PLANNING NEW CITY AREAS: Adoption and Development of Existing Highways as Controlling Features--Individuality Permitted Play in Intervening Spaces

Nelson P. Lewis (Biographical note)

Municipal Journal and Engineer 28 (May 11, 1910):699-700.

One of many papers on city planning by Nelson Lewis, this was condensed from a longer presentation at the 1910 Rochester Conference on City Planning. This appeared in the conference proceedings as "The Planning of Undeveloped City Areas." In his paper and this article Lewis deals entirely with the problems of planning vacant or partly-developed areas newly annexed to a central city. He argues that existing roads, suitably widened, should form the basis for the new major street system, leaving local thoroughfares to individual developers so long as minimum standards are observed. He also advocates selecting and acquiring parks sites in advance. Lewis admits that he cannot point to an example of where this policy has been followed, but he decided to advance this proposal "as a suggestion which may be thought worthy of serious consideration and discussion."
In most American cities whose growth has been conspicuous it will be found that additions have from time to time been made by extension of the city limits or by consolidation with other cities. Frequently these additions have already been exploited by the suburban developer; streets have been laid out and certain improvements have been made. They are often so limited in area that it is difficult to do anything but extend the already established city plan over them or accept the street lines which may have been adopted by the village or town authorities or fixed by the real estate developer. It occasionally happens, as in the case of New York, that an extension of the city limits will include large areas where there are a number of centers of population, and that these centers are disconnected and could be absorbed in a larger city plan without serious detriment to the latter. Areas of this kind contiguous to a large city are almost invariably traversed by highways which have been established for many years and which follow natural lines of traffic. These old roads are the logical routes for transportation lines such as electric railroads, and they could, and it would be safe to say they should, be made the controlling features of the city plan. They are generally of the ordinary country road width, that is, three or four rods, and occasionally only two rods. This width will be totally inadequate to the important part which they should play in the ultimate city plan, but they are usually allowed to remain until they have been so built up as to make a widening very expensive.

In making a plan for the annexed territory it will be found that in most cases the street system of the older city is extended over the new addition, or the crude street plans of the several villages and towns which have been absorbed by the greater city are prolonged until the different layouts meet in a confusion of unrelated street lines without system or symmetry. Then, in order to make the plans fit together, it is likely that a street will be laid out upon which they can abut, but which has no other reason for its existence. In other words, the plan of the annexed territory is the result of an attempt to enlarge and expand the old city plan or those of the existing centers of population, with no effort to study the problem as a whole or to grasp the possibilities of the territory as an integral part of a great city.

What, then, is the logical method of procedure? Do we first need an accurate topographical map of the entire area? This involves a large expenditure of time and money which, in the judgment of the writer, could be expended to better advantage. Let us assume that the unmapped areas are extensive as in the case of those which were added to The City of New York at the time of consolidation. The first thing which it is necessary to do is to be able to determine the relative position of the different parts of the new territory and the different existing highways with respect to the remaining portions. This can only be done by a triangulation, which will establish points whose precise relative positions will be known, these points being, say, not less than 2000 feet or more than 5000 feet apart. It will then be possible to proceed with our mapping and planning in widely separated sections of the new territory with a positive knowledge of the relation of the street lines which we will establish in one section to those which we are to lay down in another. The next thing which will demand our attention is the system of existing roads. There was, and is, a good reason for these roads. Their grades may be excessive in some places, but it is probable that their alignment has been sacrificed for easy grades at the time when they were laid out, when improved roads were almost unknown and heavily laden vehicles were obliged to avoid excessive grades. These roads should form the skeleton of our future street system. In many cases it will be necessary to straighten them, and in all cases to widen them, but wherever possible the new lines should be parallel with the old ones, so that the old roads may become a part of the new street with as little disturbance as possible and without sacrificing the trees. What width shall we give to these old roads which are to become the principal arteries of our city? In the writer's judgment they should in most cases be not less than one hundred feet in width, and in some instances even wider. It is unnecessary for us at this time to determine the subdivision of the streets which are to exceed one hundred feet in width but if the old road was fortunate enough to have good shade trees, the original highway can probably be preserved for pleasure driving, while another section can be reserved for railroad tracks, and, perhaps, still another for automobiles. with adequate sidewalk spaces. Such an arrangement for the separation of different kinds of traffic will require a total width of about 150 feet or even more.

These old roads which we are making the basis of our city plan may have been nearly parallel with each other or they may have been approximately radial, while the cross connections may have been infrequent or unimproved; but these cross connections will be a necessary feature of the final city plan which we have in view. They must therefore be carefully considered. They should be straight between the parallel or radial highways wherever possible and should join them at points where there are deflections. At these intersections there can well be an enlargement of the street area, creating plazas or spaces which will be available for a fountain, a monument, or some other decorative feature.

As soon as this system can be determined, the property required for the new streets, which we might, perhaps, call boulevards, should be acquired. The cost of this acquisition could properly be assessed upon the entire territory which will be developed by it, as the benefit will not be merely local, but their establishment will be the first step toward the development of the entire suburban area. If the whole system of arterial streets could be acquired under a single condemnation proceeding, it would be most advantageous.

When these controlling streets shall have been definitely determined, we need not worry about the details of filling in the spaces between them. Our city plan is fairly safe. Whether it would be advantageous to have the intervening spaces treated in a uniform or conventional manner is questionable It is doubtful whether a regular plan is even desirable. Is Washington more beautiful than Paris simply because its great system of boulevards is superimposed upon a rectangular street system? To one who is studying the city merely as a plan this might seem desirable, but the interest of the average citizen is not in the map; it is in the street system itself, and it might be preferable to allow these various subdivisions to develop along lines of least resistance, without exercising too much control over them. In fact, if the treatment of these different sections varies, a more pleasing result may be attained. Here, where the topography suggests it, a serpentine system of streets may be laid out; there, a generous depth of lots, with space for gardens and ornamental planting, may be provided; here, again, we may find a group of narrower streets compactly built up with secluded courts and with small houses fronting upon a little plot of grass or shrubbery. Agreeable surprises may await us in strolling through these various sections, while a short walk in any direction will bring us to one of the system of thoroughfares where the traffic, the business and the amusements of the great city will be found. If one of these sections takes on a distinctive character, the neighboring districts will be stimulated to try and establish a character of their own.

If we attempt to establish a uniform cut-and-dried standard for all parts of a great city. it is more than likely that we will find that we have "leveled downward." In all large cities the individual is likely to be lost, the neighborhood feeling is unable to survive. It is frequently held that this neighborhood feeling is an evidence of provincialism, that it is inconsistent with the development of a great city and belongs only to the small town. This may be true if we leave the city as a whole to develop as an unrelated group of neighborhoods, for a comprehensive plan cannot be evolved by a town meeting, a civic association or a group of them. The creation of such a plan needs a strong hand and a central authority which will be in large degree regardless of unimportant local interests. But, the general scheme once established by a system of thoroughfares such as has been outlined, the writer believes that a great degree of latitude should be allowed the neighborhoods and the individual developers, so long as the street lines and grades they wish to establish are not inconsistent with public convenience, with an abundance of light and air, with a rational and economical drainage system, and with good sanitary conditions.

No reference has yet been made to a system of parks and playgrounds, and the place which such a system should have in the city plan. This omission was intentional, as the writer does not believe that a park system should be a mere incident in the plan of a city. The policy of most of our cities, and with few exceptions this policy is especially notable in New York, has been to defer the selection of park sites until the necessity for park areas has become apparent, or until the public demand for them has become so strong that it cannot be ignored. Meanwhile, the entire city plan is likely to have been covered by a system of streets, many of which must be obliterated when the parks are finally laid out. It is scarcely necessary to say that the adoption of a street plan has resulted in the conversion of acreage property into city lots with a great increase in value. This value may be to a large extent speculative rather than real, but it is a value which will be reflected in the amount which the City must pay in the acquisition of the property.

It must be admitted that parks are a necessary part of any city plan, and that, therefore, they should be given a conspicuous place in designing a city street system. The writer, however, is disposed to go somewhat further and to maintain that instead of adapting the park system to the street system, the former should to a considerable extent control the latter. In other words, one of the first subjects which should receive serious consideration in the preliminary study of a city plan is that of available park sites. If there is a particular bit of woodland, an elevation with a commanding outlook, or even a piece of low-lying land traversed by a stream, which have not yet been cut up into building lots, they can be most advantageously set aside at this time as future parks. These reservations should be scattered over the entire area so that there will ultimately be some open space within convenient walking distance of every resident of the city. These parks should be connected by adequate roadways, not necessarily straight or even of uniform width, but contracted where the topography would involve expensive construction and again expanded to include a small area which might ultimately become a most attractive feature of our park and parkway system. As we are dealing with a territory which is at the present time suburban and where detached houses are likely to be always a characteristic feature, it will not be necessary to provide large park areas, and yet parks of considerable size may be exceedingly desirable as playgrounds and places of recreation for those living in the more congested areas in the older parts of the city, especially if they are so located as to be easily reached by existing or prospective transportation lines. It may be deemed unwise, or even foolish, to assume that parks will be ultimately needed in the particular localities which we have selected. The city may not grow in the direction and along the lines which we have assumed, but, while it must be admitted that the manner in which any city will develop and expand cannot be predicted with any degree of accuracy, it is not unlikely that this expansion will follow the lines of least resistance, and if encouragement is given by a judicious selection of park areas connected by adequate roadways, and if the controlling features of our street system are laid out along the lines already indicated, the future development is almost certain to follow these lines, and the result will be a city plan which will appear logical and reasonable, rather than a mere accident.

In a territory such as we have been considering it may be useless to speak of the grouping of public buildings, for the important municipal centers will have already been established and will not be moved. There are, however, minor public buildings, such as schools, libraries, public baths and comfort stations, police stations and fire houses, for which provision must be made, and it would be most desirable to set aside here and there what might be termed "municipal blocks," upon which buildings of this kind could be grouped in a very effective manner Our park areas and our "municipal blocks" should be acquired at as early a date as possible. It is often very difficult to justify a public expenditure in advance of actual needs when so many demands are being made for urgent municipal improvements in the older portions of the city, but a little foresight in this respect would undoubtedly save many time the sums which will inevitably be required to correct mistakes owing to lack of foresight in making provision for what is sure to be required some day. The writer knows of no in stance of the formulation and execution of a policy such as has been outlined, but it appears to be so reasonable and logical that it is a matter of surprise that the problem of making a city plan has never been undertaken in this manner.

It is not submitted as a rule to be followed in city planning, but as a suggestion which may be thought worthy of serious consideration and discussion, in the hope that it may be of some slight assistance to those who are confronted with a problem of this nature. 

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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