COLUMN: Civic Society with David Winpenny

Lechworth Garden City, the first in Britain.
Lechworth Garden City, the first in Britain.
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David takes a look at the formation and legacy of the Royal Town Planning Institute, which held its first meeting just over a century ago.

A century ago the Town Planning Institute – now the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) – was founded; the first meeting was held on November 21, 1913, an inaugural dinner was held on January 30 and Thomas Adams was elected its first president on March 13, 1914.

Town planning was hardly a new idea. From the earliest times, since humanity rose above mere subsistence, some sort of thought has been given to how we plan our communities – and especially our town and cities. Some of the earliest civilisations used grid patterns to lay out their cities, and both the Greeks and the Romans followed suit.

In the Middle Ages many new cities were laid out in the same way – Salisbury is a prime example. Renaissance cities experimented with new layouts, but were keen to separate municipal, employment and residential areas.

By the time we get to the Industrial Revolution – and Britain was in the lead at this time – there was much more of a free-for-all in planning; new industrial areas were developed cheek-by-jowl with housing, often laid out in long terraces of back-to-back houses. All this is, of course, a generalised view; there were always enlightened men like Robert Owen at New Lanark and Sir Titus Salt at Saltaire who were sufficiently forward-looking and philanthropic (even if the philanthropy was serving their own commercial ends, too) to see that good housing and better social conditions were necessary.

Ebenezer Howard’s Garden Cities Movement moved the debate on; in 1898 Howard published To-Morrow: A Peaceful Path to Real Reform (republished in a revised version in 1902 as Garden Cities of To-morrow), in which he described a utopian city where people lived harmoniously together – and in harmony with nature.

In 1899 he founded the Garden Cities Association, known now as the Town and Country Planning Association. Letchworth Garden City, north of London was begun in 1903.

Town planning was by now well on its way to becoming both a profession and an academic discipline.

In 1909 the University of Liverpool set up the first academic course on urban planning. In the same year the Housing and Town Planning Act laid down that local authorities had to introduce coherent systems of town planning across the country.

They had to use the ideas formulated by the Garden Cities Movement, and they also had to ensure that all house building met specified building standards.

The 1909 Act was the spur for different professions, including architects, surveyors, civil engineers and lawyers, to work as part of or alongside local authorities to plan development; the idea that town planning was a distinctive profession with its own branches of expertise had arrived.

In 1910, Thomas Adams, soon to be President of the RTPI, was appointed as the first Town Planning Inspector for the Local Government Board, which had been set up in 1871 to oversee local administration in England and Wales.

Among the thinkers and writers who influenced the new discipline was Patrick Geddes.

Born in 1854, Geddes was a student at Perth Academy then went to study mining at London’s Royal School of Mines. While there he came under the influence of the biologist Thomas Huxley, and switched disciplines – not for the last time in his career. After running an experimental zoological station in Aberdeen for a while, he joined a scientific expedition to Mexico, where an illness affected his eyesight.

Back in Britain, no longer able to use a microscope for his biological studies, he started to study humans; he became a social scientist. From there it was short step to seeking to improve living conditions for the poorest people, and to the elements of town planning that created good communities.

He set up new student flats in Edinburgh in the late 1880s, as well as an experiment in educating tenants of the inner city. Edinburgh has a Geddes Trail where visitors can follow his social work and rehabilitation in the city.

From 1900 Geddes was in London, helping to found the Sociological Society and exhibiting his ideas on town planning.

He spent ten years from 1914 in India, working on town planning in what was then Bombay. In 1915 he published Cities in Evolution, setting out his ideas. ‘Above all things,’ he writes, ‘seek to enter into the spirit of our city, its historic essence and its continuous life.

Our design will thus express, stimulate and develop its highest possibility, and so deal all the more effectively with its material and fundamental needs.’

Looking back at the 19th century he says, ‘Beauty, whether of Nature or Art, has too long been without effective defence against the ever-increasing smoke-cloud and machine-blast and slum-progress of industry’.

Geddes puts forward proposals for effective planning of new towns, and the improvement of older cities. ‘The Housing and Town Planning movement must at all costs be speedily advanced, our existing cities, towns, villages improved, with new garden villages where need be, and small garden cities as far as possible.’

But, he warns – and it’s a warning as relevant today as it was a century ago – ‘Peace and prosperity depend above all upon our degree of civic efficiency.’

Geddes put his ideas into practice in various schemes, including, in 1925, producing the blueprint for the new city of Tel Aviv. He was knighted in 1932, the year he died.

He influenced many town planners, including Raymond Unwin, second president of the RTPI, and subsequent generations acknowledge their debt to him.

And though we have been through many changes in our lives since the RTPI was founded, its work and the example of people like Howard and Geddes who influenced it, is still of great value – even in our more cynical age.