J. W. Petavel

The Westminster Review 172 (October 1909:398-405.

The compiler and editor of the papers in this series has not been able to find any biographical information on the author of this essay. Its appearance in a journal of general interest probably reflects the attention to town planning caused by the enactment that year of Britain's first national town planning legislation as well as the efforts of garden city enthusiasts to promote their cause. The author calls for decentralization, as did garden city supporters, but he favors a linear form for the decentralized urban community of tomorrow. He asks us to image a town "consisting of four narrow `limbs' radiating from a centre, each `limb' about a mile and a half long." Each half-mile wide limb would center on a major thoroughfare for "offices, shops, public buidings, etc." and with residential uses on either side. Beyond would be gardens and open space. "Factories grouped together" would be "hidden away behind the main street."
It is not without the very best reasons that attention is being given to the question of decentralising population and industries, to the question of giving the fullest play to all the centrifugal forces which have arisen, to counteract the many centripetal forces modern civilization has brought into action. In the first place we have become a nation of town-dwellers, 77 per cent. of us were urban when the last census was taken, and we have had brought home to us with terrible force the fact that a healthy and vigorous race cannot be reared in such crowded towns as we have now. This alone would, of course, be ample reason for us to occupy ourselves with this question, but we are now beginning to understand also the economic need for a better distribution of population. Our means of production are so great that, in order to fully occupy them, we should have to be producing luxuries in abundance for everyone. Inevitably, however, the competitive system makes the majority give their services for the remuneration that will procure them the mere necessaries of life. There is thus an enormous and permanent discrepancy between demand and powers to supply, with the results we see: namely, unemployment and "over- production." The only possible remedies for this state of affairs seem to be decentralisation--access to the land--or else Socialism. Again, our whole industrial system stands condemned under present conditions. It specialises and sub-divides labour till it robs work of its educative influence. It makes the workers' living precarious. It demoralises them by making their earnings irregular. Thoughtful people are asking what is to be done in presence of this fact of the failure of industrial progress to do the masses any real good. The answer is quite clear to those who have studied the conditions of people who combine industry with agriculture. They know that the industrial worker needs a piece of land to cultivate, as a second string to his bow; that, in a word, he needs decentralisation. Another good reason why we should regard this question of decentralisation as being of vital importance to us is that, with population centralised, our agriculture cannot compete with that of other countries. This places us in the gravest peril, now that other nations are not inclined to allow us unchallenged mastery of the sea The great need in the present crisis is that truly patriotic and humane people should study the question of radical reform of our towns, with which every social question, without exception, is intimately bound up. Very evidently a nation of town dwellers must, at all costs, have healthy towns, and, for that, population must be decentralised.

We should understand, in the first place, that modern means of travelling have made crowding, not only unnecessary, but advantageous from every point of view.

In the past, when people travelled on foot, or in their own conveyances they needed to live as near as possible to each other, and to their places of resort. Now that we travel in trains and trams, actual proximity has ceased to be the important thing. Two places are near to each other, for all practical purposes, when both are situated on the same line, on which a good and cheap service of trains or trams runs. Time is taken up getting to and from the station. or waiting for connections at junctions, not in actually travelling from the one station to the other. In order to have good and cheap travelling facilities, we should concentrate traffic on to one line near to which everyone will live, and on which there will be a constant succession of trains or tram cars. That, therefore, is the great need to-day.

The principle of cheap travelling is one of the first to grasp.

The reason for railway and tramway travelling in Great Britain costing as much as it does, is that trains and tram cars run with only one-fifth of their full complement of passengers on an average. Trains, and more especially trams, must run frequently to be useful, but traffic is not concentrated enough for them to run full. Passengers have in consequence to pay five times what they would if the carriages were full.(1)

To obtain an idea of a kind of town that would suit modern conditions of travelling, let us imagine one consisting of four narrow "limbs" radiating from a centre, each "limb" about a mile and a half long. Let us suppose these "limbs" to consist of a central boulevard, on which would be situated all the offices, shops, public buildings, etc.--the more important ones nearest to the centre and to have on either side of it, a few streets of houses and cottages, each with a large garden. A town of this kind, with its four "limbs," about a half-mile wide, would contain sixty thousand inhabitants, allowing for six hundred square yards of garden to each dwelling.(2) Every dwelling in it would be within three or four minutes' walk from the central boulevard, on which would be concentrated all the urban, suburban, and local traffic, and within the same maximum distance from the open country.

Under present conditions the Glasgow tramways carry passengers two and a quarter miles, on an average, for a penny. We have only to assume that we could do a shade better than this under those ideal conditions of concentrated traffic, and we see that people would be able to travel from one end of such a town to the other for a penny, and from any point in it to the centre for a halfpenny.

Thus, we see that proper town-planning would now enable us--by means of long, narrow towns--to have all the advantages of the town, whilst living in the country, and in close contact with the soil.

It may be mentioned, by the way, that many economies would be effected by lineal towns, which would not improbably enable the municipalities to run the trams almost free. A very cheap system of sewage disposal would be possible with a large garden to each house. The saving in expenses of upkeep of roads would be very great in towns in which all factories, warehouses, etc., would be on the railway.

In order to form a more complete idea of the possibilities of decentralisation with modern means of communication, let us consider what would be the result of distributing the whole population of Great Britain equally throughout the country in small towns, lineal or otherwise. Though a mathematical distribution of population is both inconceivable and unnecessary, as is also the complete and universal adoption of the "lineal town," this study will not be unprofitable, to give an example of what might be done.

In Belgium workpeople are conveyed as far as twenty-four miles for a penny; a weekly ticket, costing half-a-crown, allows them to travel 62 miles to and from their work daily. The Belgian State Railways carry an enormous working-class traffic at the rate of about a penny for ten miles. The Great Eastern Railway carries workpeople from Enfield to Liverpool Street and back (21 1/2 miles) for twopence. These low rates can pay for the reason that the actual cost of conveying people by rail is so small that almost any traffic represents some gain to the companies. From the point of view of their own interests they are right in conveying workpeople at whatever rates they can afford to pay, though they have to be prudent in reducing their fares, because, to defray their heavy establishment expenses, they must charge most of their passengers comparatively high rates.

If the charge made by the Belgian State Railways for a sixty mile daily journey could be adopted, the result of complete decentralisation would be that everyone would have the advantages of living in or near a large town, as regards facilities for getting work. If the whole of the urban population of Great Britain were decentralised, towns of sixty thousand inhabitants would be dotted over the country at an average distance of fourteen miles apart. A journey of sixty miles from any place would then enable one to reach forty such towns, having an aggregate population of about two and a half million inhabitants.

Decentralisation would simply make us travel larger distances, which, as the facts we have already referred to show, would not necessitate fares being any more than they are now. Certain towns would always remain capitals, or centres, and everyone would be able to travel cheaply and rapidly to the centres of his district, so that all would enjoy the advantages of the greatest centralisation. From the point of view alike of the lover of the town and of the country, the lineal town would be the ideal. To people travelling along the great thoroughfares, the whole country would be almost like one huge and magnificent town. Lineal towns would not be interminable streets, with nothing to break or vary the prospect. The central boulevard could be widened in some places into an elongated square, enclosed at the ends by handsome buildings, the trams passing by the side of them, or even under them. Princes Street, Edinburgh, the Avenue de Champs Elysées in Paris, illustrate possible varieties of its appearance. At some places the boulevard would be straight, at others curved; at others, again, it would cross some old town, whose ancient buildings would be rendered more beautiful by the removal of the commonplace ones from around them. Whilst the central street could have every variety of urban beauty, the side streets could have every variety of village and garden city attractiveness, with their houses surrounded by gardens and orchards. The factories grouped together, and hidden away behind the main street, would cease to be disfigurements to either town or country. The landscape would no longer be marred by unsightly suburbs, factory chimneys, and railways. All these would be screened from view by the outer roads, which, with their gardens and orchards, would present the appearance of pretty villages. In mining districts factories would not always be grouped, but decentralisation would allow people who worked in those districts to live away from them.

Decentralisation being thus the ideal under modern conditions, the question is what we are to do to bring it about in some measure, and what reforms are necessary to make it possible. There will, of course, be an infinite diversity of opinion on this question, and it would not be very interesting or profitable to enter into a discussion as to the relative merits of different plans. We will content ourselves with reviewing some of the most important facts connected with the problem. The first is that we must do something to put an end to the crowding of population, which is causing the deterioration of our race. This crowding not only deprives people of the primary essential of fresh air, but produces every one of the conditions which drive them to drink, which is the greatest cause of moral and physical deterioration; whilst gardens give them every possible assistance to be sober. Impure air, the lack of an attractive home, are among the greatest causes of intemperance. Fresh fruits and vegetables are among the best antidotes against the craving for alcohol,(3) and a garden, with all the occupations it offers for mind and body, is the best thing to make the home attractive. It is the best thing, also, to bring up the children to habits of industry and thrift. Statistics show that, generally speaking, the denser the population the more people drink, and where garden city conditions prevail, i.e., where town and country are combined, they drink least of all, and this is understood at once by those who have studied the various causes of intemperance.

We seem now to be in the position of having to make up our minds quickly to reform our towns, or run the risk of losing our position among the nations of the world. It is evident, at all events, that we will have to undertake their reform sooner or later, as we have definitely turned our back on the country. All humane and patriotic people will, therefore, unite to demand that we shall see about this necessary work with the least possible delay.

Now, in order to overcome the difficulties connected with the reform of our towns, we should carry it out as part of a general scheme of decentralisation. In this way it would be so profitable financially, that all interests adversely affected could be fully compensated. If it were made law that no dwellings were to be built or rebuilt on any site where population is too dense for people to have the gardens which are necessary for moral and physical health, and if, simultaneously with this, arrangements were made for cheap services of trains, so as to spread out the displaced population, land values would be immensely increased. The value of the sites in the old towns that would be kept open for gardens would not be sacrificed, but merely transferred to country, and rural land, would be turned wholesale into gardens, and "accommodation land" which would represent a nett increase of value.

Land in the immediate vicinity of towns commands good rents, for the simple reason that the "protection of distance" is absolutely effective in the case of certain classes of agricultural produce. For this, however, the producer must be close enough to his market, to be able to sell his produce direct to the customers. If he is just too far, if the produce has to be collected, and to go through the hands of middlemen, he is practically no better off than his competitor hundreds of miles away. Thus decentralisation alone can give us the "protection of distance."

To render decentralisation practically possible, it would be sufficient to make a valuation of the land, and to let the public, which would have to compensate the owners of the sites kept open in the towns, recover, in the form of a "betterment tax," the increased values around the towns that would result. This is the least measure of land-reform that is necessary to enable our towns to be made healthy. No one using their land for a garden, a park, or a small holding would need to be disturbed, by decentralisation, no one would need to be compelled to sell his land. It would be necessary only to reserve to the public these (extra) increases of value that would be the result of regulations it had made, and of expense it had incurred to decentralise population, and to compel owners of large properties needed for the development of towns, to lease land for building purposes. These landlords, however, could be allowed a fixed percentage of increase as "compensation for disturbance." The profit of decentralisation would provide means to make such compensations. From the moment that this was done, sites could be kept open anywhere, the owners compensated, and the public would recover the value by means of these "betterment taxes."

It is interesting to note that a reform of this kind would solve the whole of the vexed land question, including that of the unearned increment, and access to the land; Our urgent duty, however, is not to consider that, but to propagate knowledge of the fact that, complicated as the social question may appear, it is rendered comparatively simple by all our social evils having a common root in our being a nation of town-dwellers living in unsuitable towns. Everyone should know that wherever the workers are able to combine cultivation of the soil with their industrial employment they are better off, morally and intellectually, as well as materially, than where they have the one occupation alone. Contact with nature has a moralising and educative influence, and so has intercourse with one's fellow-creatures. The country and agriculture have thus value in one way, and the town and industry in the other. The best is to combine them. Under those conditions the worker has cheaper food, without correspondingly smaller wages, because of the economic independence given to him by contact with the land. The working man suffers from poverty specially when his family is large and young. If all had a garden, instructors could be appointed by the school authorities to supervise and direct the suitable cultivation of the gardens by the children, wherever parents wished it, so that the children of all sensible and conscientious parents could begin very young to help to earn food for the family.

Thus, contact with the land, which is recognised by all reformers to be the sovereign remedy for social ills, so far from being impossible under modern conditions, is both particularly attainable and desirable.

We may seem to be looking to a far-off ideal when we think of the evils of our present industrial system being remedied by the workers working short hours in the factories, in double shifts, if necessary, and spending part of their day at agricultural and horticultural work. Something of the kind will have to happen, however, because the system which at present sacrifices the worker to production, cannot be tolerated. Decentralisation would mitigate the evil from the very beginning. The good workers would soon take advantage of the opportunity they would have, to do some work for themselves. Slums are such a tremendously costly blunder, with all the crime, pauperism, and disease they engender, that, as a simple calculation shows us, it will pay handsomely to clear them rapidly away as soon as our land-system allows it. The horror of a nation of town-dwellers living in towns so bad that the physique of its working-classes is degenerating, is due only to ignorance of the fact that it would pay in every way to put an end to it all(4); and this ignorance is due in a very great measure to the erroneous notions unfortunately kept up by so many reformers that attacks on vested interests are necessary to make reform possible. There is no need for any very drastic measures to allow the modern centrifugal tendencies to act. The terrible evils we suffer are due to our failure to do that, to the fact that we do not let our industrial system apply its own remedies to its evils.

1. At a meeting of the Tramways Committee of the Glasgow Corporation. the question was asked "why better facilities could not be given." The reply was "that the trams ran only with one-sixth of their complement of passengers, on an average, See excerpts from the Minutes, Meeting of the Tramways Committee. 14th No-ember. 1907. p.l7.

2. The total length of the " limbs " would be six miles, about 10,000 yards, this multiplied by 700 (deducting for roads) gives a total of seven million square yards of space. For sixty thousand inhabitants we could allow about twelve thousand dwellings so that each one would have about six hundred square yards of space.

3. The Interdepartmental Committee on Physical Deterioration 1904 (S. 174) says that properly selected and carefully prepared food is second only to improved housing, as a means of combating alcoholism. On the discussion of the Temperance Bill in the Danish Parliament last year (1908), it was agreed to remove the import duty on fruit on account of the beneficial result it has in curing the desire for alcohol. See also " The dietetic Treatment of Inebriates, " issued by the National Food Reform Association, 3d.

4. In a correspondence in the "Westminster Gazette," which lasted for about five weeks, the author had no difficulty in maintaining as a fact that it would pay handsomely to rebuild the towns. 

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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