'Saint Patrick': Sir Patrick Abercrombie's Australian Tour 1948

Article excerpt

Patrick Abercrombie was one of the most celebrated planners of the twentieth century both in the UK and internationally. The impact of his international activities provide insights into the core values of British planning of the early post-war period and their transferability to other countries. This paper examines a little-documented tour by Abercrombie around Australia in 1948. It seeks to understand, in the context of the times, the ideas which Abercrombie promoted, his views on Australian cities, contemporary reactions to his presentations and the wider impact of his tour on the development of Australian planning.

During the early post-1945 period the international reputation of the British planning system was at a highpoint. Mainstream town and country planning triumphantly integrated many of the ideas which had evolved since the late nineteenth century, such as garden cities, rural conservation, urban renewal, traffic planning, affordable housing and regional development. Proposals for the London Green Belt and the initiation of the New Towns programme were iconic achievements. The scope and sophistication of the County of London Plan 1943 and the Greater London Plan 1944 served as beacons for planners around the world. The Town and Country Planning Act (1947) also bestowed unprecedented discretionary control over land-use development.

The momentous changes in British planning during the 1940s were transmitted internationally through various channels, notably by the propagandising efforts of planning advisors, many of whom had been instrumental in bringing them about. The 1947 Act dramatically increased the role of salaried municipal officials and reduced the demand for consultants (Ward, 2002). As domestic work dwindled and international opportunities beckoned, leading British planning figures such as Max Lock, William Holford, and Patrick Abercrombie undertook important commissions and lecture tours overseas.

Of these notable names, Patrick Abercrombie was arguably the most influential at home and abroad. Founding editor of the Town Planning Review and the author of numerous city and regional plans, a leading educator and government adviser, Abercrombie's career spanned the 50 years of intellectual and practical development that brought into being elements of the British planning system still recognisable today. Following his retirement from academia in 1946, he undertook a number of international projects. Abercrombie's impact in the UK is legendary (Dix, 1979a; 1979b; 2002; Hall, 1995; Miller, 2008) and the general influence of his London plans demonstrable in the post-war development of cities as diverse as Sydney, Ottawa and Tokyo (Freestone, 1992; Tsubaki, 2003; Gordon and Scott, 2008). The full extent of his international work is not well documented, with Lai (1999) on Abercrombie's early post-war influence on Hong Kong a notable exception.

Abercrombie's Australian tour in 1948 is arguably the least well known of his international sojourns. Referred to only in passing in histories of Australian planning (Freestone, 1989; Hamnett and Freestone 2000; Wright, 2001), the tour involved intensive organisation by the British Council and Federal, state and local governments in Australia. The itinerary was intended to coincide with a British Council-instigated exhibition on British town planning which travelled to each of the state capitals. Several Australian states had just embarked on ambitious planning schemes or had just enacted groundbreaking legislation. The tour and its accompanying exhibition were intended to fill a gap in planning knowledge and skills at a crucial time for Australian planning.

Abercrombie's tour lasted from 14 October to 20 November 1948. In typically energetic style, he undertook a gruelling schedule of three or four engagements a day, six days a week for five weeks. He criss-crossed the country giving lectures and informal talks at virtually every whistlestop. …