Thomas Adams

Proceedings of the Third National Conference on City Planning. (Boston: National Conference on City Planning, 1911):27-37.

Thomas Adams (1871-1940) was an outstanding and pioneering leader of urban planning in three countries. Born on a farm near Edinburgh, Scotland and a farmer in his early years, Adams came to London as a journalist. He became interested in the Garden City movement, served as secretary to the Garden City Association and first manager of Letchworth--a position he held from 1903 to 1906. Adams then established a practice as a town planner, or rather as a designer of low-density residential developments that were commonly referred to as "garden suburbs." At Knebworth, an 800-acre estate not far from what would in 1946 become the new town of Stevenage, Adams was associated with Edwin Lutyens. In Wales near Cardiff, the 300-acre Glyn Cory suburb had been the work of Thomas H. Mawson, but Adams apparently provided the finishing details. The largest of these projects--Alkrington, four miles north of Manchester--was his sole responsibility.

Some form of statutory planning had been discussed for years, but it was not until 1909 that the nation's first town planning legislation passed Parliament. By then recognized as an expert in the field, Adams was a logical choice to serve the government in this capacity. Appointed as Town Planning Advisor to the Local Government Board, Adams from 1909 to 1914 occupied a key position in the field. However, it was not until 1913 that he earned professional status when he qualified as a surveyor. In 1914 Adams and others founded the Town Planning Institute, and in that year he came to Canada to advise that country's Commission of Conservation. In Canada he helped popularize the concept of planning, drafted and promoted model legislation for provincial adoption, organized the Civic Improvement League, and spoke and wrote to both professional and lay audiences. He also prepared several comprehensive plans, including one for the large area of Halifax destroyed by a War-time explosion of a munitions ship in the harbor.

His influence extended as well to the United States. He presented many papers at the National Conferences on City Planning and was one of the founding members of the American City Planning Institute in 1917. From 1923 to 1930 he was the director of the Regional Plan of New York, a vast research and planning project funded by substantial grants from the Russell Sage Foundation. Adams also taught at Harvard from 1930 to 1936 and from 1921 to 1936 at M.I.T. He maintained his ties with England where he founded in 1933 the Town and Country Planning Summer School. The Royal Institute of British Architects elected him a Fellow, and did the Institute of Landscape Architects which he served as President in 1937-39. He wrote many articles and reports, but his most substantial contribution to planning literature was his Recent Advances in Town Planning that was published in 1953.

His two sons became major figures in British and American planning as well. James W. R. Adams was the planner for Kent, and Frederick J. Adams taught at MIT and headed the program in planning there for many years. In 1948 The Town Planning Institute elected James its president, and the American Institute of Planners elected Frederick to the same office in its organization.

Before entering upon the discussion of this afternoon, I should like to make one or two observations, on my own behalf, in expressing the pleasure it gives me as a British citizen to be present here at this American gathering, and to take part in discussing this great town planning movement. It is...a world-wide movement, which is finding its expression in many activities among the English-speaking peoples on both sides of the Atlantic.

Those of us who have come from Britain have reason to appreciate the friendly reception given to us in the one or two American cities which we have visited. The men connected with the corporate life of these cities have shown themselves most willing to bring us in touch with their municipal activities, not only the "show window" part of these activities, but also those which may be described as "behind the scenes": not only those which indicate what you propose doing in the way of establishing beautiful civic centers and fine park systems, but also those which show that you have with you in your great cities in the United States, as we have in Britain, the slum problem, the problem of the housing of the very poor.

May I also express my congratulations to this great city for housing the town planning exhibition, for receiving this conference, and for the excellence of the organization by which they have prepared the way for this great meeting?

And now I have the honor to convey to you a message from the President of the Local Government Board in England. Mr. Burns regrets his inability to come to this meeting. He wished me to say that he appreciates what you are doing in America and desires to encourage you not only to look after your civic centers, not only to proceed with the work you are already doing in promoting extensive park systems in connection with your cities, but also to remember that in Great Britain we continue to make it one of our chief objects in town planning to maintain and extend the healthy detached home life of our people, and to promote the principles underlying the model Garden Suburb and Garden City which have deservedly called forth the appreciation of many of your citizens.

In a speech delivered by Mr. Burns in the Guildhall in the city of London at the opening of the British Town Planning Conference, he said:

"I do not think that the effect of good environment, of fine buildings, of pleasant homes, upon the character, temperament, will, disposition, and energy of the people sufficiently dawns upon the average citizen.

"....The depth and breadth of English law--the respect that it evokes in every country of the world--is in no small measure due to the spacious serenity of its Inns of Court, its old halls, and the old-world dignity of its schools, colleges, and meeting-places. Those venerable and beautiful buildings are not mere structures of brick and stone: cities are not only emporiums for goods, centers of commerce and trade; they are something more than a mere cash nexus; they are places where utility, comfort, and beauty can be and ought to be combined, so that the passerby can, from what he sees, feel something to which his sense of beauty and of domestic comfort can respond all the better for having lived in and seen beautiful buildings every day of his life, places which by their beauty, their amenity, their grace, and, above all, their greenery, create a joy in life which we Britons sometimes lack, and give a spacious leisure in idle moments, when study wants a respite and honest labor requires a pleasant rest.

"....So long as casual labor broods in squalid lairs, in sunless streets, and ugly dwellings are its only habitation, we shall continue to turn out nervous manikins instead of enduring men. Motherhood, childhood, youth, society, and the race demand the demolition of the soul-destroying slum. . . . The mean street produces the mean men, the lean and tired women, and the unclean children.

"....Plan the town, if you like; but in doing it do not forget that you have got to spread the people.... Make wider roads, but do not narrow the tenements behind. Dignify the city by all means, but not at the expense of the health of the home and the family life and the comfort of the average workman and citizen.... If you do this, we all of us shall be rewarded by the betterment of our towns, the beautification of our streets, the improvement of our suburbs; we shall have made one step forward to still further elevating, improving, and dignifying the life of our citizens."

I am also pleased and honored to convey to you as a result of a short personal interview I had with our British Ambassador in Washington, his hearty good wishes to this conference, his desire that it should be a great success, and his hope that it will stimulate greater interest in city planning in this country. I may add that Mr. Bryce was one of the first men who recognized the value of the city planning movement in England and its power to inaugurate better social conditions in that country: at a time, too, when it was scarcely possible to obtain any public support because of the idea that we were all living in the air and dreaming of beautiful ideals which were impossible of realization.

With regard to the subject of discussion this afternoon, I wish to speak with reference to our British conditions...: yet, as a result of some study of German conditions, I think I might claim as a Briton the privilege of saying that this country has not so very much to learn from Germany, in spite of all it has to show you. You are proceeding on lines which I think in a very few years will produce as tangible and as fruitful results as those which have so far been produced in Germany, except in the one particular...that you have not yet realized the value of acquiring land for municipal purposes; of obtaining large tracts of land outside of your developed areas for future development. But in regard to wide streets, in regard to parks, open spaces, and in other matters, I think you are to be commended for the public spirit which you are showing....

If there is a direction in which you in America seem to me, as a hurried visitor, to be somewhat lacking, it is in the particular direction which is covered by our British Town Planning Act. I find that there is in this country a spirit of individual liberty which is not to be despised, but which sometimes runs away with itself.

The liberty of one individual is allowed, here and there, to infringe slightly on the liberty of another, and particularly there seems to be occasional serious encroachment of individual liberty on the liberty of the community as a whole.

To me there is one essential condition of all liberty: there is no liberty which is worth prizing which interferes with the right of man to obtain shelter, to obtain a home; and this is a right which every one of us, however poor, however humble, however mean, is entitled to.

Whatever regard, then, you may have for the rights of the real estate owner it must, in my opinion, be secondary to that first condition that every citizen should have the opportunity of obtaining a healthy home within the limits of his means. I admit there are many things which seem to create greater difficulties for you than we have in England. You have a variety of constitutions overspreading this great land of yours; you have a variety of interpretations of these different constitutions in every state; you have a variety of judges exercising prejudiced and unprejudiced minds in expounding the virtue of this or that interpretation of your laws: and my trip to this country, and the consultations I have had with well-informed citizens have left me in utter perplexity as to what method you could pursue to introduce town planning legislation amidst such constitutional difficulties. Therefore I am unable, although I tried very hard, to come to you with any suggestions. I must therefore confine myself to a brief description of what we are doing in England, and hope that it will suggest certain principles on which you can act when you discover the best means of overcoming the difficulties which confront you in reference to your constitutional questions.

Our town planning act in England has for its object the securing of amenity, convenience, and better sanitation,--in regard to all land that is unbuilt upon or is in course of development. Now, I want to direct your attention to the great distinction there is between the object of that act and the land to which it applies, as compared with the objects of city planning as they are often understood here and in Germany. City planning is comprehensive enough to cover all civic improvements; but in our own particular case we have come to realize that the most immediate and most practical task is to deal with the land in our suburbs where we can prevent the growth of the evils that have already developed in the centers. We must continue to conceive and carry out reconstruction schemes in the centers of population, but that can only be done by a slow process of evolution, and as we succeed in overcoming the prejudices of the rate-payers. On the other hand, the control of new development, i. e. the prevention of the necessity of reconstruction schemes in the future, and the proper planning of new areas can be carried out at trifling cost, and probably with an ultimate saving to the rate-payers. Therefore the town planning act in Britain provides that land that is in course of development or land that has not yet been developed may be developed so as to secure amenity, convenience, and proper sanitation. As a rule the act can only be put into force on the initiative of a local authority or owner, and it is hoped and expected that it will in time be applied to all unbuilt-upon areas.

Now, let me try to point out to you what that means. There are some people who say: But you should have had these powers fifty years ago to do any good: it is too late now. You Americans will not say that, because you believe that your cities are going to double themselves every ten or twenty years. But even in Great Britain, where our cities may be of somewhat slower growth, the answer is that every fifteen years, according to a statement of the President of the Local Government Board, five hundred thousand acres of land are covered with houses, factories, workshops, and other buildings. Now, that is a very important fact. Here is a town planning act which says that in the United Kingdom the authorities may secure that every fifteen years we shall have five hundred thousand acres of land town planned. The area would be very much larger if we include land that "is likely to be developed," as well as land "in course of development."

That shows you that the act has enormous scope and possibility.

Moreover, in Greater London alone during the last thirty years we have built five hundred and fifty thousand houses on land which in the past has not been regulated by any town planning act.

Now, what does the town planning act propose to do? First of all, the initiative will usually rest with the local authority, whether city, or urban, or rural district. If Philadelphia happened to be a city in the United Kingdom, it would have to come to the Local Government Board in order to get a loan to build a public hall, or lay a sewer, or carry on some of those public activities which at present it can do on its own responsibility. The board would have to make inquiries as to whether the scheme proposed was satisfactory in its technical details and the expenditure judicious. Similar powers of supervision are exercised by the board over town planning. If a city such as this decided to apply for permission to prepare a town planning scheme, a public inquiry would be held into that application; and one object of that inquiry would be to try to harmonize the often conflicting interests of the real estate owner and the municipal authority as well as the conflicting interests of two adjacent authorities. I have said that this will appeal to you, for I have already been made to realize that authorities in this country are not altogether free from jealousy--or let me rather call it, friendly rivalry. For instance, I have had the pleasure of expressing some appreciation of one or two of your institutions since I came to your country; and I happened to mention in one city that I had seen something in another city which was very fine, with the result that I had conferred upon me the distinction of being a "booster," which I suppose indicates that I have become a sort of advocate of the claims of one city against another.

The question of the co-operation, first of all, between the authorities and the real estate owner, and, secondly, between two adjacent authorities, is very important; and provision for this co-operation is made in the town planning act. Co-operation of this kind is very difficult; because it usually means a sort of compromise in which one side gets the best of the bargain.

At Baltimore, apparently, the Roland Park Company voluntarily town-planned their estate and laid it out on lines satisfactory to the authority; which suggests that, so far as the land values were concerned, the company found it worth while to lay out their estate on model lines and subject to restrictions. We have discovered that the owner gains by proper planning in England, and I am sure you will go on discovering it here. It had been stated to me over and over again that you could not get an owner of land in this country to submit to any restriction of his claim to use his land as he chooses. Well, at Roland Park they submit to the character of the fences being prescribed for them; they submit to their plans having to go before an architect; they submit to a number of restrictions that you might call arbitrary; and these people who do so are able to pay four thousand and five thousand dollars per plot and build houses from ten thousand to twenty thousand dollars apiece. They are the very people who could afford to say "I am not going to have any one interfere with how I am going to lay out my land or how I am going to deal with the trees, or the fences, or how I am going to build my house": if you once have it established that this class of owner is prepared to submit to regulations in the interest of the general community, then you could surely find a practical way to enforce the same principles in regard to the poorer grades of owners and tenants who have not the same power or desire to object. Therefore it follows that you could apply town planning restrictions in this country as easily as we can in Britain without injury to your love of individual liberty, which I assure you we appreciate as much as you do. We have all, of course, to begin by recognizing that our claim to liberty is not a claim to interfere with the liberty of others.

Under the British Act, the owner is allowed to claim compensation for any injury suffered by his property as the result of the town planning scheme; and the authority may claim betterment for any value which accrues to his land as the result of the scheme,--that betterment being half of the value which accrues; so that you see you have the operation of what you call "excess condemnation" on the one hand, and "benefit" on the other. You pay him compensation for what injury he receives, and you secure half of the benefit which his property derives. But observe this important provision: once the local authority submits its application to the Local Government Board for the right to prepare a scheme, no real estate operator, no individual owner, can enter into any contract or deal with that land in any way which contravenes the scheme, and thereafter claim compensation.

By this means you stop undesirable development as soon as you have carried out the preliminary steps to have your land town-planned; and you stop what might be called bogus claims for compensation. Moreover, no claim for compensation can be made on the ground that the authority wants to limit the number of houses per acre so long as the Local Government Board is satisfied that the limitation is reasonable in the interests of public health. Birmingham, as large a city as Philadelphia, and a manufacturing town similar in many respects to Philadelphia--Birmingham has applied for authority to prepare schemes for over three thousand acres of land, and in both of the areas affected it desires to limit the houses to be erected on each acre to something between ten and fifteen over the whole area. I think, even in Philadelphia, with your very admirable system of two-story houses, you have as many as seventy-five houses on the acre, and whether or not Birmingham succeeds in its application, it will probably secure sufficient limitation to leave ample margin for improvement in this city as compared with what is an average English city.

The act also provides for the control of the character of the buildings to be erected. It may allow areas to be defined for certain purposes, such as that a certain portion shall be manufacturing, or that another portion shall be residential, subject, of course, to provisions regarding compensation to owners.

That is a brief description of some of our new powers in Britain, and at this stage I shall not weary you with further details. But, I just want to say another word regarding the question of co-operation between the owner and the municipality. Baltimore is one American city which has created a wide boulevard as the result of cooperation with the owners. I was informed that the University Parkway, one hundred and twenty feet wide, was made as a result of an arrangement by which the city authorities constructed the road, and the owner gave the land for the purpose. You see, you have already got in operation one of the main principles which lies at the basis of the British Town Planning Act. The difference in the housing conditions in your country and our country are very great; and the fact that in some of your cities you have become so wedded to the tenement system, is also a matter of serious difficulty; but here in Philadelphia you can deal with the problem more easily than they can do elsewhere. Whereas in New York the sky-scraper appears to be inevitable, here there is no excuse for it. You have an unlimited field for expansion outwards, and you have a people habituated to the cottage type of dwelling. You should therefore apply yourselves to the problem of controlling your suburbs and the height of all your buildings.

Finally, this problem is one which is not to be sneered at because it happens to interfere with the rights of those individuals whose sole object in owning land is to make money out of it. We must protect those rights; because it is necessary for the general well-being and commercial prosperity of the country; but it is neither in the private nor public interest that they should be allowed to interfere with the right of each man, each woman, and each child to secure the decencies and necessities of shelter, or even to interfere with that desirable wedlock with nature,--divorce from which eventually brings about corruption and ruin to the nation that encourages it. It has been authoritatively stated that in England fifty per cent of our total pauperism, more than sixty per cent of the cost of providing for that pauperism, much lunacy, and a great deal of our crime, is due to sickness; and a great part of that sickness is brought about by the conditions in which the people live.

In other words, there is nothing more costly than bad housing conditions, and to improve these conditions is to effect an enormous saving to the public purse to which we all contribute. If you don't give your attention to these matters, then so long as you don't, the physique of your race, its intellectual caliber, its moral strength, will be lowered and weakened; you will lose the very qualities that have built up the strength of this great nation, as well as that which helped to give it birth. But if, as I believe you will, if you realize your responsibilities and do your duty, the power of this country of yours as a factor in the progress of civilization will be largely increased and made still more manifest in the future than in the past. 

Selected, scanned, edited, provided with headnotes, and formatted as a web document by John W. Reps, Professor Emeritus, Department of City and Regional Planning, West Sibley Hall, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York 14853, USA. Tel: (607) 255-5391, Fax: (607) 255-6681, E-mail: 
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