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LIMITED MEANS AND GROWING PROBLEMS

The reductions in the powers of municipalities occasioned by the Revolution preceded by only a very few decades the emergence of the enormous growth pressures discussed in Chapter 2. Many municipalities grew rapidly, with little public control over the pattern of growth. In most cases municipal planning was in the hands of the commercial elite of the city.3 Planning thus often focused on the commercial heart of the city and ignored residential areas, particularly the poorer ones. Often, planning was concentrated on steps to facilitate the commercial and industrial growth of the city, such as inducing a railroad to extend a branch line to the city or improving the docks and the waterfront. Street patterns were often laid out to facilitate land subdivision and speculation.

The rectangular "gridiron" pattern became commonplace for exactly these reasons. It was easy to lay out, and it facilitated subdivision and speculation. More imaginative plans and plans adapted to particular terrain and topographic features were relatively rare. As land values rose with the growth of urban populations, pressures on remaining open space increased. Few municipalities were willing to accept the costs of acquiring land to protect it from development. Rapid growth, a strong regard for the sanctity of private property, the lure of quick profits from land development and speculation, and a feeling that promoting commercial growth was the number one function of municipal government were dominant motifs of the early nineteenth-century urban scene.

There were a few exceptions to the picture just presented. For example, L'Enfant's plan for Washington, DC was a unified vision of how street pattern, public spaces, and structures should form a grand design. And the motivation behind it was essentially civic, not commercial. In Savannah, Georgia, Oglethorpe's original plan continued to guide the development of the city into the mid-nineteenth century. A number of the public squares shown in the photo on page 32 still remain. But more often than not, the forces of growth ran rampant over the prerevolutionary plans. For example, William Penn's plan for Philadelphia, formulated in the 1680s, called for a system of broad streets, public open spaces, and setbacks around individual structures. But the growth pressures that began in the late eighteenth century simply overwhelmed the plan. The side- yard setbacks disappeared as houses were built wall to wall in block-long rows. Alleys were cut through blocks and then filled with row housing. Many public open spaces disappeared into commercial or residential use. There was no shortage of gracious and attractive city plans in eighteenth- century America, but most of them, like Philadelphia's, did not survive the growth pressures of the nineteenth century. By and large, Calvin Coolidge's famous aphorism, "the business of America is business," though uttered a century later, described early nineteenth-century urban America quite well.

 
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