selling the ideals of urbanism, 1948 and today

Many of us who write about cities like to share rediscovered videos from times gone by. The videos are especially notable when ideas with currency today are discussed in other contexts, providing opportunities to compare, contrast and sometimes be humbled by history.

Here is a prescient video from 1948, about “Charlie”. This cartoon protagonist champions the basics of the new town movement in post-war Great Britain—a Garden City-inspired effort intended to ease housing shortages. The first phases of the movement brought to the city planning lexicon names such as Stevenage, Crawley, Hemel-Hempstead, Harlow, Hatfield and Basildon (see Osborn and Whittick’s classic The New Towns (1963) for the full story).

An interesting tidbit: as the video explains, the “neighborhood centre” was a key premise of the British new towns—based on the guiding principles of the Reith Report as implemented through the New Towns Act of 1946.

Similar to then-contemporary American “neighborhood unit” principles, the new towns commonly featured structured neighborhoods of 5,000-10,000 inhabitants with at least one elementary school, local shops on two sides of a triangle or flanking a square with a church or public house.

What can we learn from the ever-optimistic Charlie (who ends the video on a bicycle)? Take a look at the video above, or review the script below, courtesy of the British National Archives:

Charlie: Our town was going to be a good place to work in, and a grand place to live in, with plenty of open spaces; parks, and playing fields where people could enjoy them, flower gardens, and of course there’d have to be an attractive town centre too, with plenty of room for folks to meet. Good shops, a posh theatre, cinemas, a concert hall, and a civic centre.

Chairman: We have to plan the residential area next. Let’s consider it as a series of neighbourhoods and take any one of them. Now – how shall we plan? Most important of all is the child. So we’ll need pedestrian routes for the pram-pusher. Nursery schools within 400 yards of every home. Primary schools within safe and easy reach. Each neighbourhood must have its own.

Voices: “Churches” “Community centre” “Shopping district” “And lots of pubs – right next door to me” (answer) “Oh no, you don’t.”

Chairman: Oh, there’ll be a pub quite near enough for you. And finally, we started on the houses. The site was planned for maximum sunshine and then everyone could take his choice.

Charlie: Detached houses – semi-detached – terraced houses. Flats for people who wanted them – hostels where the young folks could get together, and bungalows for the old ones.

And so we moved right in. I’m telling you – it works out fine; just you try it!

Modernize the script, and take away the industry-avoiding colonization of the hinterlands. Consider the neighborhood vision with jobs close to home. I would argue that the city neighborhoods sought by the creative class, multi-modal “Charlies” of today are nothing new, right down to the hoped-for micro-brew a short walk or bike ride away.

A similar version of this post first appeared in The Atlantic Cities.

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