A World View timeline of planning over the past century – Part 1

With the RTPI centenary coming up next year I have been helping them construct a timeline to tell the story of planning 1914-2014. Inevitably the focus is on the Institute itself and events in the UK. However, it set me wondering what a “World View” of planning over that 100 years might look like?

If you had to nominate just one event for each decade, what would it be? Here is my list. Do you agree with it? To keep the blog to a readable length I have confined this one to the period 1914-1963. In a couple of weeks I will do 1964-2013. In the meantime, I would welcome comments, counter-propositions and nominations for the period from the 1960s to the present.

Quite a lot of the definitive trends and practices were already in place before the onset of the World War. “Planning Schemes” as they were called had been introduced in the UK in legislation of 1909, though it was really Germany that led the way in “Town expansion planning”. In the USA the first National Conference on City Planning had been held in Washington, D.C. in 1909, the same year that Los Angeles introduced comprehensive land use zoning. The Howard-inspired First Garden City Ltd was already being built at Letchworth, and the Garden Suburb had also been invented. Thus, while mass suburbanisation only really began after the War ended, the international planning community were already engaged with ways to plan suburbs.

Therefore, my timeline entry is Patrick Geddes’ book “Cities in Evolution”. It was published in 1915, and gave the world a name for what was to become the dominant urban form for the century: the “conurbation”. At a time when planning internationally was closely tied to the umbilical cord of architecture and the City Beautiful, Geddes’ vision of “folk planning” was radical. It still remains ahead of its time across much of the world today. During this period Geddes was teaching at Bombay University at doing his Civic Surveys in several Indian cities, and planning Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, making him one of the first town planners to practice internationally.

In the previous decade planning had a free-wheeling innocence. During the 1920s, the Regional Planning Association of America played a crucial role in fostering and disseminating new design concepts both in America and internationally. Clarence Stein and Henry Wright developed the Radburn layout. Clarence Perry conceived the Neighbourhood Unit, and there were the landscaped parkways of New York.

The timeline entry is Le Corbusier’s Plan Voisin of 1925. It proposed extensive demolition of historic districts in the north of Paris. They would make way for 18 uniform 700 foot high towers. He couldn’t understand why there was outrage and why some called him a barbarian. None of that diminished the global influence of Le Corbusier’s vision, which endures, notably across much of Asia and the Middle East.

By the 1930s the darker side of planning was recognisable. Planning was not merely a matter of professional hubris: it was entangled in power in an age of dictators. Mussolini had already overseen a sweeping Master Plan to rebuild Rome. The 1935 plan to modernise Moscow with the metro system and ornate stations, sought to contain the city’s growth. Under-urbanisation was a persistent feature of Communist systems for the next half century.

In multi-ethnic Chicago, Louis Wirth grasped that what he called “heterogeneity” was a fundamental quality of cities. In Germany, Nazi theoreticians understood this too, and despised the urban culture and its roots in what we now call “diversity”. They celebrated the purity of small towns in rural areas. Nevertheless, Albert Speer was able to create his 1939 plan to transform Berlin into a staging ground for ceremonial displays of dictatorial power. It is the timeline entry because it so defined the era.

Often thought of as the “Golden Age” of urban planning, there is no shortage of candidates for this decade. The rebuilding of bomb-flattened Rotterdam showed the value of planning in a post-conflict situation. The UK’s Mark 1 New Towns had a global resonance.

In contrast, there was Copenhagen’s Finger Plan, which rejected the green belt and self-contained town British model, mixing jobs near homes with scope for commuting along high-speed transport links along the fingers. Stockholm’s 1952 General Plan similarly produced a definitive growth strategy, based on an underground railway network, and local pyramids of density around the stations. This is my timeline entry, because it has underpinned so much later practice internationally. Meanwhile, the University of Chicago began teaching planning as a form of decision-making, but it would be another 20 years before this perspective would become common currency .

The high hopes of the previous decade gave way to disappointment and critique. Rachel Carson’s 1962 book “The Silent Spring” raised international awareness of environmental pollution. However the timeline entry has to be Jane Jacobs’ “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” from the same year, which transcended the national focus in its title and helped people everywhere see cities and the role of planning in a new way.