in so pessimistic a vein. It may be perfectly true that if Manchester were all destroyed to-night and at once rebuilt on new lines the new city might prove vastly inconvenient and even insanitary to our grandchildren's grandchildren. But we may relieve our minds with the thought that the entire rebuilding of Manchester or of London is as unlikely as it is undesirable. A physician is not, thank heaven, called upon to invent a new man, but he does keep before his mind's eye a vision of what he believes to be the perfect man and is able, for a fee, to do a good deal of useful work in patching up imperfect humanity.
The town-planner's work in old towns is similarly a remedial rather than a creative work. It may be surgical at times. He may have to ply the knife, and he may now and then cut away more than he should, but when all is said there is certainly a field for this healing and corrective work.
And these academic exercises, even the vision of a replanned London are not really without their uses. The logical result of the considerations we have just been entertaining is undoubtedly that, except for the necessary building of new buildings which should wherever possible be confined to the replacing of old structures that are of no artistic or historic value, it would be better in the case of all old towns to do nothing whatever in the way of innovation except under dire necessity. And that reservation—the possibility of dire necessity—is really the key to the whole situation.
Town-planning is a rash game at best, but it is a game that must be played because desperate diseases require desperate remedies.
From one cause or another, and most of these causes are reducible ultimately to increase of population and to commercial prosperity, crises occur in the lives of cities which require to be met by operation on the city's corpus, I give here as an important instance the urgent facts set forth in the annual reports of the Traffic Branch of the Board of Trade. In fact there come times when it is obvious that something must be done and it is quite clear that however imperfect may be the science of town-planning and however liable it may be to fallibility in its methods of forecasting the future, that science must be called in to guide the measures for which necessity is clamorous. This is a self-evident truth, but up to the present it has seldom been evident to the corporations who control the destinies of our towns.
Every city should have some professional, I would sooner say some artistic guardian of its architectural interests. I use the word architectural advisedly and apply it consciously to a wider field than is generally allowed to it. A city has a corporate architecture, a cumulative architecture, no less important than the architecture of its component houses though hitherto that architecture has been disregarded, the only tribute to its very existence being the coinage of the word town-planning. The nobler word town architecture is as yet not come into use. A city is or should be a work of art. The fact that it has been built at different dates and by different minds with different aims and even different ideas of beauty is no bar to its qualification to be so considered. We do not on such grounds bar the claim of a cathedral reared in successive ages; and so when supreme difficulties of traffic, or supreme ugliness, or obvious inconvenience, or manifest social changes call imperatively for some remodelling in the city's features the aid should be sought of some artist who has made a study of the science of town-planning. It is clear, is it not, that no real work of art can be effected, either by a body of laymen elected mainly on political or economic grounds, or by an expert whose training and skill are directed to problems of a purely engineering nature. Even a corporation whose every alderman was a Michel Angelo or a Raphael would realize that works of art are produced by individuals rather than by committees.
And what will this artist of plan do when he is called in?
I feel sure that his right course if summoned to prescribe for a city's sickness would be to make up his mind first of all what the ideal disposition of that city would be if planned anew on the same site. That ideal plan if effected might, as I have said, prove in half-a-dozen generations to be in some respects deficient; but still it is the best aim that can be looked to and it is obviously unwise to undertake partial alteration in a city's plan without an eye to general results.
If a man of comprehensive ability and artistic skill sets himself to replan an existing city, reserving as fixed data the main, natural characteristics, such as rivers and hills, and all old buildings of architectural worth, as well as main roads of egress, he will probably be astonished to find how closely the existing conditions and disposition lend themselves to the possibility of readjustment to fit in with his model scheme, and what very simple changes will suffice to bring the real within reach of the ideal.
In any case, that exercise of wit, the replanning, will have served to open his eyes to a hundred points which call for his attention in the effort to work a particular improvement.It is impossible and undesirable that I should attempt to review the whole field of possible city improvements called for by the most urgent needs of modern towns, but I shall venture to offer a few observations on two of the most
FIG 2.—An "over-and-under" or viaduct crossing. A proposed treatment for the intersection of the main avenues advocated by the Royal Commission on London Traffic.
apparent. (1) Street improvement for the facilitation of increased traffic, and (2) the provision of open spaces.
Overcrowded streets are the commonest affliction of the city which has grown big in growing old. The remedy which occurs most readily to the mind of a corporation is widening, and it is generally to the widening process that they apply their attentions. It is a slow job at best, for it can only be effected by the gradual diminution of the sites which line the thoroughfare affected. It is always very costly, and it may be ruthlessly destructive of architectural beauty.
I venture to state that the town-planner consulted by a corporation will always, before sanctioning a widening, consider one or two important alternatives. In the first place, it is a fact that there are many streets in which the obstruction is brought about by causes altogether other than narrowness. Constantly it is due to cross traffic from side streets. In some cases, where they are of importance, it will generally be better boldly to face the possibility of forming a viaduct so that one road may pass over the other. Indeed there are places in our larger towns where the wideness of the main thoroughfare is a positive inducement to blocks caused solely by the meeting at right angles of large concourses of vehicles. The congestion and the waste of time, brought about at large centres of cross-traffic by the waiting of east and west for north and south and the returning of the compliment which goes on all day long, is enormous. The simplest device for its cure is the "over-and-under" or viaduct crossing. This of course can seldom be applied as a direct remedy because the offending streets are naturally at the point of their offending on an equal level and it becomes necessary either to substitute for one of the offenders another line of route, the levels of which favour the introduction of a viaduct, or to arrange that the crossing shall take place in some position where space is available for the necessary rise and fall of the two roads. As an example I offer an illustration of a scheme of my own for forming an over-and-under crossing for extensive traffic in Russell Square, London. (Fig. 2.)
Another device, hitherto but little tried, if at all, is a circus on what may be called the "merry-go-round" principle—otherwise the "gyratory" crossing. The roads, whether four cross roads or junctions of traffic with more radiations than four, meet at a circus like Oxford Circus, but with these important differences—first that vehicles are compelled to circulate in the circus—not to dash straight across it, and second, that in furtherance of this system the centre of the circus instead of being roadway is filled in, either by a pavement with fountain and trees or by a garden space or again with a circular block of buildings. (Fig. 3.)
I observed that the town-planner when called in consultation would before sanctioning a widening consider whether some other device would not really meet the difficulty better. I might have put the matter in another way by saying that the first duty of a town-planner, when confronted with a problem, is not to see how the proposed remedy can best be applied and devised, but to proceed to the diagnosis of the problem itself.
In nine cases out of ten the guardians of our cities and even their advisers (when there are any) spring to the medicine before they have correctly named the disease. They are like doctors who, satisfied with a patient's enunciation of some local symptom, are content to deal with that symptom, instead of making a searching examination of the invalid's whole system.
There are, for example, many cases of suggested street widening which should not be met by any dealings with the street in question at all, but rather by an entire relief of that street by the substitution of a parallel route. Particularly is this the case where a street, which has been the high street of an old suburban village, finds itself absorbed into a town. The ruthless widening of such a highway results as a rule, in much wanton destruction of old-world beauty and in a damage to property and consequent expense, which the adoption of a parallel route would altogether have avoided.
Town-planners are too ready to assume as data, facts which should not be so assumed. Indeed it would be a good rule in the logic of the town-planner to be always ready to suspect his major premiss, and in particular to increase his suspicion when the major premiss in question is one of long standing and of venerable antiquity. London is full of such ancient superstitions which would vanish before my proposed system of studying London's problem in the light of an ideal whole.
Wren's mistake, as we have seen, was that of assuming too readily that London Bridge was the only necessary crossing of the Thames, and of treating the reconstruction of the city as all that was necessary. It was many years before the further bridges came and even now we have never got used to the sufficiently obvious fact that Southwark and the Borough are very intimate and very near portions of our town. The sinuosities of the Thames are constantly forgotten, and it is a perfect marvel to me that hardly anyone recognises the importance of the fact that in crossing Westminster Bridge, though we thereby approach the south side of the Thames, we are travelling due east, so that a continuation of the line of the bridge would produce a road capable of leading almost direct from Westminster to the city. It is now an old hope of my own that a road may be constructed on the Surrey side (preferably as a viaduct crossing over other main roads) which shall lead easily and with great dignity from the residential quarters of the west to the heart of the banking centre, thus relieving the great east and west pressure at much less expense than would attend the construction of any relief road on the north side of the Thames.
In this connection I may draw attention to another prime essential in the formation of new or enlarged thoroughfares in old towns. The Traffic Commission of 1905 suggested among other things two new main avenues, one east and west, the other north and south. But they laid them down, tentatively, without any regard to the value and beauty of existing ancient buildings. A plan made by me in 1906 shows how these proposed routes could have been modified in such a way as to destroy no buildings of architectural value, and, what is more, to insult no such buildings by approaching or passing them at unsightly angles or without due regard to alignment or to view.
Before passing to the subject of open spaces, I have a few words to say on the phenomenon of road radiation. In a city well planned from the start, such as certain Roman built towns, the radiation does not penetrate within the main enceinte of the town, but is confined to the outlying quarters. The town of Winchester, will, for example, illustrate this.
In a very large town it is of course important to secure a certain possibility of progressing diagonally, otherwise the journey from place to place may unduly resemble a knight's move on the chess-board, but if I were planning anew a town of fair size, I would certainly retain a strict parallelogram formation for its central area and start the radiation at a quarter of a mile or half a mile from the focus. Moreover, it will be realised that in a town of the size of Manchester for example, the main, incoming roads carry traffic of a density which increases in ratio to their approach to the centre. Obviously, therefore, it would be theoretically desirable that every such road of ingress should on or near its entrance to the town be bifurcated so that its density of traffic should be approximately halved.
I have prepared and now submit a rather strange-looking plan which illustrates my meaning, and you will see that under favourable conditions the bifurcation might be so planned as to work in very effectively with a gridiron central formation in which the traffic difficulties might be further eased by the adoption of viaduct crossings. Such a system would lead to an automatic distribution of traffic which would go far to reduce the troubles of congestion. (Fig. 4.)
My special object in mentioning this subject here is that Manchester offers a conspicuously successful example of the bifurcation principle. Nearly all its main roads of ingress have relief roads parallel to them.
I have had no special opportunities of making a historical study of Manchester's growth so that I am unable to tell you, what very likely my audience can tell me, how this has come about. It is quite clear, however, that Manchester owes what I may call its open formation first to the irregularity of its seventeenth century nucleus, which in its turn is partly due to the river, and secondly to a very marked element of dignity in the schemes of those who in the eighteenth century controlled the town's rapid development.
The map of 1650 shows an irregular village, approached on the right bank of the Irwell by the roads from Broughton and Preston, which united at the bridge near the collegiate church, and on the other bank by the Altrincham or Chester Road (Deansgate) and those from Rochdale, Oldham, Ashton and London. Clearly, at that date, development was taking the usual historic course of lining the road sides and leaving country spaces between them, for there were gardens between Deansgate and the river and hedge-rows between Shudehill and Millgate. But the advance of a hundred and forty years shows a remarkable change of tactics. The plan of 1793 assures us that so far from continuing the wasteful process of following the main roads with houses and leaving the interstices to the care of themselves, the citizens of Manchester had boldly grasped the necessities of their case and had set to work so to lay out their land as to afford very complete and general occupation as well as a ready intercommunication.
I now come to the subject of open spaces, and on this topic have two things to say. First, and briefly, as to open spaces in the central parts of towns. There can be no question as to the value of these—from the aesthetic and the hygienic point of view. Most corporations appreciate the importance of them, and much has been done towards securing such islands of rural relief, both by private generosity and by corporate energy. In fact, the point need not be pressed here—but there is another aspect of the open-space problem which I think deserves a little special thought.
Have you ever realised that some foreign towns possess an element of beauty almost unknown in England, and have you ever discovered what that element is? I allude to the fact that here and there one comes across an ancient township in which the lack of wealth or enterprise, or the absence of population-pressure has made it unnecessary for the transition between town and country to be marked by a suburb of graduated ugliness.
I know one town in England where the shops suddenly end and the country suddenly begins. One sees many such abroad. But in England what do we generally find? By degrees, as you leave the town you discover that the good, gay shops give way to meaner shops mixed with mean residences. These give way to residences without shops, less mean but more dreary. Then follows a tract of desecrated country waiting to be eaten up in building lots, then a derelict farm, then a hideous market garden, next villas, beyond them a village, once rural, now aping town manners, beyond it, more villas and horrible new-laid roads, and last of all, very shyly and very slowly, with a gradual diminution of the apologetic sale-boards, unrural fences, mutilated hedges, and general sense of town oppression, you are welcomed by that fair and desirable thing, the country. Now I am bold enough to ask whether this perfectly horrible state of things need be.
I am aware that absolute contiguity between pure country and genuine city is almost impossible. If King Street, for example, were to end abruptly in the kind of landscape in which people hunt foxes and shoot partridges, both elements, the rural and the urban, would suffer from the contact simply because the town folk wouldn't and couldn't put up with the country roads, and the green fields and hedges wouldn't survive the friction, if I may so put it, of the citizens. In other words, a town of a certain density of population necessarily defies and defiles the immediate proximity of the country. I fear that one must acknowledge this in spite of the remarkable success with which the virginity of Epping Forest is preserved in the near neighbourhood of London.
But I do believe that we might, if we would, get rid of that painful decrescendo, that descending scale of graduated cheerlessness which at present encircles most of our towns, and I believe that the desired result can be obtained in connection with the circuit roads which town-planners are now beginning to look upon as a necessary element in the remodelling of our large cities. I am not wishing to claim originality for this idea, for I know that a girdle of green is a favourite scheme of many of the town-planning experts, and I believe that the bold intentions of Liverpool contain elements of this nature. But I should like to suggest that in towns of great magnitude, such as London, that girdle of green might be brought nearer the centre than the present circumference of the town. Practical politicians—such as the writers of the latest report of the Traffic Branch of the Board of Trade—admit that it is necessary to form a circuit road round a considerable portion of London at a distance no greater than five or six miles from the centre. I would urge that this circuit road should be completed so as to form an entire, if somewhat irregular circle. I would advocate such an arrangement of its course as would bring it into touch with all parks and open spaces already existing within reach, and, to complete the scheme, I would go one step further. It will be realised that the district through which such a road as this passes, might, if its course were judiciously chosen, consist very largely of the class of property which, socially, is at its lowest ebb.
It might, if its proximity to the centre were rather closer than that proposed by the Board of Trade, lie outside the suburb which has exchanged its residential decadence for commercial importance and inside the district of the better class suburb. It ought not, therefore, to be very difficult to devote a good portion of this property to rural development. The land might still have a financial value, for it is more than possible that an enactment restricting the number of houses per acre might lead to the formation of a rural suburb of greater worth than the existing inferior house property. I would not go the length of suggesting that all the land included in the belt of green should be park open to the public—though some would prefer that consummation—but consider that the desired end might be obtained by the mere insistence on the presence of trees and grass, and the comparative paucity of houses within the prescribed area.
I quite realise that outside and beyond this sacred grove the process of graduated squalor might possibly recommence, but I have faith in the notion that if London were once girdled in with a cheerful and definite garden four or five hundred yards in width, the amenities of street architecture and street life would be maintained up to that limit. The enterprise which keeps a town healthy and bright and gay would not suffer a gradual despair on its outward course, if it could feel that it had on this circumference a region of attractive and residential importance rather than a gradual collapse into the wilderness.
Let me briefly summarise the foregoing conclusions:
The word town-planning at least implies a certain aim, can it be said also to imply a definite and scientific method? History and facts seem to answer No. For though one may argue that as the building of a house requires the forethought of an architect, so, but in a much greater degree, does a city demand a designer. Yet experience shows first that towns tend, whatever their originator or their guardians may prescribe, to take matters into their own hands, secondly that with the utmost forethought no man can plan a large town ab initio, nor can even a large section of a town be replanned with the certainty of acceptance by posterity; and thirdly that large towns are always changing the units of their formation, old houses give way to new, and one district gives way socially to another.
Are we then to conclude that town-planning is merely a useless aspiration, and that its systems, if it has any, are so uncertain of general application as to be nugatory? Not so. For, to take an analogy from another craft, the system of man patching, which we call medicine, is justified by the dire necessity which says man must be healed or he dies. Similarly the study of ideal perfection in towns so far from being merely visionary, or positively mischievous is actually needful. For crises occur in the life of towns when action must be taken, decisive and costly action. At such times the town's adviser, though he knows that his scheme of perfection may become imperfection to his grandsons, must act upon that scheme, for it is his best, and there is at least a chance that it may have in it the elements of permanent beauty and permanent worth. Put in another way it may be said that the town planner is playing a game of which the rules may in three or four generations be completely changed—but in order to make a move in that game at all, and move he must, he should at least know the rules as they are in his day. Again a city must not on account of its slow growth and many designers be denied that title to artistic worth which we allow to a cathedral that has taken four centuries in building.
One of the main duties of the town planner in an old city is to make sure that no disrespect is done to anything which is old and beautiful or historic. And this avoidance of disrespect means, not merely preservation, but such an arrangement of the new surroundings as will insure that these treasures of the past may look their best and may seem at home in their surroundings.
Two simple and obvious opportunities for the town planner's skill are the removal or alleviation of traffic difficulties and the provision of open spaces.
In the first of these exercises he must always beware of assuming that the problem set before him is the proper subject for his attack. Frequently, a mere symptom is mistaken for the disease, and it is by no means certain that a corporation's idea of its own needs is correct. Moreover, road making and road mending can never in a valuable city be considered as a mere engineering process apart from questions of beauty or questions of historic and archaeological interest. Most roads are of more financial value than many houses, and there is at least as good reason for affording architectural—shall I say artistic—advice in half-a-mile of road as in a thousand pound villa. Yet a man on an income of four hundred a year will engage an architect for his week-end cottage, while a corporation with millions at its disposal would, until recent years, laugh at the idea of taking an artist's advice on a new street.
There are many ways of obviating traffic congestion among which road- widening, always costly, is not always the best.
In the provision of open spaces, heed should be given to the possibilities connected with the modern idea of circuit roads. Such roads may easily be planned in most cities in such a course, as to combine with the required avenue a broad girdle of almost rural woodland and meadow which would go far to mitigate the unpleasant relapse through gradations of ugliness, which forms the outer ring of most English towns.
In conclusion, six axioms on old towns and new needs.
Nothing in town-planning is impossible. I temper this by the single observation that there are some gradients which neither horse or motor can climb.
To leave alone is best—to do great things is noble, to do little things is wasteful.
Nothing is too expensive; it will be more expensive to-morrow.
A hundred guineas spent on advice are better than ten thousand pounds laid out in error.
Ugliness is the most expensive luxury.
Beauty is the cheapest of necessities.