An Urban Utopia? Learning from the urban town planning mistakes of the 20th Century
By Rob Chilton, Account Executive
It is a common misconception that the mass of concrete and brick 20th century development arose from the ashes of destruction in World War 2. Whilst the aftermath of the War was undoubtedly a catalyst for the radical redrawing of many of our town and city centres, the necessity for a fundamental change in our built environment was very much an ongoing project from the beginning of the century.
In the early 20th century, town and city centres were, for the first time, envisioned as safe pedestrianised meeting places rather than thoroughfares for traffic or mass residential areas in themselves. Victorian social reformers had identified the piecemeal development of slums in towns and cities as a major cause of poor living standards, and politicians resisting the global threat of discontent and revolution had to be seen to be doing something about it.
So even before the War, grandiose schemes for redesign and reimagining were well under way. Slum clearance projects gradually emptied town and city centres of substandard, almost Dickensian living conditions, and either moved whole populations into suburban overspill estates, or started to build upwards as flats and apartments became easier to deliver. This accelerated after World War 2, with architects and town planners taking advantage of mass clearances of bomb-damaged buildings to impose their own visions of modern urban life.
The appetite for building upwards to deliver mass housing took its inspiration both from the large-scale urban housing projects of the USA & various European countries, and also from smaller, but equally radical, developments in the UK over the turn of the century (such as the Peabody Estates that were built over some of the worst slums in East London). However, unlike the stability which allowed for the gradual development of those projects, post-war Britain was on the one hand almost bankrupt, and on the other hand clamouring for radical social change and an improvement in living standards.
Therefore, whilst redevelopment was necessary, it had to be done cheaply and quickly, which required innovative thinking by architects. In an age where the motor car had become more widely available, it was clear that the layouts of new towns and streets had to be designed with vehicles in mind. Specifically, many town planners mandated the complete separation of cars from pedestrians. New motorways and dual carriageways were built to accommodate the ever-expanding traffic, and ‘streets in the sky’ were seen as a futuristic solution to enable people to live and move around comfortably above the bustle of motor cars.
It became clear from the 1970s onwards, however, that the experimental nature of much of this municipal architecture was having unintended consequences. Iconic large developments such as Robin Hood Gardens in East London, the Hulme Crescents in Manchester and Park Hill in Sheffield were beset with structural and social problems arising from cheap, hasty construction and ill-thought-out public realm. Fundamentally, an inherent problem with ‘streets in the sky’ was that many of these streets eventually led to nowhere, and that estates separated from each other and the rest of the town by major roads were left isolated and unregarded.
Even ground-level overspill estates of the period were often built to a utopian design that bore little relation to the realities of everyday life. Again, poor-quality and hasty construction would often take place on boggy reclaimed farmland, full of winding alleyways that lead to dead ends, separated from nearby communities by major roads and with few sustainable retail facilities, sited as they were away from established areas that could also make use of them. Idealistic open squares and parks became eerie, dangerous places, particularly at night, and social order often broke down, leading to gang violence, and consequently further isolation as they became ‘no-go areas’. The same occurred in modern town centre precincts which, often completely separated from traffic, had gradually declined as shopping habits changed and out-of-town retail became more popular.
By the 1980s and 1990s, lessons had been learned, and some of these estates were already being pulled down and replaced, particularly after some of the more notorious projects had been condemned as ‘unfit for human habitation’. Whilst economic and environmental concerns at the time were still producing buildings that were not exactly objects of beauty or built to last, there was finally official acknowledgment that the separation of vehicles from people, residential from town centre and commercial, had been a monumental error, albeit one made with the best of intentions. New developments such as the dockland regeneration in Manchester, London and Liverpool, were predicated on the concept of residential and commercial/retail being side by side rather than isolated from each other.
By the 21st century, the problems inherent in the construction of mid-20th century tower blocks were all-too clear. Ultimately, high-rise living cannot be delivered ‘on the cheap’ – tragic consequences have arisen from doing so. Quite a number have received serious investment by local authorities to make them safe, and a handful more have benefitted handsomely from their own postcodes and are now private ‘des-res’s (Erno Goldfinger’s Trellick & Balfron Towers in London being stark examples). A significant number of others, particularly in Scotland, have been removed altogether.
So, in 2021, what have we learned from the mistakes of our well-meaning forebears who tried to deliver the shining new communities they felt Britain deserved? Firstly, whilst laudable efforts are made to reduce car use and compel as many as possible to use sustainable transport, traffic is a fact of life. Pretending it doesn’t exist, or compartmentalising it away from everything else, demonstrably hasn’t worked. Even where pedestrianised squares and streets exist, they must lend themselves to easy vehicle access or the same town centre planning mistakes will be repeated, and the public will vote with their feet.
Similarly, piling people into isolated estates far from retail hubs and other centres of population creates forgotten communities, and will negatively affect the social and economic wellbeing of those who live there. The entire, deck-access ‘streets in the sky’ concept has been largely abandoned, and whilst the more positive aspects of it have been reimagined for many small-scale developments (‘upside-down’ houses being an example, with living and communal spaces focussed on the upper floors), creating entire isolated communities on this model was unrealistic.
The most obvious lesson though, was the false economy inherent in unproven and cheap construction. Experimental estates and town centres that lasted little more than twenty years before needing to be comprehensively redeveloped are an indulgence that the public sector, and even the development industry, can no longer afford. The only sensible way forward is using tried and tested methods of high-quality, spacious, well-located, low-rise mass housing developments, ground-level town centres with easy vehicle access, and high-rise developments restricted to those areas where the land values justify them, and where they can be built and maintained properly.
Time will tell whether the mistakes of the 20th century will be repeated in the 21st, but it would appear that ‘learning the hard way’ has mandated otherwise.