The Growth of Community Master Planning

Although the single most important trend in planning in the 1920s was the spread and acceptance of land-use controls, other events were occurring as well. In city after city, planning was institutionalized with the establishment of a planning commission. In some cases commissions had paid staffs that did the actual plan-making. More frequently, plans and zoning ordinances were drawn up by planning consultants. Approximately two dozen planning consultant firms were active in the United States in the 1920s.

Community plans of the period typically covered the following:14

  • • Land use (often considered synonymous with zoning)
  • • Street pattern
  • • Transit
  • • Rail (and where appropriate, water) transportation
  • • Public recreation
  • • Civic art

The goals of these plans typically included a number of items. One was an orderly and attractive pattern of land use. Related to this was avoiding the juxtaposition of incompatible land uses (for example, a factory in a residential area). Another goal was achieving a well-functioning system for both private and public transportation. Still another was to achieve an adequate system of parks and recreational areas. Goals of municipal beautification and attractive design for public spaces, for example, the area around the city hall, were common. Safeguarding property values and making the community attractive for business were very common general motivations behind the more specific goals already noted. The imprint of the City Beautiful movement and the Plan of Chicago are clear.

By modern standards these plans were less than complete. They neglected housing, except in the sense that zoning specified what housing types were permissible in the various zones. They generally neglected to plan for public capital investments, which in the view of most contemporary planners are often more powerful shapers of land use than are land-use controls. Citizen participation as we know it today was still beyond the horizon. Then, too, many planners of the time thought of the plan as something to be laid down once and then followed, much as an architect's drawings are to be followed as the building is erected. A more modern view, as we shall see, is that the plan is to be periodically monitored and revised as events take development in directions not anticipated in the plan or as community goals change.

But these limitations having been noted, it must be said that the typical plan for the 1920s was a major step forward in comprehensiveness from the focus on public places and public spaces that had dominated the City Beautiful movement of a decade or two earlier. It covered the entire municipality, and it addressed a number of matters of municipality-wide concern.

As is the case today, most planning occurred in established places where the planner worked within the constraints inherited from earlier periods. But a certain number of planners did have the ultimate design opportunity: the chance to plan a community de novo. Mariemont near Cincinnati; Palos Verdes in California; Longview, Washington; Chicopee, Massachusetts; Kingsport, Tennessee; Venice, Florida, and Radburn, New Jersey are among the new communities planned during this period. Some, like Mariemont, were essentially residential and very often ended up as expensive residences for the upper-middle class. Others, like Chicopee, were developed as industrial towns and contained places of employment and residences for the working class as well. Some were completed in the 1920s, and some were stopped short of full development by events beyond the planners' control.

For example, Radburn, New Jersey, billed as a suburb "for the motor age," was roughly half-built when the Great Depression began. It was never completed and today stands surrounded by conventional post-World War II suburban development. But the part that was completed is, in the eyes of many, a fine residential area. Planners and students of urban design still make field trips to Radburn. Large blocks of internal open space, a system of internal pathways, and a street pattern that keeps the automobile from intruding make it a very attractive living environment. House prices are high, vacancies are low, waiting lists are long, and many residents seem to take special pride in being Radburnites. By that ultimate arbiter, the marketplace, it is a very successful community. In general, many of the communities planned in the 1920s have stood the test of time quite well. When the planners had a clean slate, they often did very well. The more difficult feat was, and still is, to do well in an existing community, where the planner is stuck with the decisions (and mistakes) of the past and must confront a sea of special interests and local politics.

Master plan for Radburn,

New Jersey, done in the 1920s, at left. At lower right is a detail for a court showing the separation of vehicular from pedestrian traffic. The house fronts face the walkway on the periphery of the block with vehicular access from the center roadway at the rear of the houses. That general plan has since been used in many planned communities. At lower left is an internal pathway for pedestrian use.

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