the town planning movement

In his commanding book, The City and the Grassroots, Manuel Castells (1983: xviii) argued that all major innovations in the built environment and the meaning and structure of society are “the outcome of grassroots mobilisation and demands”. The achievement of statutory town planning was accomplished by the mobilisation of a heterogenous social movement for the popular regulation of property rights. The “town planning movement” in the United States, Western Europe and Australia brought together liberal philanthropists, utopian architects, place-based amenity groups and working-class campaigns for recreation, allied around the need for land reform and land use planning. This social movement was the conscience of town planning, its utopian wing; it promoted the ideal of a society that wanted to be planned for, and that knew what it wanted planning to achieve. 

Town planning and land use regulation were integral to a vision of a society organised around the principle of need rather than the ability to pay. The idealists of public welfare envisaged a landscape where the price mechanism was suspended, and goods and services were available to all on the basis of need. This vision was to be achieved through the public regulation of property rights and land markets, the freezing of property values, the democratic allocation of private land to social needs and the redirection of landed wealth to address public interest goals. In creating the built environment of collective consumption, the town planning movement was seeking to construct and defend a city organised around the use value of land “in contradiction to the notion of the city for profit,” as Castells said (1983: 319). The impact of this voluntary planning movement on the regulation of property rights positions it alongside other social welfare movements in the history of contentious political action that shaped a post-war settlement. Fiona Williams’ (1992: 673) concept of the social welfare movement directs us to the role played by popular mobilisation and grass roots participation in the establishment of New Deal and Welfare State institutions like planning. Williams returns contentious political action to the history of public services in the Global North and points to the active engagement of citizens in the development of statutory services to meet shared needs. 

The early town planning movement was inspired by the power of land use regulation to institute the property rights of a more egalitarian society. “One cannot by permitting random private interests to control the loan of money and the use of land produce a stable and satisfactory modern community,” wrote Lewis Mumford, advocating the public housing programmes of the New Deal in the United States. Town planning was about land reform for the Regional Planning Association of America; “a means for overcoming gross inequalities in the distribution of wealth, for producing more vital kinds of wealth, for restoring the balance between city and country,” as Mumford (1934:15) said. The affordable public housing programme of the New Deal was the culmination of a long campaign against slum landlords by the Settlement House Movement, the nation-wide movement of women’s centres. It was Settlement House activists, Florence Kelley and Mary Simkhovitch who organised the first USA national planning conference in 1909 and founded the Committee on Congestion of Population in New York with its vision of public housing, public land ownership and public land value capture. The town planning movement in Britain was memorably spearheaded by the Garden City Movement, set up in 1899 advocating the reform of private property rights with community land ownership, co-partnership housing and a design template of amenity and urban consolidation. For Raymond Unwin (1909: 2), the purpose of town planning was to put an end to the speculative practices of landowners and developers: “The owner’s main interest, too often his only one, has been to produce the maximum increase in value of ground rent possible for himself by crowding upon the land as much building as it would hold”.  Most of the participants in the town planning movement were not planners. The founders of The City Beautiful movementin the United States were not the luminaries Frederick Law Olmstead Senior and Junior, but the women’s civic groups and suffrage leagues in cities across the States agitating for the public health benefits of urban parks and public spaces. It was the National Council of Women and the Australian Women’s National League who established the first Voluntary Town Planning Associations in Australia in their campaigns over housing conditions and access to parks and public open space.

The rise of the planning profession was accompanied by a flourishing of voluntary planning and amenity groups whose advocacy and research contributed to an expanding body of land use theory and practice. In the 1960s in Britain local campaigns against urban clearances secured the legislative framework for conservation and heritage planning. In the United States, the civil rights movement embraced a passionate vision of popular urbanism and inspired the federal participation programmes, the so-called War on Poverty in 1964 and Model Cities in 1966, and earlier the Community Action or Grey Area projects. Transformed into a national directive for community action, the motto “maximum feasible participation” was seized by the civil rights movement and neighbourhood campaigns to drive an agenda of social reform through urban planning. The early Community Action projects became a platform for radical visions of self-determination; Huey Newton and Bobby Seale left the War on Poverty mandated participation programme in North Oakland to form the Black Panther Party for Self-Defence and forge a formidable movement for neighbourhood control. For a brief time, the Model Cities programmes came under the majority control of Black communities and urban planning was run by residents engaging their own planning expertise. 

Town planning – the statutory regulation of private property rights in the public interest – was not handed down by benevolent paternalists but was fought for and won by a mass public movement. That mass movement – the town planning movement – has been a constant companion to the profession. It is the collective manifestation of public concerns over the rights of property. Those castigated as objecting to housebuilding or opposing development today are participants in the town planning movement and in a contentious struggle over the built and natural environment. 

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