Urban Planning

The geographer is not only concerned with past and present distributions and interactions, but also with the future. Because of the resource problems arising from population growth, and the complexity of modern urbanised and industrialised societies, it is becoming increasingly necessary to plan. Planning has been described as ‘an ordered sequence of operations, designed to lead to the achievement of either a single goal, or to a balance between several goals (P. Hall), and the goals of geographical planning are both economic and social. Economic goals might be the identification of “best locations” for services, or the prevention of damaging spatial imbalances in the distribution of industry. Social goals might be the development of improved urban environments or the reduction of socially divisive spatial differences in levels of income.

To this end, there are two main types of geographical planning. First, there is physical planning, which is concerned with physical developments such as urban renewal, new town building or rural land-use planning. Secondly, there is economic planning, which is concerned with the spatial aspects of economic development, and with resource planning. These two types are very closely linked in practice, but they are given different emphasis at different levels of planning.

Urban Planning

Many early settlements may be described as planned towns in the sense that they were built to a pre-conceived, and often highly formal, ground plan. In Europe, the most impressive results of such formal town planning were achieved in the so-called Baroque Era of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Masterpieces of urban design from this period include the reconstruction of Rome in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, the building of the Palace of Versailles with its adjacent planned settlement, and the laying out of the German town of Karlsruhe. In Britain, the best example of town planning from this period is provided by the eighteenth-century development of the spa town of Bath. However, town planning in the modern sense, involving economics, sociology, politics and many other disciplines, rather than simply large-scale architectural design, is much more recent. In fact, the development of modern urban planning may be interpreted as a response to various economic and social problems that had their origins in the events of the Industrial Revolution, which initiated a period of rapid and largely uncontrolled urban growth.

The aims of twentieth-century town planning are to solve these problems, and more modestly, to prevent their duplication. Town planners have not always succeeded in these objectives, and many writers have argued persuasively against the planning process. Nevertheless, the essential aim is to improve the quality of urban life and to ‘provide for a spatial structure of activities or of land uses which is in some way better than the existing pattern without planning’ (P. Hall). The methods employed to attain these objectives provide a broad twofold division of urban planning activity, First, there are various techniques designed to limit the outward spread of the largest cities and to encourage decentralisation of their population and industry, Secondly, a variety of planning methods is used to improve environmental conditions in the cities themselves and to provide a more rational and efficient arrangement of urban land use.

Urban Decentralisation

Various reactions to rapid and excessive urban growth may be noted. First, there have been attempts to limit the formless spread of suburban housing by the creation of an encircling green belt. For example, a green belt around London, some 15 km wide, was delimited on the Greater London Plan of 1944, and eventually approved by the government between 1954 and 1958, The amount of new building in London’s green belt has subsequently been restricted, although by no means completely prevented, and there is some evidence that it has encouraged more compact forms of urban development around the margins of the built-up area. On the other hand, certain planners believe that a series of green ‘wedges’ bringing open space further into the city would be preferable to the straitjacket of the present green belt.

A more positive planning device is the attempt to decentralise industry and population from the largest cities and to break the pattern of long-distance commuting into their centres by the creation of new towns. The new town concept is not new, In Britain, it has certain antecedents in the building of a number of model townships in the second half of the nineteenth century such as Saltaire (1852), Bourneville (1879), Port Sunlight (1886) and Creswell (1895), all financed by the philanthropic, paternalistic factory or mine owners. These early planned factory towns had counterparts in other industrialised countries, Planned townships to house factory workers were built at Noisel- sur-Seine, France (1874), Pullman, Illinois (1881), and Agent Park in the Netherlands (1883).

Aspects of the new town movement may also be traced back to the planning and building of a number of garden suburbs in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, such as Bedford Park, Acton (1875), and Hampstead Garden Suburb (1907). The latter was influenced by the publication in 1895 of Ebenezer Howard’s ideas on garden cities, which may be seen as a reaction to the Victorian industrial city, Howard’s vision of the garden city became reality in 1903 when work started on the building of Letchworth, followed in 1919 by the founding of Welwyn Garden City. His ‘garden planning’ ideas also influenced housing developments elsewhere, as in the now-famous suburban housing development built at Radburn, New Jersey, during the 1930s.

The new town concept was revived in 1944 with the publication of S Patrick Abercrombie’s Greater London Plan in which it was suggested that a number of new towns should be built beyond the limit of London’s proposed green belt. These were envisaged as towns of the moderate size intended to fu tion as economically viable units with a full range of manufacturing and service industries and modern shopping facilities. It was hoped that they would attract population and industry from the overcrowded inner districts of London.

Following the New Towns Act of 1946, work started on the planning and building of the first group of newly designated new towns. Common to them all was a strict zonation and segregation of industry, housing and other land use. Housing was built at low density in the suburban tradition (about 5 houses per ha) but, following ideas first proposed by the American planner, Clarence Perry, arranged to form a series of neighbourhoods with shops, schools and other amenities planned for a population of about 5,000. Many lessons were learned from the building of the first generation of new towns, and those designated and planned between 1956 and 1965 show certain changes. For example, the neighbourhood principle was less strictly applied, and, in order to reduce the distance of journeys to work, the industry was less rigidly zoned and segregated from the housing. Housing densities were increased, and, with the steep rise in car ownership during the 1950s and 60s, much greater attention was given to the problems of traffic in towns. New towns, such as Cumbernauld, which incorporate these changes are sometimes referred to as second-generation new towns. The third, and most recently designated, group of new towns is characterised by a wide variety of plans, and again represent a questioning of earlier concepts and a search for new urban forms. Many, such as Milton Keynes, with a planned population of 250,000, are much larger than those built earlier.

The 33 British new towns designated up to 1984. All are in varying stages of completion. Nevertheless, more than 1-7 million people were living in new towns in that year. The building of new towns has been described as a unique contribution by the UK to the theory and practice of town planning and architecture. The concept has also been adopted in many other countries, and, as well as such well-known examples as Brasilia and New Delhi, a number of highly sophisticated new towns are now to be found in Sweden, Finland, France and the USA.

Mention should also be made of the expanded towns shown in Fi. 22.1. These are towns which have agreed to take “overspill’ population from London and other major centres in order to stimulate their own economic development and to help solve the problems of overcrowding and congestion in the major conurbations.

Planning Within the City

The formulation of plans for new towns provides an opportunity for a complete assessment of urban planning objectives and represents the most spectacular results of the planner’s work. However, most planning activity is concerned with the improvement of existing towns. Such work must be carried out within the constraints of an outdated urban structure and must attempt to reconcile the conflicting interests of a large existing population. Furthermore, the legal complexities stemming from a multiplicity of ownership and the financial burden of compensation mean that redevelopment and renewal is a slow and piecemeal process. In one sense, therefore, urban renewal poses even more complex problems than the new town building.

Underlying all modern planning within cities is the concept of land use zoning or long-term segregation of conflicting land uses. In the UK, following the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act and the creation of local planning authorities, each authority was required to produce a development plan showing existing land use, and proposals for its reorganisation over a 20-year period into distinct zones for industry, housing, recreation and so forth. The 1947 Act meant that any landowner wishing to develop a site had to apply for planning permission; the authority could refuse permission if the development was not in accord with its plan. The Act also enabled authorities to acquire properties and sites for redevelopment and established a system of compensation to owners for lost rights.

Housing conditions in most large cities are a matter of serious concern. As well as a frequent shortage of dwelling units, much of the housing stock of the blighted inner-city districts have been allowed to deteriorate, is overcrowded, in poor structural condition, lacking in amenities and badly located, often adjacent to main roads, railways and factories.

Compared with many other European countries the renewal of urban housing in the UK has proceeded only slowly during the post-war period. It has been estimated that slum clearance at an average rate of 75,000 dwellings per year since 1950 has, in fact, proceeded less slowly than the rate at which houses are becoming obsolete. The level of achievement varies from one planning authority to another. In some cities only small-scale, piecemeal renewal has been attempted, while in others very ambitious and imaginative projects have been completed. Some of these have involved rebuilding on the original site — for example, in the Barbican project of London, the Park Hill-Hyde Park scheme in Sheffield and the Gorbals redevelopment in Glasgow — while others have involved the transfer of population to new housing developments at the edge of the city. Well-documented examples of the latter process include the building of the Rockhampton Estate in south London and the Gleadless Valley Estate in Sheffield. As in the new towns, the neighbourhood unit scheme is an essential feature of the most successful of such post-war housing estates.

In recent years much discussion has centred on the relative merits of urban rehabilitation and comprehensive redevelopment. Rehabilitation involves installing modern amenities in old houses which are structurally sound, carry- ing out essential repairs and in many cases dividing large properties into smaller dwelling units. Supporters of rehabilitation argue that redevelopment is wasteful of resources, destroys community life, creates urban deserts during the demolition and rebuilding stage, produces new building on an inhuman scale and that change is not necessarily for the better. Conversely, the proponents of redevelopment argue that it is the only way of solving the inherited problems of poor design and layout, that human scale and diversity can be achieved in the new building, that rehabilitation is simply a postponement of inevitable redevelopment, and is in effect planning for the present rather than the future. In reality, the arguments tend to be economic rather than social. In this connection much depends on the age, structural condition and type of buildings concerned. In some areas, rehabilitation has been shown to be more economic, while elsewhere demolition and rebuilding has proved to be cheaper.

Another serious problem which has influenced the structural plans for both new towns and the redevelopment of existing cities is that of urban transportation. Of particular concern is the rapidly growing number of private motorcars, so that functionally, economically and visually the motorcar now threatens both large cities and small towns alike. Physical danger, noise, pollution and travel delays on congested roads are now an everyday experience for the city-dweller. What is also unfortunate is that countries with the highest levels of private car ownership have tended to neglect and allow deterioration of their public transport systems so that there is little incentive for commuters and others to use crowded, unreliable and costly public transport rather than private cars. Until recently planning devices to improve the flow of urban traffic was small-scale and largely ineffective, including little more than the creation of one-way traffic systems and controls on parking. In 1963 Traffic in Towns, a report prepared by a team headed by Sir Colin Buchanan demonstrated a more positive approach; namely, the idea of traffic segregation. This involves the subdivision of towns into environmental units in which vehicles have only limited access and the pedestrian is dominant. These environmental areas are connected to the rest of the town by a network of improved roads which carry the bulk of the traffic. This concept has been applied with varying degrees of success in a number of towns. However, it is true to say that the problems of urban traffic are still far from being resolved. and arguments still rage between those in favour of banning cars from city centres and those who advocate the construction of urban motorways and multi-level interchanges similar to those found in many American cities.

The conflict between motor vehicles and pedestrians is nowhere more acute than in city centres. In most large cities the pattern of streets and buildings grew up in a random manner or was laid out long before the advent of motor traffic. It was a district designed to serve a population many times smaller than at present. In their original form, most city centres are totally inadequate for modern requirements. Consequently, much post-war urban planning has been concerned with city centre redevelopment. This has generally involved the elimination of land uses making no contribution to the function of the CBD, and the segregation of vehicular and pedestrian traffic. Notable examples include the Lijnbaan in Rotterdam, Hötorget Centre in Stockholm and the central area of Coventry.

The City of the Future

Reference was made in Chapter Seventeen to the rapid growth of urban population in most parts of the world. One of the basic planning issues of the twentieth century has therefore been a search for the most appropriate forms of settlement in which to house this growing number of city-dwellers. Stemming from the early work of Ebenezer Howard, the solution adopted in Britain has been to restrict the continued outward expansion of the largest centres and to establish new growth points in the form of new and expanded towns. This raises further questions: should the number of new towns be allowed to increase, and, if so, where should they be located, how large should they be and what form should they take?

One approach, typified by the new towns around London, has been to establish a series of satellite towns around an existing centre. Such satellite towns are planned as self-contained, discrete units, theoretically independent of the central city. An alternative form is the radial or finger plan, in which new towns or new suburbs are developed along the radial routes, either urban motorways or suburban railways, leading out from the city centre. In this case, commuting and other links between the new towns and the central city are acknowledged and accepted but made as efficient as possible. A radically different approach is that of the linear city, first proposed by the Spanish architect, Arturo Soria y Mata. In this case, growth is envisaged along a single axis of high-speed, high-intensity transportation. Industrial development is allowed along one side and offices and shops on the other, with housing just beyond. Such a plan gives residents easy access to open space and allows for virtually unlimited expansion. Soria y Mata succeeded in building only a few kilometres of his linear city (EI Cuidad Lincal) on the outskirts of Madrid, and this has been largely swallowed up in the amorphous growth of the modern city. However, the linear concept underlies the 1965 plan for Paris and Lower Seine. In this, new town developments are proposed along two roughly parallel motorway routes north and south of the Seine between Paris and Rouen. The linear concept also reappears in modified form in the ideas for a ring city. The dominant transport route becomes a ring with a number of towns along its length and open space in its centre. Urban growth in the so-called Greenheart Metropolis of Randstad Holland is tending to assume this form.

Finally, reference should be made to the highly individual ideas of the American architect-planner, Frank Lloyd Wright, and the Swiss-born architect, Le Corbusier, both of whom designed buildings which are masterpieces of modern architecture, as well as producing blueprints for cities of the future. Wright argued that widespread car ownership had ended the need for activities to be concentrated in city centres, and proposed the idea of a carefully planned, low density, dispersed city. In his so-called Broadacre City, single-family homes were each surrounded by open space; housing districts were interspersed with shops and factories, and a vast ‘urban’ environment lacking any nucleus was linked together by a network of super-highways. Although differing in many respects from Wright’s description of the dispersed city of the future, the post-war growth of many American cities has produced a low-density structure which is not dissimilar from his basic concept. In Los Angeles, for example, over 70 per cent of the dwellings are detached houses and over 60 per cent of the ‘downtown’ area consists of urban motorways and other roads. In contrast to Wright’s low-density urban structure, Le Corbusier aimed at achieving very high overall densities while leaving up to 95 per cent of the ground unbuilt upon. The urban landscape advocated by Le Corbusier in his book, The Radiant City (La Ville Radieuse), consisted of massive, skyscraper blocks widely separated in finely landscaped open space. He also aimed at a complete flattening out of the urban density gradient, the elimination of high concentrations of buildings in the CBD and the substitution of virtually equal densities all over the city. Although Le Corbusier’s principles have nowhere been applied in their extreme form, his ideas nevertheless had a strong influence on post-war planning in many countries.


Modem urban planning is concerned both with a search for solutions to economic and social problems inherited from earlier periods of uncontrolled urban growth, and with the direction of contemporary urban growth into acceptable and efficient forms . It involves decentralisation of population from centres of excessive size into various forms of carefully planned new towns. It also involves a reordering of the structure of existing towns by techniques such as land use zoning, housing redevelopment and rehabilitation, traffic management and central area redevelopment. At present large-scale and rapid changes are also taking place in the countryside, and these too must be carefully planned.

[Credit by R. Knowles and J. Wareing]

Further Reading

  • Bell, C., and Bell, R., City Fathers: The Early History of Town Planning In Britain, Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1972.
  • Bracey, H.E., People in the Countryside, Routledge, London, 1970.
  • Buchanan, C ., Traffic in Towns, Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1964.
  • Burke, G., Townscapes, Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1976.
  • Cullingworth, J.B., Town and Country Planning in Britain (8th edn), Allen and Unwin, London, 1982.
  • Dobby, A., Conservation and Planning, Hutchinson, London, 1978.
  • Fairbrother, N., New Lives, New Landscapes, Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1972.
  • Gibson, M., and Langstaff, M., Renewal of the Urban Environment, Hutchinson, London, 1980.
  • Gilg. A., Countryside Planning. The First Three Decades, 1945-1976, Methuen, London, 1979.
  • Green, R.J., Country Planning, Manchester University Press, Manchester, 1971.
  • Hancock, J., Urban Development and Planning, Blackwell, Oxford, 1980.
  • Howard, E., Garden Cities of Tomorrow, Faber, London, 1965.
  • Jacobs, J., The Death and Life of Great American Cities. The Failure of Urban Planning, Penguin Harmondsworth, 1965.
  • Keeble, L., Town Planning Made Plain, Longman, London, 1983.
  • Kirby, D.A., Slum Housing and Urban Renewal, Longman, London, 1978.
  • Merlin, P., New Towns . Regional Planning and Development, Methuen, London, 1971.
  • Osborne, F. J., and Whittick, A., The New Towns. The Answer to Megalopolis, Hill, London, 1963.
  • Patmore, J.A., Land and Leisure, David Charles Newton Abbot, 1970.
  • Ratcliff, J., An Introduction to Town and Country Planning, Hutchinson, London, 1974.
  • Schaffer, F., The New Town Story, MacGibbon and Kee, London, 1970.
  • Tetlow, J., and Goss, A., Homes, Towns and Traffic, Faber, London, 1965.
  • Thomas, D., London’s Green Belt, Faber, London, 1965.
  • Westmacott , R., and Worthington, T., New Agricultural Landscapes, Countryside Commission, 1974.