Thoughts on economics and liberty

Rationale for town planning #2 – the 1917 views of Frank Stapley, architect

In continuation of my notes here, I found this. Word version below:


Town Planning probably owes its birth to the desire to improve the conditions brought about by the evils that have developed through the rapid growth of the cities and towns in the old country. Great objection has been taken to the manner and method of carrying out these enormous extensions. The whole business of laying out the streets and building the houses, had almost entirely fallen into the hands of the land jobbers, and jerry builders, with the result that they have built miles and miles of attached or terrace houses, of uniform monotonous ugliness. [Sanjeev: DISAGREE. This is purely a subjective matter, none of the business of government] There are probably hundreds of miles of these terraces in streets around London, which are built on much the same plan; and similar conditions prevailed in nearly every other city and town.

It is obvious that these conditions do not apply to Melbourne, we certainly have the land jobber and jerry builder, but they are not building terraces in our outer suburbs. We have other undesirable conditions, which require regulating and improving, therefore we should welcome and give careful study to town planning principles, and apply them for the improvement and beautification of the metropolis.

The present restrictions regulating the laying out, building and extending the metropolis, have been almost entirely of a utilitarian nature; with very little regard for the revivifying effect of art, which would add so much to the general attractiveness of the whole.

There can be no question that further restrictions are necessary to provide for the artistic building and planning of all extensions, which must—amongst other things—provide for the reservation of open spaces for parks, gardens, sports grounds, squares, and main avenues, and sites for buildings of a public nature. Our present method of erecting buildings before the roads are made, and before the sewers are constructed and water laid on, is radically wrong and insanitary; it is very necessary if improved methods are to be introduced, that this practice should not be permitted and that provision should be made to prohibit the building of houses before these necessary works are completed. [Sanjeev: one can agree with this on public health grounds]

Provision has been made for all new streets to be not less than 50ft wide; this is sufficient for most streets, but main arterial roads should be wider and treated as avenues. For most residential streets, a carriage way of eighteen feet wide is ample, the footpaths should be paved and each 6ft. wide, this would leave strips between the footpaths 10ft. wide on each side for tree planting; this form of construction would cost less to construct and maintain than the usual method. The lighting should be by central swing lamps to avoid the trees. [Sanjeev: one can agree to this on efficiency grounds]

The width between the houses is of greater importance than the width of the street, therefore, there should be a space of not less than 10 feet on the inside of the fence line on which buildings should be prohibited; this reserve is usually provided for in England and called the forecourt; it was for this purpose that the old building regulations provided that the building surveyor may define the general building line, but it was apparently not understood, and became a dead letter. [Sanjeev: DISAGREE. This is nothing but a subjective preference, unrelated to any harm]

The width of streets should be in proportion to their lengths, long straight streets should be avoided because of the unending perspective, and cul de sacs should be prohibited, because they create drainage difficulties, and dead ends in the water supply. [Agreed on grounds of efficiency]

Tree planting in our streets, gardens and parks should be encouraged. In residential streets —if forecourts are provided— the back of the footpath—as mentioned before—is the best place. It is not a very creditable fact, that a great numbers of trees have been planted in the past, which have been neglected and allowed to die. Tree planting should only be carried out by trained arboriculturists and provisions should be made for their proper maintenance, there should be no divided control, such as the power given to the P.O. authorities to mutilate trees to protect their telephone wires. The present want of uniformity and system in our building restrictions is most unsatisfactory, if possible some modified regulations should be made to apply to the whole of the metropolis in conformity with modern ideas; consideration should be given as to the desirability of adopting zones or areas, to regulate the class of buildings to be erected thereon. It is an anomaly that Government and municipal buildings are exempt from all regulations, they at least should comply.

The housing question is of great importance and requires very careful consideration, it is desirable that facilities should be given to families of small means to acquire their own homes, which should be within reasonable distance from their places of business; it is very probable that the adoption of minimum allotments will defeat this object; that is, provided it is intended that one family should occupy each allotment, because the cost will be expensive for a man of moderate means. Unless there are restrictions as to the class, and height of buildings erected on these blocks, the effect may be that houses 3 or 4 stories high will be erected, which will be in habited by several families; in other words these people will be forced to live in flats or apartment houses, which surely was never intended.

Regulations for residences can only provide for a minimum in such matters as structural requirements, dimensions of rooms, natural lighting and ventilation, and special restrictions for particular localities might be made; for instance, there might be a limitation in the height of houses in some residential streets. With regard to open yard spaces, the area allowed should be in proportion to the number of storeys and the class of building; if two squares are required for a single storeyed cottage, occupied by one family, it is not logical for the same area to be sufficient for a 5-storeyed building let out as a flat, or apartments, and occupied by at least ten times more people. In small residences some relaxation of conditions might be allowed; for instance in semi-detached residences the party wall above the roof could be omitted with advantage to the appearance.

The whole of our existing regulations have been framed entirely on utilitarian lines, designed purely for the safety, health and comfort of the citizens. One of the essentially novel features in modern town planning, is the desire to develop the beautiful; it is clear that you cannot estimate the value of living in beautiful surroundings, and the suggestion has been made that it is desirable to establish some architectural standard. It must be remembered that, in a young community like ours, we have had little time for anything but the utilities of life, as we progress, and acquire more wealth and leisure we can look forward with confidence, to the increased growth of a love for the beautiful, and the development of the artistic, which no doubt will be fostered by a love of our country. Great progress has been made in the design and construction of our buildings, and it is the buildings that make the city, and it may be said they reflect the artistic attainments of the inhabitants.

We have no official regulations restricting the class or value of residential buildings proposed to be erected; that the necessity has been felt for some restrictions of this character, is proved by the fact that private owners have made conditions of sale which provided that designs must be submitted for approval, and that the buildings to be erected must be of a certain value.  [Sanjeev: The market works]

Also the Government years ago, sold some of the frontages to St. Kilda Road and Sydney Road under conditions that only villas or terraces could be erected of a certain value, and in accordance with the then existing Melbourne Building Regulations, the other frontages to these roads, were sold without these restrictions. The result is an object lesson to anyone studying this question because the buildings on the restricted areas are far superior to those on the unrestricted frontages, where they are of a mixed character including shops, public houses, factories and residences, with a very bro ken building line with the residences set back and the business premises built out to the street. The general effect is very disappointing and clearly points to the desirability of permanently reserving areas for residential buildings.

With regard to street architecture there is a growing feeling that the private owner should not be allowed to build for advertising purposes, which would be out of harmony with the surroundings, the suggestion to standardise street architecture would probably produce mono tony and failure. The question is an important one and should not be left to the engineer alone to decide; a solution of the difficulty might be found by appointing a board of experts to determine the suitability and architectural fitness of the designs of all buildings in certain principal streets and main avenues; also the suitability of designs for distinctive features, such as public buildings, bridges, river improvements, squares, monuments and memorials, and churches should be referred to them for approval.

Recently there has been considerable controversy over our primary industries, which are classified under our Health Act, as noxious trades; the popular solution for dealing with these businesses and factories, is that they are noxious, and cannot be improved, and that they should be removed to a remote district, where they could pollute the atmosphere, with evil smells, without let or hindrance; obviously this is all wrong, the whole matter is of importance to the whole community, and is essentially one that requires the very best expert advice. It is unquestionable that these industries are necessary, certainly some of them can be, and have been driven out of the country, there is no doubt that there has been steady improvement in the methods of manufacture which have resulted in minimising the evil smells, but still there is room for great improvement.

The tenure of these properties under the existing restrictions is precarious, and probably is responsible for the fact that the buildings are mostly dilapidated shanties, erected on low-lying land near the rivers which were originally both their source of water supply and their sewer. Probably it will be found, that, if proper methods, are adopted and enforced, there is no reason why these businesses should not be carried on without being a nuisance, but they should be under conditions which must be made to apply to them all. They should not be allowed in residential areas.

Factory areas should be defined where these premises and buildings could be erected, the first consideration for them is water and sewerage, also they must not be too remote from the homes of the employees who probably number over 10,000; and the transport of material should be considered. The sites should be isolated and the machinery and manufacturing methods the most up-to-date, and housed in substantial buildings, with impervious floors, tiled walls and changing rooms and lavatory accommodation for the employees.

The ventilation of the buildings should be designed to confine any smells within the buildings and extracted by fans through furnaces, or some other efficient method adopted.

The buildings should not be allowed to disfigure the landscape, they should be designed in a simple manner to give pleasing architectural results, and they should be compelled to plant and lay out the grounds and maintain them and the fences in a proper manner. The whole question is a matter of great urgency and requires the very best expert advice to overcome the many difficulties.

There is no doubt that the traffic congestion is the result of bad planning. The original lay out of Melbourne was in rectangular blocks, regardless of contour, consequently we have steep gradients in many of our streets which the traffic naturally avoids, and prefers the easy grades of Flinders-street, Elizabeth-street and parts of Swanston and other streets; as these streets form the approaches to the bridges and the railway station on the Yarra, the traffic becomes concentrated at the intersections of Flinders and Swanston Streets particularly between and 6 in the afternoon. Owing to the desire of all the electric tramways to continue their trams into the city, and the probable convertion of the cable trams into electric traction, everything points to the fact that this congestion will become more and more serious, unless some remedy is provided which would divert or spread the traffic and so give relief.

The proposal to erect a bridge over the Yarra opposite Spencer-street, has been under consideration for years, and should in the near future be taken in hand again, because it will give an outlet to the traffic and help to develop the southern side of the river in an area which should be reserved for stores, factories and buildings of that class. There are questions of levels, approaches and navigation, in connection with this proposed bridge which should be determined by expert engineers and architects.

In dealing with traffic congestion the result of bad planning, other countries in their endeavors to remedy the defects, have taken drastic action and have cut new streets through the congested centres of their cities, and we, in the future, may have to carry out similar work.

Finally it must be admitted that town planning is mostly an engineer’s job, and that their work in the past has generally been well carried out on utilitarian lines, and beneficial as a whole.

The beautification of the city should not be left more or less to chance, therefore, provision should be made for the  engineer to consult with the architect,  the artist, and the sculptor, especially  with regard to the atristic treatment of  all matters of public interest connected  with town planning.

Sanjeev Sabhlok

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