Thursday, August 13

Charles Robinson's Planning Textbook

This post is part three of a Garden City summer reading series ...

City Planning with Special Reference to Planning of Streets and Lots by Charles Mulford Robinson was a standard textbook during the early stages of the professionalization of planning in America. Written in 1916, it only shortly followed the first formal attempts at land use planning and the creation of local planning commissions. The textbook continues the transition from the traditional urban form evident in the Garden City movement to prescriptions for a more thoroughly modernized city. Robinson was more aware of the potential and needs of the automobile than Raymond Unwin, although he still held on to the traditional notion that the street was the most important public space in urban areas. He attempted to deal with this tension by differentiating streets from each other and districts of a city from each other.

Hierarchy of Streets

More than anything, the Robinson textbook set out to do away with laws determining standardized street widths and monotonous grid patterns for an entire city. The variety of uses needs to be matched with a variety of forms, he argued persuasively. Several more general principles of street design were presented, some of which are now commonly understood, some of which are fairly well discredited, and some of which have been forgotten. Here are a few in random order:

  1. Streets need to serve both the traffic that passes through and the people who live along them. These clients have different needs.
  2. Streets in commercial areas need to attract traffic, and residential streets need to discourage traffic. The use of different widths serves this purpose.
  3. Street platting needs to carefully take into account topography. They should curve with the contours of nature and avoid excessive grading.
  4. Wide streets are almost always desirable, because people naturally want to be near the hustle of traffic and enjoy the open space they provide. However, they may be too expensive and should not be used in lower-class areas.
  5. Traffic congestion is purely the result of a lack of centralized authority. Just as a hydraulic engineer can create channels to handle an increased flow of water, the planner can efficiently move the increased flow of modern traffic with rational placement of roads.
  6. Parking is the most difficult puzzle brought by the growth of automobiles, and there have been no good solutions proposed for meeting this need. (Parking is only mentioned once).
  7. Although there are many benefits to service alleys, in general they are not suitable for modern transportation.
  8. To make room for future increases in traffic, streets should either be built wider then necessary or buildings should be required to be set-back a certain distance from the street.
  9. Sidewalks are more necessary for lower-class districts than for upper-class districts. Those who can afford to drive would prefer to keep the sides of the roads natural.
The Origins of Zoning

There’s a common narrative about how zoning unfolded in America. First, planners needed to find ways to separate dangerous and unhealthy factories from the places where people lived. Once the legal basis for this tool was secured, it was eventually employed to separate businesses from residents. The final stage of zoning was to segregating different kinds of people from each other. That’s how we reached where we are today.

However, the Robinson textbook indicates that this progression was, if anything, reversed. In reality, residences at the time couldn’t be separated much from industry, because many of the working classes had to be within walking distance from their jobs. On the other hand, some of the very earliest uses of zoning were explicitly intended to separate “exclusive” neighborhoods from the lower classes, whether by requiring minimum densities or barring anything but detached single-family housing.

Robinson is very intentional about the class separation purpose of zoning,
Both poor and rich are probably happier in their own environment, among their own kind, where each can live his own life in his own way, without covetousness or odious comparison.”
The textbook contains separate chapters for lot platting for “humble homes” and “high-class streets.” However, he did believe that the planner ought to put these districts in relative proximity to each other, so that the classes might mingle at their borders.

Robinson argued that zoning achieved many other purposes, and he strongly pushed for its continued battle through the legal thicket. The constitutional foundations for zoning would not be laid until Euclid vs. Ambler a full decade later, but that Supreme Court majority decision relied heavily on expert opinion from planners such as Robinson. The case for the "health and welfare" benefits of zoning was laid out succinctly in the Robinson textbook: It allowed for the platting of different kinds of streets, narrow for residential and wide for commercial. It led to a stabilization and increase in property values by allowing buyers reasonable expectations. More than anything, zoning lent itself to the spirit of specialization and division of labor, which was in keeping with progress into the modern age.
We would plan the areas that are to serve special purposes – as those of commerce, manufacturing, or residence – with the same forethought as an architect plans the different rooms of the house.”
Promoting Suburbanization

By 1916 the process of dispersing residential dwellings across the countryside was well underway. To earlier housing advocates, who considered the overcrowding of tenements and the lack of fresh air and light to be the major problems of urbanization, this was a welcomed trend. The advent of more efficient and individualized transportation and the invention of mortgage would allow the vast numbers of households to spread out into healthier conditions.

In many ways, Robinson framed the task of planners as facilitating this process of suburbanization as much possible within their powers. The textbook assumes that a single-family detached dwelling is a “real home,” and depriving families of such a home and garden could potentially jeopardize American institutions. It’s important to remember that, like Ebenezer Howard, Robinson considered densities of 12 – 18 units per acre to be low-density, a density that some contemporary suburbanites would consider unlivable.

The main tool for encouraging the dispersal of population at the planners disposal is the creation of broad thoroughfares emanating outward from the cores of cities. Robinson was very aware of the linkage between transportation infrastructure and land use, and he called for the creation of a radial series of four-lane parkways pushing out of cities with lateral connecting roads serving as a rudimentary beltway.

This is where the historical context is important. Although Robinson was aware of the rapid pace of land development, very few thinkers at that time had a clear notion that there may be limits or costs involved. Development was still considered an unequivocally good thing. Similarly, the notion that the fossil fuels needed to run automobiles were finite was not understood at all. Science and technology seemed to be able to solve every problem without creating any new ones, and there didn't seem to be any trade-offs between maximizing personal autonomy and realizing a vital community. City Planning in 1916 was nothing but optimistic concerning the powers of human reason, and the Robinson textbook reflects the spirit of the age well.


Eric Orozco said...

A delicious synopsis. I certainly appreciate these!

Eric Orozco said...

By the way I like the spiderweb plan for its sheer uselessness. It reveals a lot about the composers slavish adherence to order, grossly out of scale with reality. Those eight homes in the center (underneath the spider's feet?) certainly must feel important.

Eric Fischer said...

By the way, there *were* concerns at that time about the limited supply of gasoline.

For example, see the 1918 World Book Encyclopedia entry for Gasoline:

"It is estimated that if these processes were generally adopted the petroleum deposits of the United States would last for over a hundred years, whereas at the present rate of production it is believed they will be exhausted in twenty-seven years." Looking back, the 27-year estimate was clearly wrong, but it's hard to believe that people would have rebuilt the world around a technology that they expected to have such a short lifetime.