Nelson P. Lewis

Proceedings of the Engineers' Club of Philadelphia 29 (July 1912):198-215.

Lewis (1856-1924) graduated with a degree in civil engineering from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in 1879 and began his long and productive career with several western and southern railways in Colorado, Louisiana and Alabama. In 1884 he joined the engineering staff of the City of Brooklyn, was put in charge of that city's Bureau of Highways, and in 1902 began an eighteen-year tenure as Chief Engineer of the City of New York Board of Estimate and Apportionment, the highest engineering post of the metropolis. His most important participation in city planning matters beyond those of municipal engineering was his service on the New York Heights of Building Commission than led to the country's first comprehensive zoning regulations and as director of physical surveys for the Regional Plan of New York and Environs--work cut short by his death at the age of 68.

Nelson Lewis was a member of many professional organizations: American Society of Civil Engineers, American Society of Municipal Improvements, American Road Builders' Association, and he played an active role in the meetings of the National Conference on City Planning. His professional interests and experience took him into overseas activities as well. He represented the City of New York at international road and street conferences in Paris, 1908; Brussels, 1910; London, 1913; and at the International Congress of Cities at Ghent in 1913. Also in 1910 he toured many cities of Europe to report on subsurface structures.

His book, The Planning of the Modern City (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1916) was the second such book to be published in America, a work later revised and brought up to date by his son in a two-volume publication following the Second World War. This paper is nearly a word-for-word copy of one presented by Lewis at in September, 1911 at a meeting of the Municipal Engineers of the City of New York and published in the Proceedings of that society for 1911 as Paper No. 66, "The City Plan and What it Means." The Municipal Journal printed an abstract of the paper in its issue of November 1, 1911. In the version below, Lewis added a paragraph or two with references to Philadelphia. He used all this again four years later in his book, a work that is effectively summarized in a very long paper, "City Planning" he presented at a meeting in 1915 of the International Engineering Congress and published in the volume of the Transactions of that meeting devoted to Municipal Engineering.

Lewis lost no opportunities to emphasize his belief that civil engineers should be recognized as the most important professionals in city planning, and the essay to follow makes a strong case for this position. In one passage he clearly expresses ambivalent feelings about the architect-planners of his generation: "The author has no desire to detract from the credit which has been given to men like Carrére, Burnham, Brunner, Olmsted, Nolen, and a number of others, for the admirable work done or proposed by them to redeem some of our cities from the commonplace. Their plans are, many of them, inspiring--some of them extravagant beyond hope of realization."

Lewis included a long summary of the British town planning legislation adopted in 1909. Toward the end of his paper Lewis proposed a procedure for subdivision plat review that--expanded and more detailed--became part of the early city planning enabling acts of many states. His proposal was a simple one: "Inasmuch as property sold as city plots depends for its value upon a street system which will afford access, it would not appear unreasonable to prohibit by statue the sale or offering for sale of lots in unmapped sections, unless the proposed plan of streets should first have been submitted to the municipal authorities for their examination, approval, or correction in order that the proposed streets might be made to conform with the general plan of main highways proposed for the part of the city in which the property is located." Lewis's contribution to American planning is the subject of Jeffrey K. Stine, Nelson P. Lewis and the City Efficient: The Municipal Engineer in City Planning During the Progressive Era, Essays in Public Works History, No. 11 (Chicago: Public Works Historical Society, 1981).

A great deal lately has been said about what is called city planning. Everything relating to municipal affairs has been very fully discussed, including accounting, budget making, 100 per cent. efficiency, commission government, and many other things which might be classified as ideas or idiosyncrasies, as facts or fancies. City planning has been the subject of local, State, national, and international conferences, conventions, and exhibitions, has been discussed in lectures, newspapers, periodicals, and books, and one quarterly publication is devoted exclusively to this subject. Such evidences of wide-spread interest could not well have been manufactured by those having some selfish interest to promote, but it seems quite clear that the public is becoming greatly interested in the subject. It cannot, therefore, be dismissed as a fad or as a matter that appeals only to theorists, but we must recognize it as something real and vital to the proper growth of our cities. In this paper an effort will be made to discuss the following questions:

1. What does city planning mean?

2. What are its economic advantages?

3. What progress has been made in city planning in this and other countries?

4. Who should be responsible for the city plan?

5. What general principles should govern city planning?

First, then--what is it? It is simply the exercise of such foresight as will promote the orderly and sightly development of a city and its environs along rational lines, with proper regard for the health and convenience of the citizens and for the commercial and industrial advancement of the community. It does not mean what has been so often called the "city beautiful." It does not mean or even include municipal art, nor does it, in the author's opinion, include the architecture of public or semi-public buildings.

A city planned in accordance with the principles laid down in the above definition will surely become beautiful; it will lend itself to artistic treatment (not adornment by municipal art, for it is difficult to explain in what respect "municipal" art differs from any other kind of art); it will provide adequate sites for public and semipublic buildings, which can be availed of by the architect when the time comes without the expense of rearranging the street system to give them a proper setting. To plan a city with its final artistic embellishment would be not only folly, but would be far beyond the capacity of any one man or group of men in any one generation. To attempt to designate the specific sites for future public buildings with a special regard to the size, shape, and design which those making the plan deemed to be most suitable would evidence an arrogance and self- complacency which would render one unfit for the task he has undertaken.

Reverting to our definition, the planning should include not only the city, but its environs--that is, it should bear some relation to the neighboring cities and the rural and small urban districts which are within easy reach. Every city is supported, to a large degree, by the country behind or about it. The idea that every effort should be made to confine its working population as far as possible within the red lines forming its boundaries is a fallacy having its origin in the selfishness of those who wish to maintain realty values within the city at as high a figure as possible. The object should be to reduce to a minimum the resistance to both intraurban and interurban traffic. This applies not only to ordinary street traffic, whether by vehicles or surface railways, but to steam and electrically operated railroads for the transportation of passengers and freight. The idea that railways are an evil which must be tolerated, but that they should be kept out of sight and should be compelled to carry on their business almost surreptitiously, is a grave mistake. A city cannot live, much less grow, without them. A city plan must, therefore, provide not only direct and ample thoroughfares for vehicular traffic and routes for the transportation of passengers to and from their homes within the city, but it must take into account the vital necessity of railway lines and terminals for the economic and expeditious handling of passengers and freight in such a manner as to reduce, so far as possible, the time and expense of transportation to and from home, office, shop, or factory, from and to points outside the city.

Thoroughfares should be both radial and circumferential. In every great city there is always one center of the first importance with a number of minor centers. The great radial thoroughfares will necessarily converge at the principal center, with minor radials reaching the subordinate centers, while the circumferential thoroughfares will connect the less important centers with each other and make it possible to go from one to another or to the suburbs without passing through points or districts of traffic congestion. The plans suggested almost simultaneously by Sir Christopher Wren and Sir John Evelyn for the rebuilding of the central portion of London after the great fire of 1666 illustrate this idea, but, unfortunately, neither plan was carried out. It is also shown, by the diagrams of radial and circumferential streets included in the report of the Metropolitan Improvements Commission of Boston, which shows how many links in such a system often exist, and how relatively simple a matter it is to supply the omissions. The possession of such a system of main thoroughfares would greatly simplify the problem of providing adequate transportation facilities, which most of our cities find so difficult of solution.

Regard for the health as well as for the convenience of the citizens requires that there shall be ample provision for open spaces for recreation and amusement. In other words, that there shall be, within easy reach of every home, a park where the occupants of that home can find fresh air and out-of-door rest or play. This does not mean that the parks must necessarily be large, that they should be highly developed by the landscape architect, or that they shall be located upon most expensive property. There are many tracts of land of varying sizes which are passed over by the real estate operator as unsuitable for development, and the cost of which would be very small, but which, if secured and held, would become extremely valuable to the public as parts of the park system of the future city. Nor need they be developed for years to come. A piece of natural woodland, a creek bottom now little more than a swamp, a rocky ridge or steep slope which is unavailable for building purposes, can often, by the building of a few paths or drains, be made to serve their purpose as playgrounds at slight expense. The important thing is to secure them while they are still cheap, with the right to dispose of or convert to other uses such portions of them as may not be desirable for park purposes when the city plan is finally developed. The idea which seems to have controlled the park policy of most American cities is that parks shall be located and purchased only when the actual need for them is developed, but meanwhile property has been converted to other uses and has been covered with improvements, the destruction of which, as well as the enhanced value of the land and the disarrangement of the street system, would make the cost of the park so great that the project has to be either abandoned or curtailed. The cost of parks secured under a more rational plan, including loss of taxes and carrying charges, would be far less than under the policy generally prevailing, while if acquired in accordance with a plan which will be outlined later, they can readily be made to carry themselves. Boston and Philadelphia have followed a more enlightened policy in this respect than have most other cities. In both these cities large areas peculiarly suited to park purposes have been acquired while the land was still inexpensive. In the first named these areas have been generally outside, and in the latter they have been within the city limits. Neither of these cities, however, appears to have made adequate provision for small or neighborhood parks.

There is one other element in our definition of a city plan, and this is fundamental, namely:

The city plan, as the expression is used in this paper, is not a map upon which are laid down with precision all the streets which will be required for its ultimate development, but it is the general plan of arterial streets and transportation lines by which the different sections of the existing and the future city will be connected with each other and with centers of population outside the city limits, the parks and open spaces, and other resorts for recreation and amusement, the existing water-front development, and the space needed for its further increase, existing public and semi-public buildings, and sites upon which those required in the future may be advantageously grouped. This is the real city plan which will control future city development, stimulating it or retarding it, as the case may be. The block dimensions and angles, the widths of minor streets, and the subdivision into a vast number of rectangular blocks of standard size, with an explanation of or an apology for every departure from that standard, do not constitute a city plan. The city plan is something bigger and broader. It is something to which the city may grow, not something to which it must be restricted or within which it must be confined as in a straitjacket.

The economic considerations which should control the city planning are precisely those which should prevail in the design of a house, shop, railway terminal, or water-supply system, namely, adaptation to probable increase in demand and capacity to supply that demand. If the manufactory or the railway is foreordained to failure, the less spent upon it the better. There are a few towns which were laid out during "boom" periods on lines which were fancied to be those of a future metropolis, where the broad streets are grass-grown, where the public buildings are but half occupied, and where everything speaks of a splendid ambition which resulted in grotesque failure. When a city occupying a strategic geographical position has begun a natural development which causes growing pains indicative of a misfit in its general plan, it is time to look forward to adjust the plan to new conditions and to provide for still further growth. To tear down and enlarge is very costly-- especially so when there is no room for enlargement without the purchase of additional land, which has become far more valuable than when the original enterprise was begun. This is constantly being done by individuals and corporations whose domestic or business requirements make it necessary. In every case it involves a distinct loss, which may be justified by means to indulge in a luxury or by the prospect of increased profit. Cannot the city, it may be asked, instead of trying to provide for the remote future, well afford the expense of reconstruction to adapt itself to its growing needs, especially when it has the power, through its ability to levy taxes and assessments, to impose the cost of necessary changes upon the property which will be chiefly benefited? No expense involving the destruction of property can be justified if it can be avoided by the exercise of reasonable foresight, and the taxing power of the city should not be used unnecessarily. The requirements of the modern city are so great that the burden of taxation will inevitably be heavy. Improvements in the city plan may increase values to such a degree that they would be cheap at almost any price, but if the plan can be so made as to avoid the necessity for destructive changes, both the city at large and the individual property- owner will be the gainers. To defer the correction of mistakes which are quite apparent in well developed sections of the city, or to put off the adoption of a broader policy in those in process of development, because land is expensive and costly improvements would be destroyed, is not unnatural, even though it be unwise. To fail to take advantage of such object-lessons in parts of the city where there are few, if any, improvements, or where the street plan has not yet been fixed, is the height of folly. Every large city furnishes numerous instances of changes manifestly desirable but deferred until their cost has become prohibitive. To show the money value of a good plan, not by forcing exaggerated values at some points, but by stimulating a healthy growth, through ease of access to all sections of the city, to schools, libraries, museums, parks, and playgrounds, it is only necessary to examine the successive annual assessment rolls of districts so favored. One specific instance will be given. During the sixteen years following the laying out of Central Park, New York, the average increase in the assessed value of real estate in other parts of the then city of New York was about 100 per cent., while in the three wards adjoining the new park the increase was approximately 800 per cent. Increase of population means almost invariably increase in wealth and taxable values. The most notable increase in urban population during the last quarter of a century has been in Germany. A comparison of the rate of growth of six American and a like number of German cities during the last thirty years will bear out this statement. These cities were selected at random by the author some years ago, simply because they had about the same population in 1880 and because they were believed to be typical. The increase by decades is shown in the following table:

    Per Cent. Inc. 10 Years
    Per Cent. Inc. 20 Years
    Per Cent. Inc. 30 Years
    New Orleans