South Australian Institute of Surveyors.

Report of the Fifth Meeting of the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science, Held at Adelaide, South Australia, September, 1893.

Although this paper was read by John H. Packard, Hon. Secretary, South Australian Institute of Surveyors, Incorporated, it probably represented the work of several members of that organization. It was presented as Paper No. 2 in the meeting of the Association's Section H. The statement responded to and strongly criticised the paper presented byJohn Sulman in 1890 that advocated a spiderweb street plan as the ideal. An earlier reply to Sulman by Stephen Mills appeared in the journal of the Institution of Surveyors of New South Wales in March, 1890, just two months after Sulman's paper was delivered.
Whilst complimenting Mr. Sulman on the interesting and able manner in which his paper on "The Laying Out of Towns" is written, and expressing a desire that the subject so well initiated by him should be discussed with widely beneficial results, it being well known that in all the colonies many sites of towns have been ill chosen, we wish to take exception to some of his statements, which are fairly open to criticism, and which must strike many practical men as somewhat inconsistent and utopian.
With regard to location he states "that in the first place a town should only be laid out where the conditions for its growth are present, such as a considerable area of surrounding agricultural land, subterranean mineral wealth, an important railway junction, or a port of shipment." It will readily be admitted that the above conditions are desirable and would be apt enough if sites were always obtainable with these advantageous, but it must be remembered that in the majority of cases in a new settlement most of them are absent, railway lines are yet unmade, and mineral wealth undiscovered.

A shipping place, for instance, in the neighborhood of some agricultural or pastoral district may not possess all the essentials of a good site for a town, but is the best place on the coast for a small port; consequently a few blocks are laid out in the simplest form, which would possibly answer all requirements for very many years, but what would be thought of that man who should lay out a town in Mr. Sulman's approved "spider-web plan"? Not knowing its future possibilities, of course it must be laid out to suit the population of, say, Adelaide or Melbourne. The post office, telegraph station, and other public buildings must be in or near the centre, and consequently nearly a mile from the shipping place, causing great inconvenience to those using them, and a standing monument for, perhaps, scores of years to the folly of the designers.

In a new country it is impossible to foretell which places will be important, and, therefore, to carry out Mr. Sulman's views all towns should be laid out the same size. The existence of large towns is frequently the result of accidental circumstances, such as the discovery of a mine, as witness Ballarat and Broken Hill. In most cases the surveyor has simply to make the best of the site allotted to him, and, whether a supply of water is obtainable within a reasonable distance or not, here the town must go. The water must be brought to the town and the sewage find its way out. But even supposing that the surveyor laid out his town in a place fulfilling all the required conditions and with the proverbial attractiveness of the spider's web added, still up will go the real bricks and mortar town in close proximity to the centre of the work, whilst the survey pegs of the theoretic metropolis are rotting in the trenches or being ploughed up by the farmer.

It is only in surveying a country prior to settlement that Mr. Sulman's suggestions could be carried out, and, unfortunately for the adventurous profession we have the honor to represent, such an opportunity is of rare occurrence. The initial survey of South Australia, half a century ago, afforded such scope. Had Colonel Light, to whom credit is universally accorded for his selection of the site and for the design of Adelaide, had the privilege of perusing the paper now under consideration it is probable that the chief city of this province would now stand an imperishable monument to the spider's web system, instead of only showing, as it does, that the gallant colonel was conversant with a move or two on the chessboard pattern; and here we take the liberty of expressing our doubts as to the suitability of the new system, if adopted in its entirety, to replace the old, and are not yet prepared to abandon the simple geometry of the chessboard in favor of the mathematical complexities of the spider's web.

Admittedly, in some respects, a city more beautiful from an architectural point of view could be built on Mr. Sulman's plan than in any other, but even then the extra beauty would be largely confined to the very centre of the town, and it is questionable whether some important considerations would not in this case, as in many others, be sacrificed at the shrine of beauty.

By reserving a sufficiently large space in the centre it is true that ample frontage could be provided for the erection of all the principal public buildings, and this part of the town could be made very attractive, but once leave the magic circle and the eligibility of position decreases in inverted geometrical progression as the distance increases. Every owner of city lands not being the fortunate proprietor of one of those acute angles in which Mr. Sulman revels, has the disadvantage of having to travel round one or another of these angles before he can reach the architectural paradise of the centre. In short, the heart of the system is apt to be exalted at the cost of every other part of it.

Granted that the irregular frontages can be used up with good effect by an able architect. yet this would be at great sacrifice of frontage, which the owners would be reluctant to allow where the land was very valuable; witness the sharp corners in London or Sydney, where nearly every foot is built upon, notwithstanding the great disadvantage of acute-angled and ill-shaped rooms; and the cost of filling up these awkward corners is out of all proportion to the accommodation afforded.

We are inclined to think that for practical purposes the chessboard plan, with proper provisions for squares and parks. is the best for a town, provided, of course, the natural features are favorable. The streets should, if possible. run about north-east and north-west, as this arrangement would ensure every street getting a fair proportion of sunshine during some portion of the day. In addition to the sanitary advantage, and in some respects the business convenience of this arrangement, it is found in practice that streets which have a fair share of sunshine in winter last longer than those altogether in the shade.

Rapidity of survey is the only advantage Mr. Sulman concedes to the chessboard system, but there are others of far greater importance, e.g., the straight streets afford better facilities for the construction of railway, tram, and telegraph lines. The land by being divided into rectangular blocks can be used to the greatest possible advantage for buildings, court yards, and streets, whilst there need be no lack of scope for architectural variety.

The simplicity of marking the correct alignments of the streets is another point in its favor, and this is by no means unimportant. Even in the rectangular city of Adelaide the question of street alignments has been found a very troublesome one, partly on account of too liberal measurements being given in the original survey for the reputed area, and it is at the present moment the subject of legislation after years of persistent agitation on the part of this Institute.(2) The difficulties in the way of a settlement would have been far greater with the short lines or curves and the irregular angles of the spider's web system.

The idea of laying out the streets of a town in curves is by no means a new one in South Australia. As long ago as 1871 the late Mr. Arthur Cooper, then Deputy Surveyor-General, designed the town of Port Pirie with the longitudinal streets following the trend of the arm of the sea forming the harbor. and which happened to be a nearly regular curve; the transverse streets were laid Out in straight radial lines. Port Pirie is a rapidly improving town, and will eventually furnish a very good example of the pleasing effect of handsome buildings erected round a graceful curve. Whenever the natural features are favorable, as following the bend of a sea frontage (as in this instance), of a river, or winding round a hill to obtain an easy gradient, we think that curves should be made, as the advantages gained exist for all time, and more than counterbalance the disadvantages of irregularity of block and the increase of survey work involved in their use; but we are scarcely prepared to advocate their use where straight lines will answer all purposes. Speaking as surveyors, we should like every township in the province to be laid out in curves, as this would make a great increase of survey work of an interesting character, but we can scarcely expect to arrange these matters to suit surveyors only, and public opinion is apt to place utility before beauty.

Whilst recommending the chessboard plan generally as a basis, we should of course, deviate from it whenever the natural features indicate the desirableness of doing so. Every different site should have its own design, and to the experienced surveyor the proper place to run the streets will be apparent on a careful inspection.

Three-chain streets should, we think, rarely be admitted, as they separate the sides too widely and make them almost like portions of distinct towns. We have some instances in South Australia where this has been the effect, and we are inclined to think that two chains is about the maximum that should be allowed, while, at the same time, the width should rarely be reduced to less than a chain and a half and never less than one chain, as it is impossible to foresee which streets are destined to become leading thoroughfares.

It also appears to us that Mr. Sulman attaches undue importance to the necessity- of a pervious subsoil for the site of a large town. We would not think of rejecting an otherwise favorable site for this reason only, as in these days the question of deep drainage is only one of time. For example, the subsoil of Adelaide is a stiff clay 30ft. to 60ft. thick, and yet during all the years that Adelaide existed without deep drainage it was always considered a most healthy city. When the site is unsuitable, through being badly situated for drainage, the more pervious the subsoil the better, but where a town is naturally well situated for drainage the character of the subsoil is, we think, of but secondary importance.

Who should design towns ?

We are not insensible to the advantage of consultation amongst the members of the three professions of architect, engineer, and surveyor, so as to produce the best design for a proposed town. It has been truly said that "two heads are better than one." and we shall hail the day when landowners desire the united services of the three professions in designing and laying out their towns, but until this auspicious time arrives we feel bound to respect the ancient admonition, "Ne sutor ultra crepidam" and not claim to ourselves the right of designing all the houses as well as marking out the lots on which they are to be built, while at the same time we can scarcely be expected to concede that the designing of towns belongs solely to the architectural profession leaving to the surveyor merely the privilege of driving in the pegs.

Though Mr. Sulman may smile at our ignorance of the history of the professions, we are bound to confess our inability to follow him when he refers to the "honored positions we, the architects, once occupied, but from which we have been too long excluded." We wonder what happened to disturb this excellent arrangement, and from what they have been excluded ?

Mr. Sulman's remarks on this part of the subject lead us to notice a tendency which we have often observed: to blame surveyors for all the blunders in sites as well as the badly laid out towns that unfortunately exist, but a very little consideration will show the injustice of this tendency. As a matter of fact, as we have already pointed out, in private work the surveyor seldom or never has any voice in choosing a site. In the days when all the agricultural land around Adelaide was selling at so many pounds per foot, if the surveyor had ventured to suggest pegging out a spider's web on a square plot of land or the digging of holes to prove the subsoil he would have been accounted a lunatic, and, unless he had decided to retire from this kind of business, his business would have quickly retired from him. We recollect one surveyor who was employed to survey a township in the hills near Adelaide, and who took such interest in his work as to lay out his streets in faultless curves sweeping in easy gradients round the contour of the hills. He has long since abandoned the scene of his triumph, and seeks in distant lands that appreciation of his merits which they failed to arouse in South Australia.

In noting Mr. Sulman's remarks under this head we do not see that No. 3, limiting the area to be included in a title, would have any practical effect in preventing, overcrowding, as fifty buildings could be huddled together on one acre as well as on separate blocks of one-fiftieth of an acre, and it would work hardship in some instances; for example, we know of one case in Adelaide where it was necessary to issue a title for a strip of land only 6in. wide. In most cases probably a strip like this might be tacked on to the adjoining land, but it might not always be convenient; for instance, the adjoining land might be mortgaged. and it would then be undesirable to join the two pieces of land in one title.

In the legislation, which we have already referred to, in this province it is provided that permanent marks should be laid down in all towns, from which the true alignments of the streets and also the boundaries of the sub-divisions can be definitely fixed. The want of this provision has been very much felt here. Every surveyor has had hitherto to use his own judgment as to starting points, and there is often room for considerable difference of opinion. In all future surveys of townships it is desirable that; permanent marks should be laid down; fixity of position being so intimately connected with indefeasibility of title that both are indispensable to the proper working of the Real Property Act.

Mr. Sulman's suggestion that the Government of each colony should receive a recommendation from the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science on the laying out of towns is certainly a good one, as such a course may be the means of preventing some of the undoubted errors of the past from being repeated in the future. We might mention here that the law in force in this province provides that no township plan shall be received into the Lands Titles Office until it has been approved by an officer appointed by the Government for that purpose.

In conclusion, we would remark that, though differing somewhat from Mr. Sulman's views, we feel that he is deserving of the thanks of ourselves and the public for expressing his thoughts on this important subject in such a clear and intelligent manner, and trust he may be rewarded by seeing the seed that he has sown bear fruit in the selection of more healthy and suitable sites, and the adoption of better designs by the present and future generations.

1. Read at the meeting of the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science, held in Melbourne, January, 1890.

2. Legislative enactment has since been obtained. 

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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