Saturday, December 19, 2015

The Old(er) Way of City Planning

I've been reading through the 1912 "Plan of the City of Hartford" by the legendary firm Carrère and Hastings, a document which encapsulates some of the best conventional wisdom of that or any era in terms of planning, but which also foreshadows some of the profession's darker moments later in the century.
An ambitious comparison: Saxony's Dresden
as model for Hartford, CT's Capitol area.

There are many noteworthy aspects of the report, most prominently the heavy influence of European
laws and physical plans, and in particular plans of the cities of the German and Austrian Empires, an influence which would permanently fade after 1914.  Many of the cities featured in photographs as models for American cities to be followed were, only three decades later, obliterated in bombing campaigns, resulting in a physical destruction to complement the ideological and academic shifts in focus.

Although the laws of foreign countries provide as much to learn from as ever, as highlighted in Sonia Hirt's latest book, the report is significant to me for its focus on what was once called the street plan, a plan of such antiquity that it preceded zoning plans by millennia, going back to the Romans and further, and which was famously employed by American planners in such cities as New York, Savannah and Washington, D.C.  Rediscovering these plans has been a research focus of planner Paul Knight, who has devoted a website to the subject (I highly recommend his presentation on the subject, along with co-contributors available in PDF here).

The street plan, in antiquity and down nearly to the present day, was considered part and parcel of infrastructure along with sewer needs, fresh water and other necessities.  Not only major arteries, such as the old Roman inter-city roads, were considered as an object of central planning, but minor residential streets as well.  The 1912 plan explains the main rationale for this apparent micro-management as follows:

Reasonable enough?  One can read evidence of the practice of street development in the municipal proceedings of the era in a time before the existence of subdivision regulations, here as it turns out from Hartford's own Common Council Board in August, 1912:

In other words, while the developer would propose a street alignment, this was considered by the city planners in the context of the city plan itself, which at the time would have included a street plan.  Thus, for a developer to obtain approval of his proposed street, it would likely be to his benefit to have it agree with the city's pre-existing plan.  Thomaston Street, which exists today, fits seamlessly into Hartford's irregular, but generally continuous and interconnected, street pattern.  The street would also be a public one, but the plan was in conformity with the city's own plan for growth, and with such extensions happening incrementally, the city was unlikely to be overburdened with long-term maintenance obligations by such a development process.  Note also that Mr. Thomas named the street after himself, or so it seems -- apparently naming rights were vested in the developer, as a sort of added incentive.

Paul Knight's illustration of street-plan led vs. zoning led urban development.
But what of Carrère and Hastings' own plans?  A picture is worth a thousand words in this context, and fortunately the authors left us with some detailed renderings for street grid expansions.  Here the city "general plan," which as can be seen is a street plan, is presented in its entirety:

There is no zoning here, and no historic preservation overlay, although the heights of buildings were automatically limited relative to street width.  Notably are the large ring boulevard, cast as the Ringstrasse or Unter Den Linden of Hartford, but which equally appears to anticipate a grade-separated highway encircling the city.  Overall, the map delineates the public realm of the city: the streets, parks and certain public buildings, those things which were considered appropriate objects for planning.

Note also the newer planned areas to the corners of the map.  In contrast to the irregular grid of existing Hartford, these areas are drawn in a style which is clearly influenced by German neo-medievalist planning fashions of the day, but which again are also anticipating the curvilinear, limited access suburban developments of the late 20th century.  Nonetheless, the areas are drawn in in complete detail, with all, or at least most, subsidiary streets represented.

The planners note that Hartford was undergoing a period of small multifamily development, but are disappointed at the limited options for ownership under current laws.  One wonders whether they had pondered a condominium style of ownership, which at the time was still many years in the future.  In the absence of such laws, the only realistic option was for the freestanding house (common in Hartford) or the rowhouse (very uncommon in the city).


What is sobering to realize from the vantage point of a century later is how utterly the City Beautiful movement, as represented by this crowning document, failed in its efforts to ape the grandeur of the European city, and how thoroughly it succeeded in anticipating the primacy of the car and the rash of road-widenings and "stroad" construction that would follow in its wake.  After 1914, in fact, much of even the desire for inhuman-scale grandeur would fade, to be replaced by cold engineering and mechanical precision.  Dresden was never again to appear as a serious model for Hartford or, most likely, any other American city, and certainly not after 1945.*  And the street plan?  It was eliminated, either folded into "comprehensive plans" or dissolved into subdivision regulations that, using 1930s FHA standards, encouraged the excessively wide streets that the Hartford planners warned of.  In most cities, only the zoning plan survives, with no separate street plan at all.  Streets, many of them private, take selfish, non-connected forms, with the result that greater and greater volumes of traffic are channeled onto fewer and fewer roads which must therefore take on ever-increasing dimensions to handle the load.

In a few fast-growing American and Canadian cities, such as Toronto and Dallas, something of a street-plan led growth pattern is visible, and in most Mexican cities such a process continues today.  But in other cities, there still may be something to take away from these old plans despite their failures.


*Dresden's historic center is currently undergoing a major rebuilding project, indicating that Dresden may be built again, from scratch, before the original City Beautiful plans are fully realized in Hartford.


  1. Great article, and specifically a big thanks to linking those resources (the book, site, and PDF)

    1. Thanks Zeph. I did not link Paul Knight's "Great American Grid" website in the piece, but there is a link to it under "Other Urban Links" at right. You may be interested in that also.

    2. Thanks!

      I was reading over the PDF for "RESTORING MASTER STREET PLANS: A BLUEPRINT FOR FUTURE DEVELOPMENT" and he uses an analogy that a city without a master street plan is like the Mona Lisa all smudged up. I would have to disagree that that premise is 100% true. Sure, in the West, esp. in North America, we've ended up with a hodgepodge of crappy streets because there is basically NO rules regarding how streets interact with buildings other than "make wide roads so cars don't plow into buildings"... which we know was folly. Here it is almost a Wild West-like attitude, where as long as you are in the right sort of zone, whatever you build doesnt matter if you can afford it.

      A master street plan is a top-down way of approaching city building, and asserts that there is any certainty in real life, as it anything could be. It expect that all the inhabitants who it is designed for will come, and the businesses that go where the businsses should go will come and will all succeed.

      I think something similar to the Japanese sort of planning is superior and more responsive to the needs to those who use the place. Top-down in that it can enforced by law, and uses a form of zoning (but not exclusionary zoning), but bottom-up by being more of a set of pattern rules that get applied to the structure *in relation to other properties* not just as if it was an isolated property.

      Where NA zoning says "only commercial can be here" and "only residential can be there", a pattern-based code can let change and use be organic and flexible while not making others around a new building suffer.

    3. I wanted to add, I'm aware of form-based zoning, which seems IMO pretty mostly orthogonal to Japanese-esque zoning. Japanese zoning doesn't care about the building's exact form - that the building uses a certain material or has a cornice or not - but more how it interacts with the street and with people, which I think is far more important to a lively and complete built environment. Indeed, a form-based code's goal is to make a streetscape which is in many ways frozen in time, not easily alterable to the needs of the people there.

    4. Hi Zeph -- very interesting thoughts. Western planning is obsessed with harmonious form. Simon Vallee has noted this similarity even between the austere apartment blocks of central Europe and the low-density suburbs of North America. Flexible, pattern-based planning rules really have never held sway here so far as I know, but I think you are right that such a regime would be preferable. It is possible to have a leapfrog pattern of development that nonetheless is planned to grow into a coherent whole -- Mexican cities seem to do this successfully.

    5. Interesting article. I am a transportation planner who grew up in Hartford, on the corner of Thomaston St. (named in the article) and Cornwall St.
      Time has not been kind to the city and the idea of a ring boulevard morphed in the 1960's (under the auspices of the State Highway Engineers) into an inner Interstate loop that cut large swaths through the city and encircled the downtown like a noose. A segment of the loop that would have taken much of Bushnell Park and become an angry backdrop for the State Capitol building was thankfully killed in subsequent years by environmental activists.

  2. Delving into these old plans, it is fascinating how conscious the planning was over dimensions of the streets. In Savannah's, for example, width of the streets and alleys in the ward stay more or less consistent ward to ward, except that the bounding streets may "float" getting wider as the needs of travel might require (the Oglethorpe and Liberty pair for example). While the "tithing" parcel lot depths stick around 100 feet (+/- 10ft), the most consistent aspect of the plan are the dimensions of the street widths (by the role of the street). Not the squares sizes, not the ward sizes, but the right of way widths.

    The other thing that becomes evident is how dimensions of area and distance were conceptually much stronger related because of the regularity of the furlong (a 1/8th of a mile) as an organizing element. The U.S. Ordinance grid of five acre blocks is a good example. A furlong by a furlong is 10 acres and every planner took that for granted. In our day, I think largely because of the absence of "rules of thumb" related to the street fabric, we don't relate distance and area readily to each other. To me anyway, I had no notion for the size of an "acre" for the longest time - at least it was very fuzzy.

    By delinking from the street and block, we've conceptually delinked units from one another so fundamental to existence. I'd be surprised if planners even knew the importance of 660 feet, but it was as second nature to Oglethorpe and Jefferson as balance is to a cat.