John Sulman

(Paper delivered in 1890). Reprinted in An Introduction to the Study of Town Planning in Australia (Sydney: Government Printer of New South Wales, 1921), Appendix A.

John Sulman (1849­1934) read this paper at a meeting of the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science held at Melbourne University in January, 1890. In it he proposes that new towns be laid out on a spiderweb pattern. Perhaps he heard or read the paper delivered by J. B. Waring in 1873 at the Royal Institute of British Architects who also advocated planning cities in this manner.

Sulman was a Fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects and perhaps the most widely known and respected architect in Australia. Born in Greenwich, England, he studied architecture in London at the Royal Academy and became a successful practitioner. His stature is indicated by his election as President of the Architectural Association in 1885, the year that he moved to Australia because of his wife's ill­health. He set up his architectural practice in Sydney where he soon became well known and sought­after as the designer of a variety of domestic, public, and business structures. Sulman also lectured in architecture at the University of Sydney. He found time to travel abroad, and his growing interest in the issued and problems of urban development led him to write about city planning. He believed, correctly, that this paper in 1890 could be regarded as the beginning of the modern period of town planning in Australia.

Sulman dabbled in business as well, become a director of the Sydney Daily Telegraph in 1902. Income from this venture and what had become a flourishing practice allowed him after 1908 to focus most of his attention on planning matters. A series of newspaper article by him marked this period of his life, and in 1909 and 1910 his article about the future Australian capital city and how it could be planned reached an international audience. He drew on these and other writings when he gave the Vernon Memorial Lectures in town planning at Sydney, and these in turn provided material for his Introduction to the Study of Town Planning in Australia.

Following the removal of Walter Burley Griffin as director of the development of Canberra, Sulman accepted the position of Chairman of the Federal Capital Advisory Committee, holding that post from 1921 to 1924. His concept of Canberra as a garden city was at variance from the provisions of the Griffin plan, and it is not unfair to say that in some respects the character of Canberra owes as much to Sulman as it does to Griffin. His faithful adherence to the garden city ideas are suggested by his election as Vice­President of the International Garden Cities and Town Planning Association in 1923, a position held until his death eleven years later. In this paper Sulman advocated a spiderweb city plan as the ideal and asserted that town planning should be the responsibility of architects with only incidental involvement by surveyors and engineers. Members of those professions responded to this challenge with criticisms from the South Australian Institute of Surveyors and  by Stephen Mills, a surveyor in New South Wales.

A typical Australian town is made up, like a chessboard, of a number of co­equal squares or rectangles. The chief merit of such a plan is its simplicity, and the ease with which the work of the surveyor can be performed. The defects are, however, many, and it is a thousand pities that a work of such great importance to the future millions of Australia should be performed with so little thought and care. Unfortunately, the plans of most of our existing towns are fixed beyond the possibility of radical alteration, but there are many more yet to be located where now the gum­tree grows, and suburbs to be formed on sites at present innocent of the surveyor's peg. In these, at least, we may avoid past errors, and make some attempt at a more rational system. How such a desirable end is to be attained I hope to point out very briefly under the five headings of "Location," "Utilisation," "Decoration," "Legislation," and "realisation."

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, or at points suitable for trade, like the convergence of highways, an important railway junction, or a point of shipment. Too often these conditions are wanting, and then (if of Government origin) it is a direct loss to the community; if privately promoted it is still a loss, but indirectly through individuals A comparison of the country maps with the country itself will show many an apparently extensive town still covered with thick brush from which even the surveyor's pegs have totally disappeared. Granted, however, the necessary conditions for growth, the natural healthiness of the site is the next point to consider. Much may, no doubt, be done by the skill of engineers to improve an unhealthy site; but in a new country, where the land is practically unlimited, it is little short of a crime to permit any town to be formed which, from its location, will encourage disease. The most patent evils to guard against are swampy or flooded land and an impervious subsoil. Of the former there are by far too many examples. I will describe one. In a rich agricultural district of the parent colony a Government township was laid out many years ago on rising ground near the banks of a river. The upset price was low, but just on the other side of the stream a large area of land was possessed by a drunken old settler, which was, however, flooded in wet seasons. So far as position was concerned either bank would serve, as the river was bridged. Cheapness, however, won the day, and the flooded land was purchased in blocks at the price of a bottle of rum, by ignorant chums and on it the town was built. Every few years the river comes down "a banker," covers the town several feet deep in mud and water, and leaves behind a legacy of who can say how much suffering and death. Now the inhabitants are petitioning for extensive works of embankment, and in course of time will, no doubt, obtain a large grant of public money for the purpose. If surface unsuitability is thus ignored, what may we expect when the subsoil is in question? Its importance as bearing on the health of a town can scarcely he exaggerated, but it rarely receives a thought. As a flagrant example, I will describe a noted health resort. Picturesque hills surround a green valley on almost every side. The surface soil is loamy and fairly pervious, but at 8 to 12 feet in depth an impervious bed of clay underlies the whole of the valley. At any point water may be reached by digging to that depth, and above this clay bed the town is laid out. At present it is little more than a large village, but when its vacant lots are filled up, and the surface soil is choked by impurities, what will be the death­rate of that place? An expensive system of land drainage at the public cost will be an absolute necessity to palliate the evil of wrong selection, though it can never be a cure; and the worst of it is that a few miles away, on the most direct route, there is land possessing all the requisites of a healthy site except that of railway communication which was engineered on to the inferior land by political influence. Assuming, however, the natural healthiness of the site, its artificial preservation when occupied by a large population is the next point to consider. Three conditions are essential, viz.: An abundant supply of good water at a sufficient elevation and within a reasonable distance, adequate surface drainage for storm waters and levels that will permit of a system of underground sewers with a suitable outlet and area of land for the disposal of the effluents. How few of our towns possess all these, and how many lack them!

The typical mode of subdivision I have already alluded to, and it is very useful from the "pay your money, take your choice," and "do as you like" point of view. Blind chance in such a case determines the future of each street or block and the game of "beggar my neighbor" is too often played by adjoining owners with opposing views or interests in the buildings they erect. It is a case of individualism run mad. And with no better result than that in the course of years, and after many rebuildings, some kind of order and classification will have been evolved out of the chaos of the commencement. Whereas it should not be forgotten a modern town is an organism with distinct functions for its different members requiring separate treatment, and it is just as easy to allot these to suitable positions at first, as to allow them to be shaken with more or less difficulty into place, while the final result obtained under the latter system is not to be compared with that of the first either on the score of convenience, utility, or beauty. It will be conceded without dispute that the centre round which town life revolves is the seat of its government, hence the town hall should be allotted the best and most central position. Closely adjoining it sites should reserved for other public buildings, such as the post­office, court­house, and district land office, and near by opportunities should be given for the erection of semi­public buildings, such as banks, offices of public companies, theatres, and places of amusement, hotels, clubs, and possibly one or two churches, though the latter are best located in the residential districts. The buildings most used by the population would thus be grouped together, and a great saving in traffic effected, as compared with the present plan of haphazard distribution. To prevent congestion, the absolute centre should form an open reserve, and from this broad and direct roads, or boulevards should radiate to the surrounding country, the railway station, or navigable river. The exact lines these should take can only be determined after careful study of each specific case. Now fill in between these radiating boulevards with ordinary streets, and with the addition of a few diagonal lines we shall obtain a plan far more useful for inter­communication than any arranged on a rectangular basis. In fact, it will resemble that marvel of ingenuity, a spider's web, than which nothing could be better devised for rapid access to all parts of its surface. Immediately around the central nucleus the business quarters would be located, while retail trade would naturally extend for some distance along the main arteries of traffic; and farther out, as the spaces between the main lines became wider, the residential quarters would find their place. But these should not be extended too far without a break, and if the admirable example of Adelaide could be followed by introducing a belt of parklands, the gain to the health of the town or city would be great. Beyond this belt of open ground, as the town increased in size, suburbs would naturally spring up and these, according to local conditions of soil, elevation and accessibility to rail or water communication, would naturally subdivide themselves into residential or manufacturing. One of the latter should, in all cases, be restricted to the use of noxious trades. The question how far the heart of the town should be placed from the railway or river is an open one, and it would probably result in many cases, that rail or river would form a chord, cutting off a considerable part of the complete circle. The foregoing ideal sketch assumes a fairly level site, but where this condition is absent the gradients should be most carefully considered. And here, again, the cast­iron uniformity of the chess­board type shows its entire unsuitability to varying natural conditions. I have in my mind's eye ludicrous examples of this For instance, there is a fairly level cathedral city in New South Wales, possessing towards one corner a steep hill from which there is a beautiful view This would have formed a most admirable reserve, but it so happens that two streets intersect exactly at the top of the hill. They are too steep for traffic, and hence the town council is compelled to laboriously cut away the very boon which Nature had provided the city with. Again, at a health resort on the Blue Mountains, most irregular and diversified in contour, the chess­board plan has produced streets up and down which it is difficult even to walk, and for horse traffic they are practically impassable, whereas by the use of curved roads following the natural configuration of the hills, easy gradients could have been obtained at a tithe of the cost for construction, and they would also have been immeasurably more useful to the inhabitants.

The beauty, or otherwise, of town or city must have an effect on its inhabitants. The long, unlovely street pictured by our poet laureate could not but depress even the least sensitive of its residents, and the evil is aggravated when, as in a chess­board city, the streets are all alike. Now, the "spider's web" plan possesses not only the advantage of convenience, but also of variety, and we all know that "variety is charming." Scarcely any two of the blocks would be exactly the same size, the angles made by the streets with each other would differ, and these together with the trapezoidal allotments, would call for special treatment. In the hands of an architect who knows how to use it, an irregular site is a godsend. Such a site enables him to get out of the beaten track, and design something fresh and original, while even the tyro cannot make his structure absolutely like everything else. Then as to the streets their width should be ample, both on the score of health and beauty, but they should not be all the same. Taking one chain [16.5 ft.] as a minimum for side streets, three chains [49.5 ft.] are not too great for the main arteries or boulevards. This width would allow of their subdivision into three roads, with intervening footpaths and rows of trees, the central road being paved for heavy traffic and tram lines. There are some examples of this type in Melbourne, and their manifold advantages will be more and more appreciated as population increases. And, in passing, let me pay a tribute of praise to the vigorous way in which the municipal councils of Victoria have carried out tree­planting in the streets, and in that respect Ballarat may, I think, be awarded the place of honour. In comparison, the attempts made in the other colonies are but halfhearted, though I hope the time will soon come when they will emulate the good example set by Victoria. Moreover, the introduction of trees in large numbers in the heart of cities is a wise sanitary precaution, for the carbonic acid gas human beings exhale is absorbed by vegetation, which in turn gives off the oxygen we need. Hitherto I have only referred to straight streets set at irregular angles; let me now put in a word as to the advantages of curved lines. It is said that "Nature abhors a straight line," and so does art unless relieved by curves. As a source of beauty the curved line is of inestimable value. Imagine what Collins­street would be without its undulation of surface! It is that which gives it the charm it possesses. On a level or nearly level site a curve in plan may often be introduced with the greatest advantage. It may be defined formally and regularly as in a quadrant or circus, or so gentle in its sweep as to be scarcely perceptible at the first glance. Of the former I may instance the quadrant in Regent­street, London, and the latter that exquisite example the High­street at Oxford. To carry the principle still farther, a sinuous line may occasionally be found serviceable where local conditions permit, and of this there is no finer specimen in the world than the Grand Canal at Venice, though to be sure it is a water­way, but for all that is the street of the city of the sea. The Strand in London is another example, and even in this southern hemisphere I may refer with satisfaction to the irregular lines of George and King streets in Sydney. In all these the continual unfolding of fresh views is the great charm, and for my part I am devoutly thankful that one or two at least of the old Sydney streets were formed by bullock­wagons rather than by the surveyor's chain. Their narrowness I do not defend, but that is quite another matter. In planning a new town, however, it should never be forgotten that a curve ought only to be laid down when it serves a practical purpose, and in more cases than at first appear likely it will be found to serve the purposes of communication better than a straight line, especially in easing off the connections of one street with another. I have already alluded to reserves, and on this point there is usually little fault to be found with Australian towns, as far as the mere amount of them is concerned but their shape is nearly always the prosaic square or rectangle, in which there is no beauty. Furthermore, the worst is made of them by running roads along the four sides, instead of leading up to them. Now, instead of this, in the spider's web plan there is the possibility of introducing reserves of all shapes and sizes, and so securing variety of form. Again, wherever a number of streets converge there should be an enlargement of the area, with a refuge in the centre. What this means in the future can only be realised by those who have seen and observed the planning of the new quarters in the Continental cities of Europe. It is of the greatest value for traffic, and of inestimable worth for architectural effect. And of these enlargements the central square or reserve would of necessity be the finest. Such a grouping of public buildings around it as I have suggested would give importance to even a small town, and form another example of the value of combination as opposed to separation. Together, their effect would be doubled; separated, it would be halved.

Where a new town is laid out on Government land it would be easy to adopt a new system of planning, but I have little hope in this direction. The bonds of routine are too strong. In those laid out by private enterprise, the principal and, I may almost say, only aim is to produce the greatest cash return at the lowest outlay. At present it is believed this may be done by the rectangular system. On the ground of the public health and wellbeing, I think it is perfectly legitimate that the almost absolute freedom to lay out a town anywhere, and in any fashion, should be somewhat limited, and such limitation would prove in the end a gain to the promoters as well as to the public. I would therefore suggest the following regulations as reasonable:--1. That the erection of buildings for human occupation be absolutely prohibited on flooded land. 2. That no town be laid out on soil of unhealthy character, such as a morass or over an impervious subsoil. 3. That no title be registered for any allotment less than 1/20th of an acre in area, and that no lease containing a building covenant be valid for any site of less area (the object of this clause is to limit density of population and insanitary conditions). 4. That the area of streets and reserves be equal to one­third the area leased or sold for occupation. 5. That no town or suburb contain a greater area than one square mile, with a belt of reserved land at least 1/8 of a mile in width between the same and the adjoining suburb. 6. That before any land is sold or leased in allotments, if less than one acre in area, official sanction to the plans be obtained, and that this sanction be withheld unless a satisfactory scheme of drainage and water supply be submitted at the same time, but for future realisation. At the present time, when it is beginning to be understood that the land is the heritage of the whole people, and its absolute ownership is permitted to individuals only as a matter of convenience, the right of the community to enforce provisions against misuse is, I think, undoubted; and when this misuse takes so glaring a form as originating conditions that must inevitably tend to produce disease it is the absolute duty of the State to interfere. As in medicine, so in legislation, "Prevention is better than cure.

The scheme I have propounded is no ideal one; it is quite within the sphere of practical politics, and if anything is to be done a commencement should be made at once. It is a matter not only affecting one colony, but all, and the meeting of this Association affords the opportunity to take action. A recommendation to the Government of each colony from such a body as the General Council, backed up by the personal influence of its members, would at least secure attention. And if, at the same time, the general public could be instructed through the Press, a great advance would become possible, more especially as I believe the time is ripe for a change. The evils of the old "happy­go­lucky" system are beginning to be felt, and already, in at least two instances, private corporations are taking the initiative. I refer to the well­arranged suburb of Kensington, near Sydney, the plan of which I have carefully examined and can highly recommend; and to that of Hopetoun, near Melbourne, of which I know less. The plans of Kensington were designed by an architect, laid out by a surveyor, and checked by an engineer. This is as it should be. The architect is the one man who by training and experience combines in himself a knowledge of all the conditions of town­planning, and to him should be entrusted the task of initiation. He is, or should be, conversant with all kinds of buildings and their requirements, the general principles of form and beauty, the devising of good lines of access and communication, and the requirements of sanitary science. At the same time, the surveyor should be jointly associated with the architect, as he has a practical acquaintance with the details of laying­out, and would naturally carry forward the scheme to completion in the field; while the engineer comes in as a valued and necessary specialist on the questions of drainage and water supply, &c. I therefore claim, on behalf of my profession, the honoured position we once occupied, but from which we have been too long excluded, viz., that of chief designers of our towns and cities, and this claim is being recognised. Those shrewd business men, the auctioneers and land agents of Melbourne and Sydney, are beginning to appreciate the aid we can give, as they find that it pays. The field thus opening is one that will require the highest skill, and may well satisfy the ambition of the most talented among us; and if, at the same time, we can secure the aid of such legislation as I have indicated, we may indulge in the hope that the towns of the future will far surpass those. of the present in convenience, healthfulness, and beauty.

Government is the only superior power that could undertake the task, and the question arises whether this is desirable. It would be a distinct set­back to Local Government for the City Council to be made responsible to a superior authority, but on the other hand it may be argued that in its present stage of development it would be for the good of the citizens as a whole. The alternative is to make the City Council the supreme authority in City affairs, to give it the necessary funds, and to foster in every way the feeling that it must be made efficient for the greater responsibilities thrown upon it. On the whole it appears to me this is the best solution, but if adopted it may be desirable to reconsider the basis of its representation. For such increased responsibility we want the services of our most experienced and capable citizens, and they might be induced to come forward in greater numbers if conditions were made more favourable. At present every ward elects its own representative, a principle which, though excellent in large constituencies such as those of the State, is hardly necessary for the small areas into which the City is thus divided; and is, indeed in the opinion of many whose judgment is of weight, distinctly detrimental. Let the councillors be elected by the voters of the City as a whole, and I feel sanguine many of the foremost citizens would esteem it an honour to stand. At present they are, I believe, debarred by ward politics and all that they mean. It has often been said that unless Democracy can put its best men into power it must fail; it is therefore essential that the conditions must be made such as will attract them. The grouping of the City wards into one electorate would also be a step towards the Greater Sydney Council most of us believe is a necessity of the future, for each of the present municipalities would then become a ward of the Greater Municipality, returning its own member or members. For the time being, however. one exception must be made in favour of the Harbour Trust and the proposed road along the eastern side of Darling Harbour. This is so inextricably bound up with the wharves and water frontages that it is doubtful whether the City Council could deal with the matter effectively, and while the Harbour Trust exists in its present form it should be entrusted with all work; in connection with the foreshores of Darling Harbour.

In conclusion, I would say that I hold no brief for the Council, I have not consulted any of its members in the preparation of my scheme, and have only obtained from its officials such information as is afforded to any citizen. My sole aim is the wellbeing and improvement of the City, in which I have spent the last twenty­two years of my life, and where I hope to work and live for the rest of my days. I see its many and great possibilities, and want my fellow­citizens to see them likewise. If these articles make clear the needs of the Sydney that is, and what it ought to be, and that the time is ripe for action, I shall have attained my desire. Let action follow on conviction, and then, within less than a generation, Sydney may have just ground for claiming the proud title of the Queen City of the South. 

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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