William A. Magee

Proceedings of the Fifth National Conference on City Planning...1913. Boston: National Conference on City Planning, 1913, 73-85.

The author was Mayor of the City of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Now that the first enthusiasm for city planning has had its full expression, its advocates might well call a brief halt for the purpose of taking stock of its preliminary achievements. Aside from a comparatively few notable feats accomplished under exceptional leadership and favorable circumstances, even the more sanguine must admit that a survey of its progress justifies a further analysis of the subject looking towards a restatement of the practical problems which our new art assumes to regulate.

A fertile field for inquiry is that embraced within the theme assigned for this discussion, namely, administration. This phase of the subject--the practical side of it, the doing of the things desired--is of course the hard part of this as of everything else worth while doing. The principles involved have been so fully and ably presented as to assure us that we are dealing with a real science. It is not on the side of theory, nor is it lack of executive ability on the part of its professors, that one should seek for an explanation of the note of hesitation which it seems can be detected. We should rather look to such things as the uncertainty of its position among the correlated public activities, the complexity of governmental jurisdiction, the restrictions upon the use of the public credit, the limitations upon legal powers, the tendency towards immediate fragmentary results.

Perhaps the chiefest handicap to a city planning commission in its early days is its undeveloped relation to the other forces engaged in the management of the public business. Before this new instrument of government can get the necessary lodgment to permit it to do real work, it must be properly introduced to many functionaries long established. Besides the city officials with their powers well defined by statute, ordinance and custom, there are the public service corporations solidly intrenched behind their legal rights as well as those important adjuncts to civic advance, the many organizations composed of public spirited citizens devoted to particular reforms and improvements. All of these conventional agencies for the performance of the tasks of the community are bound to look more or less askance at the stranger until well acquainted, until they learn that the new body has no intention of infringing upon their boundaries, until indeed the professors of the new art have so thoroughly examined their domain and discovered its limitations as actually not to stray beyond their own jurisdiction and trespass upon others.

Not to enumerate, but to illustrate, mention might be made of some of the subjects within the purview of city planning. The avenues of communication must be improved by the widening and extension of existing highways, by the opening of new thoroughfares, by the location of more bridges and viaducts, by the construction of tunnels and subways and by the separation of grade crossings. The water supply must be extended; sewage better collected and more scientifically disposed of; the city refuse more completely collected and destroyed; public buildings and perhaps a civic center must be constructed. The city needs a building code, a health code and a topographic survey. The public schools and markets, the police and fire stations must be located and relocated with reference to their subject matter, and in fact all the agencies of the city administration so distributed and grouped as to permit their operation with a minimum of cost and maximum of service. It has always been assumed that complete jurisdiction over these several matters in all their phases has been assigned to the various divisions of the government, and this may theoretically be true. It is a fact that their financing lies wholly in the legislative authority of the city and their construction in the executive department, and that as a consequence the location and design of public works get their initiative from the latter but are subject to the veto of the former. But the responsibility for their economic and efficient coordination, for the adjustment of their relation to each other as well as to all other physical features of the city or rather the community with reference to both the near and remote future, is not practically assumed by either department except in a nominal sense, although, abstractly speaking, it undoubtedly rests upon both. This failure to respond to what seems a duty is easily explained. The administration absorbed in routine simply lacks time and cannot gain perspective; the councilmen or aldermen lack the necessary organization. Lifted out of the atmosphere of daily business, having their minds directed to future rather than immediate results, to the problem as a whole and to its integral parts but not their details, our commission can supply that peculiar angle of vision heretofore lacking in the administration forces and give that full consideration made possible by a broad, thorough study of facts and principles of which the legislative officers are incapable.

Similar and even more difficult aspects of the problem present themselves in the consideration of the relations of our commission with the great public service corporations. The process of change and improvement is before them constantly as it is with the public authorities. The passenger railways must be extended and the service improved; rapid transit introduced; the facilities for freight transportation increased, and the cost of the same reduced by the competition that will result from the extension of additional trunk lines to the city; the terminals of all kinds of transportation agencies whether by rail or by water must be enlarged and bettered; water supply companies must be consolidated; buildings erected and wires buried. If these developments are not in harmony with all other physical reforms, the city plan will be considerably marred. These utilities, thoroughly lodged behind the liberal contracts existing between them and their creators, the state and the city, are little inclined to submit their plans or to heed suggestions from an outside body. They are engaged in business for profit, and most other considerations are subordinated thereto in the minds of their managers. This is a legitimate viewpoint which the public cannot seriously criticise, but as they have already yielded to many regulations imposed upon them for the public welfare, so they can be induced to submit to this new conception of local government embraced in the ideals of city planning.

Let us turn now to such subjects as playgrounds and recreation centers, bath houses, libraries, industrial and model dwelling sites and buildings, city ornamentation and so forth. Whatever progress any locality has made in this widened field of communal activity is due to that new class of social forces which embraces what we call civic improvement associations and the like. These pioneers are rapidly leading the way to a vast extension of municipal policy. In the spirit of public philanthropy or other sentiment they are able to construct and even maintain useful and ornamental public works as object lessons to the less progressive part of the community. In the same spirit or through enlightened self­interest these bodies sometimes finance technical investigations to accelerate public endorsement and official action of praiseworthy improvements. They are the educators of public opinion and form a most efficient force ready made to aid in constructive planning in many directions. But, like the public officer and the corporate manager, they are tenacious of their ground. They will brook no rivals in their chosen field and will not yield to supervision except when accompanied by substantial aid.

As we have so many conflicting and balancing forces in the municipality that may encumber the city planner, so he is embarrassed by a territorial division of powers. Beginning with our sovereign state, we have the county as well as our suburban relatives, boroughs, villages, towns and townships? their burgesses, councilmen and supervisors. They and our county commissioners and judges all directly and indirectly have a part to play. Without the aid of all of them to a greater or less degree the destiny of the community of the future may not be planned. The entire area both within and without the corporate limits must be planned as a whole regardless of the number of governmental units now contained within it. Sooner or later, either through annexation and consolidation or else through the medium of a metropolitan district, there will be essentially a unified government. In the meantime thoroughfares must be connected, transportation extended and improved, wasteful duplications in water supply and sewage discharge reduced for the alleviation of present conditions and to avoid as far as possible the expense of correction against the day when the single government will arrive. Only by the cordial cooperation of the officers of these independent jurisdictions can any present progress be accomplished. It is one of the tasks of city planning, and indeed a hard one, to supply the intelligent leadership required in this behalf.

Another suggestion of hindrances to city planning has reference to the timorous taxpayer, the lethargic citizen set in his conservatism, the poor economists sent to the general assembly and elevated to the bench. Many city planners are confronted with a maximum of five or seven per cent of public indebtedness or a ten mill tax rate; some of them are without statutes permitting the formation of betterment districts, without legislation that will spread special benefit assessments over the whole area beneficially affected by street and sewer construction, by parks, bridges or other local improvements; few recognize the principle of excess condemnation and none of them realize the possibilities of the self­supporting publicly owned utility even in a limited way. Many of them allow their solemn enactments of this kind of policy to be nullified by judicial construction. The prevailing ideas upon public finance must be overcome. If the penny­wise pound­foolish policy with respect to taxation continues and if the great improvements are not to carry their own cost, naturally the city planner may as well conserve his energies for some more inviting field of action.

City planning must have still more aid from enabling legislation if it is not to be thwarted in its purpose. No state has devised a practical scheme for gradual street widening; but one state permits street location against the will of the landowner; few dare to regulate the height of buildings. The poverty of city planning in its present stage of development is nowhere so well exemplified as by the absence of laws providing for the administration of purely community questions upon the basis of the metropolitan district. Here we are running into the larger, general subject of city planning rather than its administration, and, besides, lack of space forbids more extended comment, except that attention should be called to the fact that on this matter of larger powers city planning must deal with still another set of public officers who have it within their power to help or injure our object, namely, the representatives of the district in the state legislature.

Our planning commission should not be carried away with the execution of some one or two striking public works to the exclusion of the consideration of planning the whole situation. The temporary popularity accruing will be dearly bought. We must keep in mind the definition of city planning, or if it has not been defined we must formulate at least a fair description of it. If our aim is only a reformed street lay­out, or the construction of a subway, or a civic center, or city beautification, or the municipal ownership of a street railway, or improved terminal facilities, or a complete recreation and social center scheme or any one of the many other improvements which the city needs, the ground is already probably covered by some public officer or officers, some public service corporation, some volunteer civic organization, independent of our planning commission, jealous of its rights, proud of its partial achievements and perhaps, indeed, as efficient as public sentiment at the present time demands for their administration, including their planning. If our imagination is limited in scope, our commission is bound to get into trouble with its neighbors, both official and otherwise, but if our ideal is to direct and control the making over of the territory now occupied and plan the subsidiary suburban area in all its material and physical aspects, then our problem is much more simple, at least in the statement. The central idea of city planning must be comprehensiveness of design and coordination in execution. This main purpose lost sight of, even for a moment, the commission is in danger. In its early days let it not specialize, except where it must; let it not originate where a beginning has been made by some other body, whether official or unofficial; let it not investigate so much as stimulate others to investigate; let it not criticise so much as sympathize.

The title of this paper is the " Organization and Functions of a City Planning Commission." The organizing of a body burdened with the almost boundless ambitions, within the cramped quarters and with the feeble authority which a brief review of city planning discloses, may be undertaken with some mental reservations. How shall it be created, how constituted, what shall the number be and `how large a professional force does it need? It must have the respect, and become essentially a part, of the bureaucracy, and therefore should receive its appointment from the executive; since it must have the respect of the public service corporations, of the voluntary societies and of the authorities of neighboring precincts, it should receive its powers from the legislature. Public opinion must be moved to cause the enactment of laws. therefore the membership should be composed of citizens of influence. The number of commissioners and the subordinate force employed need not be large, at least the latter need not be great at the first. Although the commission in the main will be composed of laymen, a member trained in civil engineering and one learned in the law would be of very great value. It should be needless to say, because apparent, that the general effectiveness of the body will be proportionate to the degree of interest, of intelligence and of tact displayed by its membership.

Now, what is the first step to take? I should say to obtain the aid of a professional adviser, then survey the whole situation, catalogue all the elements involved, the public officials, the corporate officials, the civic societies, the municipal finances and the required legal powers. After this survey is completed certain forces must be set in motion to lay the ground for the exercise of the function of the commission on a broad scale. The first aid to the commission from any and every viewpoint will be the public and personal interest aroused in its favor; therefore it would seem highly advisable to carry on a well­organized and directed campaign of what is called publicity. Unless the economics of city planning are well developed in its early stages, the plans will die aborning, and therefore as rapidly as possible the enactment of laws should be procured containing the principle of local assessment, public ownership, of the use of the municipal credit in the construction of public works and self­supporting public utilities, and, lastly, at the proper stage of development the commission must obtain the veto power over all plans and designs.

Now, what is the function of the city planning commission? How does it fit into the existing organized administrative agencies, official and otherwise? What shall it do, what acts shall it perform and how? It certainly seems clear that it should not attempt to abstract from or encroach upon the prerogatives of any authority already established. The very scope of city planning negatives such a conception of the office of the commission. Rather than dismiss or demote any of the existing agencies, enough gaps are apparent to justify the organization of still more workers. All these public and corporation officers, all these altruistic citizens and societies, are already and for a long time have been planning after a fashion. The city planning commission has been called into being because they have not planned large enough, comprehensively enough, wisely enough. They lack the vision which the commission is to supply, the influence to obtain a hearing which the commission must bring, the authority to employ an adequate force of capable assistants often necessary which the commission must obtain for them. They must become the principal tools with which it will do its work. As recited above, there are four or five different classes of persons constituting the mechanism engaged in public administration. If the city planning commission will assume the initiative, assign to each one the preparation of his appropriate share of the city plan, the larger part of its preliminary work, at least in volume, will be cared for. The

street department would be willing to address itself to perfecting a comprehensive thoroughfare system; other divisions of the government would prepare a park and boulevard scheme, a complete sewer system, and so forth. No

doubt the growth of the city and the constant shifting of

the population have resulted in an uneconomical and illogical distribution of the public schools, of the police and fire stations. The departments of water supply and highways have a number of subsidiary centers that in all probability have been not only outgrown long since but badly located as well with reference to distance, topography and thoroughfares. All these must be located and relocated with reference to each other on a comprehensive basis, so that not only will each be a perfected unit of itself, but that each will support the other as far as desirable. The officers in charge of these matters are presumably men of capacity and experience, with some personal pride as well as considerable official ambition. Who else is as well equipped to suggest, in a preliminary sense at least, the necessary changes and reforms? It is true they now lack the larger view. That is to be supplied by the commission. There must be consultation. And this attention to distant and ulterior considerations can be easily aroused. It is my opinion that, once interest is directed to this fascinating subject, all of these subordinate officials will develop into city planners. They will begin to find the time they now seem to be without, even though it must be out of office hours.

One of the chief functions of the commission is to bridge the gap existing between independent public authorities. Public policy has been careful to devise an elaborate system of checks and balances, but until now no attempt has ever been made to answer the crying need for a unifying force. We have stood off at arm's length too long. As between the city officers themselves, the commission should, by reason of their common association around the same executive, be in position to induce collaboration with a degree of ease, but its task is harder with reference to the managers of public service corporations and more still with the suburban authorities. As to the former, the planning commission must first be backed with some legal power to call upon and direct the attention of their managers to those of their activities which have city planning aspects. We have a hint of the persuasive authority of statutory introduction of public officers to great corporations in the Erdman law enacted by Congress for the purpose of mediation in labor disputes. Our planning commission in the law creating it should be empowered therefore to suggest, to consult and advise with corporate managers as to their improvements. And indeed the same is true as to other public officers and even private citizens. It is no infringement upon their rights, and doubtless many would welcome it. The councilmen or aldermen too should be eager to support the commission when it takes a stand. Both the moral authority and the regulatory powers of the city legislature are great. The municipality is handicapped in dealing with these corporations, generally by the lack of an appropriate administrative organ. Every city should have a public utilities bureau, composed of an official who would be conversant with and represent the side of the city in the many matters arising regarding the public utilities. The questions of enlargement and extensions have been handled by the utility companies in much the same short­sighted fashion as similar matters have been dealt with by the city. Such an officer under the guidance of the commission would become a city planner. He would be an invaluable agent in the public service matters with which it is concerned.

The planning commission will have difficulty in establishing relations with the suburban officers. The latter are suspicious of annexation and, besides, possess inferior financial resources. The solution of this situation seems to lie in the metropolitan district, although it is not an easy accomplishment. In the meantime representation in the membership of the commission may be to a considerable extent open the door to cooperation.

The commission should assume the same attitude to the civic organizations that it does to the public officers. Recognize each one within its own chosen field. Supplement its work rather than assume charge of it. Representation here, as with the suburbanites, would go a long way towards disarming suspicion. These outside bodies can easily be stimulated to a sufficient degree of interest to do their planning according to true principles, and they will constitute the chief force in arousing the intelligence of the community to action. There should be at least one organized body at work upon every phase of the municipal problem, sometimes an official, occasionally an employed expert and often a volunteer organization. A complete survey of any city will disclose the fact that some matters have been thus far entirely ignored. No specific suggestion can be made here as to how they shall be added to the program of the planning commission. No two localities are alike, and circumstances must govern, but it seems plain that it is the duty of the planning commission to take the initiative where no other body has. Such vital concerns as sewage disposal, rapid transit, markets and city beautification cannot be ignored by any city. There are many others, only secondary in importance, which the planning commission must take cognizance of and find some competent official or body to investigate the situation and outline the remedy. The commission itself had better assume direct control but rarely. It must oversee and supervise too many others; it must attack the problem from every standpoint, from all sides.

The city planning commission is the answer to a long­felt need. It is the centripetal element in a sea of inert and diverging energies; it is the element which supplies a vision of time, space and proportion in a field of routine; the element spreading enlightenment among the ignorant and enthusiasm in the fight against passivity. It should be complementary to some forces, supplementary to others; sometimes it will be the initiating force, sometimes its function will be supervisory. Some it should deal with in the character of a superior, others it will be on terms of equality with, and towards still others it may be compelled to appear before as a petitioner or even a suppliant. Regardless of its rank or dignity, it should draw all other elements to it; regardless of delay, it should first make its survey and prepare its program. Only thus can it become a grand clearing­house of effort, only thus can it set the whole city to planning. The ambition of city planning is the ideal. The immediate physical achievements resultant from its endeavors may be negligible, and may appear plainly to be so upon first view, even before a beginning is made, but the commission should not be deterred by such considerations. I do not hesitate to advise the planning of a hundred projects, if the need exists, even though serious enough obstacles appear to check their accomplishment, because it is only by investigation that we can really and conclusively learn what and when and how we can succeed in obtaining our desires.. 

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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