The Form and Organisation of Urban Areas: Colin Buchanan and Traffic in Towns 50 Years On*

By Bianconi, Marco; Tewdwr-Jones, Mark | The Town Planning Review, May 1, 2013 | Go to article overview

The Form and Organisation of Urban Areas: Colin Buchanan and Traffic in Towns 50 Years On*


Bianconi, Marco, Tewdwr-Jones, Mark, The Town Planning Review


In the early 1990s, Professor Sir Colin Buchanan embarked on the process of reordering his personal files relating to town planning and transportation extending back over 60 years. The material was then boxed and put aside, but in 2010 Sir Colin's son, Malcolm Buchanan, unearthed the files and passed on the archive to Imperial College London. This article provides an initial description of the content of the archive. A number of key concepts are first identified and then used to guide the analysis. In this paper it is argued that the common sense approach to planning advocated by Buchanan not only had a deep effect on the development of planning as a discipline, but also poses important questions related to the role and purpose of the planning system that are still relevant to these days.

Keywords: urban areas, post-war planning, Britain, Buchanan, Traffic in Towns

Best known for his 1963 report Traffic in Towns to Britain's Ministry of Transport, Colin Buchanan (1907-2001) made a substantial contribution to the field of planning and transportation. He trained initially in civil engineering and worked on transportrelated projects in the first two decades of his career. After the Second World War, he joined the newly formed Ministry of Town and Country Planning and in 1954 was transferred to the Planning Inspectorate, where he found himself dealing with planning inquiries, mostly into slum clearance, throughout Britain. He was put in charge of an increasing number of controversial and high-profile cases ranging from the Trawsfynydd nuclear power station to the redevelopment of Piccadilly Circus. He stayed in the Planning Department until 1960 when Ernest Marples, Transport Minister in the Macmillan government, asked him to join his ministry to undertake a study of urban traffic. This resulted in the Traffic in Towns report (C. Buchanan, 1963a). He leftthe civil service, became the first Professor of Transport at Imperial College and for the next ten years, in addition to academic duties, engaged widely in consultancy in the UK as well as overseas. During this period Buchanan found himself a witness at public inquiries, on the one hand defending the Greater London Council's ringway plans and, on the other, attacking the Christchurch Meadow scheme in Oxford. In 1968 he was appointed to the Roskill Commission to advise on the siting of London's third airport. He was also Chairman of the Council for the Protection of Rural England (1980-85) and had been President of the Royal Town Planning Institute (1963-64), which awarded him its prestigious Gold Medal. Awarded CBE in 1964, he was knighted in 1972.

A great deal was written about Traffic in Towns when it was published (see Smeed, 1963; 1964; Beesley and Kain, 1964; Hall, 1964; Proudlove, 1964). The report laid out the facts: car ownership levels in Britain had doubled between 1950 and 1960 from 4.4m to 9.4m while the road network remained modest in size and scale. By 2010, the report predicted the total number of cars on Britain's roads to be around 40 million. Most towns and cities possessed a street pattern that had originated in medieval or Victorian times, prior to the invention of motorised transport, and what little new road building had occurred up until this time centred on trunk road developments around urban areas. The wartime bombing of cities had created the necessity for physical rebuilding which had, in turn, allowed some alteration to the physical urban layout and fabric, but pre-existing land ownership patterns and property interests in the heart of towns and cities often conspired to act against more comprehensive experiments.

The Buchanan Report was unique in that it did not offer explicit recommendations but set out the key facts and trends, extrapolated to 2010, and considered the future options of dealing with increased traffic in urban areas (Gunn, 2011). The basic premise was that environmental conditions in towns and cities would deteriorate as car ownership and traffic congestion rose and as noise and pollution levels increased, and new forms of traffic and urban management were needed. …

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