Robert H. Whitten

Proceedings of the Seventh National Conference on City Planning. Boston, 1915:135-143.

Whitten was Secretary of the City Planning Committee of the New York City Board of Estimate and Apportionment.
At the last meeting of the National Conference on City Planning the executive committee appointed a Committee on Administrative Procedure, with Mr. Nelson P. Lewis as chairman. The committee decided to take up the general question of the constitution and powers of a city planning authority, and in order to secure a wide basis of experience for its work it caused a questionnaire to be prepared and sent out widely to individuals and city planning commissions. Eighty replies were received which show very careful consideration of the subject, and although it will be impossible even to abstract them, I think it will be important before opening the discussion to give a summary statement of the questions and of the replies.

City planning involves (1) the creation, adoption and revision of a tentative comprehensive plan for the physical development of the city, and (2) the correlation of particular improvements, by whatever authority originated, with the requirements of the compre" hensive plan. The comprehensive tentative plan should include at least the following: streets; parks, playgrounds; transit; grouping of public buildings; railroads, waterways; terminals; markets and the districting of the city for the purpose of regulating the height, area and use of buildings.

The creation of a comprehensive tentative plan involves first of all a careful study of future growth and requirements. In order to plan for the present and for the future, a picture is needed of what the city will or should look like in 25, 50 or 100 years, when it has several times its present population. For this purpose studies are required of the probable growth and distribution of population and of the probable development of business and industry. The probable order of development is also important. We need not only to know what areas will eventually be needed, for example, for port development and for park purposes, but also the probable order in which the various available areas will be developed.

A comprehensive tentative plan having been worked out and tentatively adopted, the next step is to secure the correlation of particular improvements, by whatever authority originated, with the requirements of the comprehensive plan. As this comprehensive plan touches so many phases of municipal activity, an efficient administrative organization to secure the desired correlation is a most difficult problem.

Provision must also be made for the revision of the tentative comprehensive plan. No amount of planning can avoid the necessity for a considerable amount of reconstruction and change. When invention and discovery are changing the methods of work and of living throughout the world, it is idle to think that we can so judge the future that our present plans for the city's development will not require change and modification. The "once for all" method of city planning is therefore impracticable. We cannot adopt a plan and make that the Procrustean mold for all future time. City planning, to be effectual, must be sustained and continuous.

The creation, adoption, application, development and revision of the comprehensive tentative plan constitutes an imposing program. It takes considerable imagination and optimism to hope that it will ever be completely realized in any city. A few cities have adopted and carried out comprehensive plans for particular functions, but using the term "comprehensive plan" in the broad sense above indicated, no city has worked out, adopted and provided effectively for the continuous application, development and revision of such a plan. In a large city this constitutes a complex and difficult problem and the proper administrative organization to grapple effectively with it may not be such a simple matter as is sometimes assumed.

In American state and city government almost every expansion of governmental activity is initiated through the instrumentality of a new commission. There is a fear of intrusting the working out of new functions to existing officials. Existing officials are already loaded with work and it is thought that they will have neither the time, the inclination nor perhaps the ability to develop the new idea. A new commission, composed usually of unpaid members, is used to plant and care for the new undertaking, at least during its development period. Often the new function fails to take root as a permanent institution and the commission dies. If, on the other hand, the new function be comes a recognized governmental function, it is sooner or later merged with the general governmental organization. The new function is transferred to the appropriate official or department and the commission disappears. That is inevitable; otherwise municipal government would soon become an utterly disorganized tangle of boards and commissions.

The city planning movement will doubtless be no exception to the rule. Doubtless the commission method will be used largely in the earlier stages of the movement, but if the city planning movement endures, it will ultimately be made a part of the general governmental organization. The city plan is so vitally connected with every phase of municipal activity that it must be worked out in as close touch as is possible with the existing administrative and legislative authorities.

All this goes to show that it is difficult to dogmatize concerning the constitution and powers of a city planning authority. The organization essential for the initiation of the movement may be very different from the logical ultimate organization. The appropriate initial organization may vary in different cities with the size of the city, the popular support forthcoming and the fitness of existing officials for the development of this new function. We are, of course, interested primarily in the result and not in the machinery used. The most effective agencies at hand should be availed of to start real city planning.

The typical city plan commission in America is made up of a number of citizens who are not city officials and who serve without pay. A commission thus organized has certain advantages in the initiation of any new function. Appointed solely for city planning purposes, the commission will devote itself unreservedly to that work. It will take a broad view of the scope of city planning. It will realize that it needs the assistance of city plan experts. It will not be deterred by details and difficulties that loom large in the vision of the practical city administrator. It will have something of the missionary spirit in propagating the gospel of city planning. All this presupposes that the commission is given adequate appropriation. A commission with the best intentions in the world will fail utterly unless its work and plans are founded on careful investigation, and careful investigation usually costs money.

A citizen commission of this kind has serious drawbacks when it comes to the official adoption and carrying out of a comprehensive plan. In the first place it is difficult to see how a commission thus constituted can be given anything more than advisory powers, i.e., of investigation and report. The city plan affects so continuously, vitally and broadly the administration of the city government that it does not seem consistent with good administration to delegate such far-reaching power to an appointive committee of citizens. Moreover, a number of the city's departments and officials are necessarily at work planning the city's physical development in so far as particular functions are concerned. Any comprehensive plan will lose much in practical efficiency and result in much duplication of effort unless worked out in close touch with these departments and officials.

All this is so important that in creating a city plan authority in any city, instead of turning at once to the plan, the ground should be very thoroughly gone over to see to what extent existing official agencies can be effectively used. Only in case this search for appropriate official material is unsuccessful should the alternative of a commission made up entirely of non-official members be availed of, and then only as a temporary expedient. It will usually be best to make up the commission partly of official and partly of non-official members.

The ultimate development in any large city may well be a city plan office that will have primary control of the development and administration, but not of the adoption or confirmation of the city plan. This city plan office may be an executive department in one city and a bureau of the board of estimate or other governing commission in another city. The city plan office may have associated with it an advisory commission of citizens or of citizens and officials. The city plan office will develop the data required for comprehensive planning, will create a plan showing the future physical development of the city and will submit to the regularly constituted governing authorities of the city such parts of the plan as seem desirable for adoption and confirmation as the tentative official plan of the city. All matters affecting the city plan will be referred to the city plan office for investigation and report before being acted upon by the general governing authority. The city plan office will make recommendations for the continuous development and revision of the tentative official plan.

Except in the smaller cities the function of an art jury or commission should not be combined with those of the city planning authority. The best art judgment will be secured by the selection of a group of art experts. City planning is a very different problem and requires different men and methods.

The organization of a city plan authority should be within the powers of every city, but its creation should be permissive and not mandatory. Moreover, the composition and powers of the city plan authority should not be delimited by state statute except in the most general terms. The city should have the utmost freedom to enact, amend or abolish its city planning organization. This freedom of action and centralization of responsibility is even more essential to efficient city government than is city planning itself.

The power to confirm tentative plans submitted by the city planning authority should be vested in the regularly constituted governing authority of the city. The city plan authority should, however, be granted the opportunity to consider and report upon every matter affecting the integrity of the city plan, and action contrary to its recommendation should require a two-thirds vote of the governing authority.

The formal confirmation of a tentative comprehensive plan will come slowly. It will probably be inexpedient to ask for an official confirmation of any but the most essential parts of the comprehensive plan developed by the city plan office. The city plan office, in formulating its picture of the future city, will consider many facts and factors that will necessarily have an important bearing upon its comprehensive plan and which may be tentatively included in the plan, but which it would be unnecessary and inexpedient to submit for official confirmation. The working out of a comprehensive system of main thoroughfares is naturally one of the first tasks of the city plan office. This is a matter, however, which, as in the case of most city planning matters, cannot be considered separately. Transit, rail and water terminals, markets, parks, building districts and other matters must be considered before even a tentative system of main thoroughfares can be laid out. This does not mean that the transit system, parks and terminals shall first be laid out in detail, but merely that the system of thoroughfares shall be designed to provide adequately and economically for future transit, shall fit in with the most probable development of rail and water terminals and provide proper approaches and connections for the park system. Having studied the thoroughfare system in connection with provision for transit and other factors, it will probably be advisable to submit the thoroughfare plan for confirmation as a tentative or even final plan, even though the transit, terminal and other parts of the comprehensive plan have not been sufficiently studied and elaborated to warrant their official confirmation.

The city plan office should realize at the start that its one big job is the development of the comprehensive plan, that it will not usually be in a position to make a unique contribution to the solution of particular problems until it has this comprehensive picture of the future city. It should therefore guard against frittering its time away on numberless apparently urgent and immediate problems and thus lose the opportunity of ever becoming the real controlling force in shaping the future city. This does not mean that the city plan office may not with propriety advise in regard to questions where its preliminary studies show that failure to act would imperil the probable future plan.

The city plan office should have complete and direct control of the creation and administration of certain parts of the comprehensive plan, and as to other parts of the plan should act chiefly as the correlating factor. The matters over which it will have practically exclusive control will vary greatly in different cities. In many cities the city plan office may be given practically exclusive control over the general street layout. To better enforce such control no plat of a suburban development should be received for record until it shall have been approved as to its street system by the city plan office. Moreover, no public moneys should be expended for improvements of any kind in any street that does not conform with the city plan or, if no final map has been adopted for that section of the city, no public improvements should be made in a street that has not been approved by the city plan office.

The question of compensation for buildings erected within the lines of a mapped street subsequent to the confirmation of a final map for such street presents serious difficulties. Frequently the lines of an approved street cut into an individual holding in such a way as to render it impossible of improvement without violating the proposed street lines. In exceptional cases a man would thus be deprived of the use of his property for an indefinite period if a rule were adopted denying him compensation for improvements made within the lines of the proposed street. Perhaps some plan could be worked out by which compensation for buildings would be denied unless previous notice of intention to build had been given and the city allowed a period of three months within which to purchase the property in question.

Any adequate solution of the problem of securing adherence to a plan once adopted can scarcely be attained without the application of powers and procedure similar to those contained in the English Town Planning Act. This is particularly well adapted to the laying of large suburban tracts considerably in advance of the time when they will become ripe for improvement. Such areas, chiefly in large holdings, are doubtless greatly benefited by the application of a comprehensive plan of streets, open spaces and building control. The owners can well afford to pay the costs of a careful plan and to give up a certain degree of individual freedom in order to secure the undoubted advantages of uniform development. Of course the confirmation of such a plan would involve payment of compensation in excess of assessed benefits in the case of a few owners. We have no state department at all corresponding to the Local Government Board of Great Britain, but the supervision of such an authority is not deemed essential to the success of the undertaking. The administration of such authority might well be left to the city plan office, subject to the supervision of the established courts in certain matters.

The problem of intermunicipal planning and of planning adjacent areas that will sometime become an integral part of an existing urban center presents many difficulties. In some cases it may be possible to secure some union of adjacent local authorities to form a metropolitan district for the purposes of city planning. In other cases a state supervisory authority of some kind would probably be essential to the working out and enforcement of a plan for the entire urban area.

A state municipal department, with powers somewhat similar to those of the Local Government Board of Great Britain, might be helpful to cities and towns in many ways. It could be granted a certain measure of control over local accounts and finances and could give expert aid and advice to the smaller cities on many subjects, including city planning. There is, moreover, a broad field for state planning that might be taken up by a state municipal department, or perhaps more appropriately by a state conservation department. This department would adopt a tentative comprehensive plan of state development, highways, railroads, waterways, forests, state parks, water supply and all intermunicipal problems of physical development. 

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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