Engineering News 58 (October 31, 1907):470-471

In the early phase of the modern American city planning movement as it developed in the first years of the twentieth century, architects and landscape architects predominated among those who offered their professional skills to citizen groups sponsoring the preparation of plans. This article in an American journal of engineering summarizes some of the issues and problems, lists several of the cities where studies had been carried out or were then under way, and describes their typical content. As did so many others, this author looked favorably on "the rectangular street plan...provided with diagonals." The writer warned, however, that this would not be satisfactory for hilly and irregular sites. The author also advocated having studies "of need improvements made by or in behalf of the municipal authorities who have the power to vote the money and otherwise provide the means for carrying suggested plans into effect. This advice ran counter to the prevailing practice of plans being prepared by consultants retained by unofficial civic or improvement associations.
Of the thousands of cities on the globe only a few can justly claim to having been built in accordance with a well-conceived plan. This is not surprising when it is considered that instead of having sprung, Minerva-like, into full and glorious being most cities have, Topsy-like, "just growed." It is surprising, though, that in a century supposed to be pre-eminently utilitarian, but which, nevertheless, seeks after the beautiful in no small degree, a continuation of haphazard municipal growth is so generally tolerated, and that so little well-directed attention is given to those features of municipal planning that contribute to the convenience and to the esthetic pleasure of those who use the public streets open spaces and buildings of our cities. Among several recent indications of an awakening to the need of what for a better term has come to be called city improvements we may note the appearance of a considerable number of reports on that subject. These are of diverse origin and nature but are similar in that they deal with the general street plan of each of the several cities involved; its open spaces both paved and green; its parkways, either actual or needed; its water fronts in existence or possible; and its municipal buildings particularly as regards their grouping in main and subordinate civic centers for both the convenience of their users and the dignity of the city as a whole. Perhaps the most marked characteristic of all these reports is the consideration they give to municipal esthetics as exhibited by well-designed well-constructed and well-kept streets, avenues and parkways; the utilization, improvement or creation of beautiful landscape features; and the securing of good municipal architecture (and perhaps sculpture) frequently through the creation of municipal art commissions to approve or disapprove all proposed buildings, bridges, monuments or statues to be erected at municipal expense or however paid for to be located in parks or other public places.

Taking up briefly some of the improvements most commonly suggested in these reports, changes in street plan may first be noted. The most generally needed of these changes is the widening of old and the opening of new main lines of travel including oftentimes the creation of new diagonal streets to obviate the zigzag course made necessary in passing between say northeast and southeast points in cities laid out on the checkerboard plan.

Besides facilitating traffic, a street cutting or widening may be desirable to open up a view of an imposing building, as was urged in the recent report of the Capitol Approaches Commission, in the case of St. Paul, Minn. This is a highly commendable motive, which may involve the widening or creation of more than one street and, in addition, the tearing down of buildings and creation of parks or other open spaces on one or more sides of an important public building. The best American example of the value of wide avenues leading to an imposing structure is afforded by the various diagonal and other streets leading to the Capitol Building at Washington, D. C. An example of the blocking of open spaces so as to hide a notable piece of architecture behind a mediocre or ugly one is afforded by the location of the New York Post-Office, in the southern triangular extremity of City Hall Park, thus shutting off the impressive view of that building from points well down Broadway.

Street plans in general as we now see them on maps are largely the result of accident, except where the checkerboard or rectangular plan was deliberately chosen, as by William Penn, for Philadelphia, by a commission for New York City, and by various means in the case of many of our newer cities, particularly in the West. Where diagonal streets are found they are frequently old postroads or turnpikes, converging from various directions. In a few instances, a more or less distinct radial street plan may be seen, and in the case of Karlsruhe, Germany, radial streets are combined with segments of circles. The radial streets, if continued to that point, would all center in a palace or castle, in front of which is a park. The local story is that the city was laid out on the radial plan in order that some prince of the olden times might command a view, from his castle, of each approaching street.

Other instances of street[s] circular or approaching thereto in plan may be seen in Europe, where old city walls have given way to boulevards. Such there are, to name only one case, in Paris, a city pre-eminent for its excellent main street plan, which partakes largely of the diagonal, and was created at great expense a few decades since.

The rectangular street plan, if provided with diagonals, has some decided and quite obvious advantages, especially from the real-estate viewpoint. It is at its best in flat or relatively flat country and at its worst in hilly sections, particularly if these are bounded by irregular water fronts. Seattle, Wash., is a notable example of misfit rectangular city planning. Here one of the most magnificent natural sites in the world, consisting of hills bordering on a noble bay and sheltering several beautiful lakes, with irregular shores, suggested, at least for the residential portions, a street plan based as far as possible on contour lines. Instead, with minor exceptions, due to the taste and sagacity of real estate developers, the streets run up hill and down dale with ugly uniformity, sometimes cutting great gashes in the ground and still having steep grades. Seattle might profit by a study of the street plan of Bournemouth, a seaside and health resort in the south of England, whose streets curve to suit an extremely varied topography and give rise to many pleasing effects. Doubtless Bournemouth goes to the other extreme, but that matters less in the case of a health and pleasure resort. There is a happy mean and for that each city should seek.

Much, but by no means all, of the confusion and ugliness of American streets and street plans is due to the lack of municipal control of laying out new streets, particularly in extensions of the built-up areas. In these "additions," as they are called in some parts of the West, the streets are often laid out with utter disregard of the general city plan, and seemingly regardless of any consideration whatever, including even the economic interests of the landowners....

Of the many neglected opportunities for municipal improvement in America none are more marked and few are more to be regretted than those pertaining to water fronts and water parks. Compared with European cities, we have done scarcely a thing in this country to develop breathing and beauty spots along rivers, lakes and ocean and in the rivers and lakes themselves. Boston and vicinity has most to show in this respect, and will have still more when the Charles River Dam and Basin are completed.

Comparatively few American cities have municipal buildings worthy of their wealth and of their enterprise in other directions. This is more true as regards city and town halls than of schools and libraries. Where public buildings in themselves creditable exist, their settings as regards open spaces and surrounding structures, are generally far from being dignified and otherwise in keeping with the buildings themselves. In addition, such municipal buildings as have been provided, be they suited to their purpose and pleasing to the eye or not, are as a rule scattered about promiscuously, instead of being grouped to form convenient, dignified civic centers, as in many European cities. Extensive and carefully wrought plans for the effective and convenient grouping of municipal and other public buildings have been worked out for the city of Cleveland and have been suggested for a number of other cities.

Only a few of the points suggested by our topic, City Planning and Replanning, have been discussed, but perhaps enough has been said to show the importance and complexity of the subject and the need for giving it careful study in every city and town. How can such studies best be carried out? Perhaps there is little use of attempting to answer the question, since there is no one best way and since the main thing is to have the much-needed investigations made. The most efficient plan, however, where local conditions are favorable, is to have the study of needed improvements made by or in behalf of the municipal authorities who have the power to vote the money and otherwise provide the means for carrying suggested plans into effect. In New York City, a City Improvement Commission was created by the Board of Aldermen. It included borough presidents and prominent citizens in its membership and was assisted by an advisory board consisting of heads of important city engineering departments. In Boston, the Boston Society of Architects appointed a Committee on Municipal Improvements, which investigated some of many needs of that city and reported on them at length. At present there is at work in Boston, from a somewhat different viewpoint, a special Finance Commission, created by the City Council, at the suggestion of the Mayor. St. Louis has recently had the benefit of reports (presented in one volume by a half dozen committees, composed of representative citizens appointed by the executive board of the Civic League of St. Louis. The Municipal League of Greenville, S. C., has recently published a report prepared for it by a Boston firm of landscape architects. At Toronto, Ont., The Guild of Civic Art has been working for some two years on city improvements, including (to quote a letter to this journal from Mr. W. Ford Howland, Honorary Secretary) a well-connected system of parks and parkways, and also two wide diagonal thoroughfares running through the center of the city.

It matters little how studies for city improvements be made, provided only the desired results be achieved. As we have intimated, the best of plans cannot be materialized unless it is approved by the municipal authorities charged with appropriating and spending money from the municipal treasury. But even though a prospect for city improvement does not originate with the city authorities and does not have their full support a well-wrought scheme is almost sure to be advantageous. Such a plan will open the eyes of many individuals, and possibly of a large and influential portion of the public, to the possibilities of making the city more convenient and more beautiful. In addition, it sets up an ideal, which may, perchance, never quite be lost sight of, and some features of which are almost sure to be adopted as opportunities arise. Even small improvements at intervals will effect notable changes after a number of years, and every small improvement is an object lesson and an incentive to other and larger ones. Now and then a community will rise nobly to the opportunity presented by a plan for municipal improvements and add itself to the slowly growing list of well planned, beautiful cities. 

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: