Planning the Historic City: Reconstruction Plans in the United Kingdom in the 1940s

Article excerpt

Reconstruction planning in the United Kingdom in the 1940s has been subject to significant scholarly attention in recent years. Many towns and cities were caught up in a wider enthusiasm for town planning. The approach proposed was usually radical, involving a major restructuring of urban fabric to achieve modern functionality. This paper addresses the reconstruction planning of historic cities and is based on a survey of 12 such plans. It discusses how planners sought to reconcile a belief in modern comprehensive planning and the perceived necessity to create 'modern places' with their appreciation of the existing qualities of historic cities. Finally, the paper briefly considers such concepts as character and townscape that have had enduring significance.

Issues of how to balance planned modernity with the conservation of the character of the historic city came to the fore in the 1960s. This was the decade that saw the first explicit legislative recognition of the importance of historic areas through the creation of 'conservation areas' in the 1967 Civic Amenities Act, following a flurry of activity by government and others on appropriate ways to plan the historic town. A huge range of work dealt with these issues in this period including international exhortations (Council of Europe, 1963), major conferences (Ward, 1968), official statements (MHLG, 1967) and coverage in other key documents of the period (Buchanan et al., 1963). Applied at the local level these concerns famously led to the four studies undertaken in 1966 for Bath (Buchanan and Partners, 1968), Chester (Donald Insall and Associates, 1968), Chichester (Burrows, 1968) and York (Esher, 1968), each jointly commissioned by the government and the relevant local authority. These studies remain as often cited benchmarks in the development of thought about appropriate responses to the planning of historic towns.

Prior to this period planners often saw conservation and preservation activity as very much at the fringes of mainstream planning. For example, the textbook that Taylor (1998, 4) regarded as key in the post-war period, Principles and Practice of Town and Country Planning by Lewis Keeble saw preservation as a 'subject on the edge of land Planning proper' as late as the 1964 edition of his book (Keeble, 1964, 315). Yet there are an earlier group of plans that collectively form a major body of work on the nature of planning for historic towns and cities. During the course of the Second World War and in its immediate aftermath a whole series of plans (now collectively referred to as 'reconstruction plans') were produced for a wide spectrum of settlements in the UK. Stemming from the demand for comprehensive planning developing but frustrated during the 1930s, the case for planning was given great impetus by the devastation wrought on a number of towns and cities by German bombing and by an apparent willingness from the government to legislate for and to resource comprehensive planning (Cullingworth, 1975). Urban areas across the country including major commercial centres, small mill towns and cathedral cities undertook plans. Not surprisingly badly war damaged cities usually commissioned plans, but many were produced for settlements untouched by bombing.

Collectively the plans are known for their uncompromising vision and selfbelief in creating better, more functional places, despite the difficulties that might be encountered in achieving these goals. Existing British cities were held not to be working efficiently. Generally the key priorities were seen to be the need to improve access and circulation (for both people and traffic), to separate incompatible land uses and to provide better quality housing for the urban poor (Abercrombie, 1943, 153; Tiratsoo, 2000b). The focus of this paper is on those plans produced for historic towns and cities. Though there was often a detailed and sophisticated analysis of the development of a place, older fabric was frequently characterised as redundant and with the exception of key architectural monuments often intended to be removed wholesale (Larkham, 1997). …