Reviewed by Seton Wakenshaw
Thomas Sharp (1901-1978)
was one of several thousand books published by Penguin under the Pelican imprint between 1937 and as recently as 1984, forming part of a series of books that “would educate the reading public rather than entertain”.
Books ranged from the aforementioned ‘Town Planning’ to ‘Primitive Art’ to ‘The Physiology of Sex’ that considered reading materials that would inform both the public and armed forces in preparation for the end of World War 2 and the positive and optimistic times ahead.
Pelican books was an expansion of the Penguin business in 1937, with the aim to provide high quality and reliable information on many fields, often being written by authors of specialised academic books.
Throughout his career Thomas Sharp was a significant and respected figure in town planning, particularly in the mid-twentieth century. His influence and impact stretched from practitioners to academics through written theory and practical planning and have remained relevant in many ways to this day. Key texts focused upon planning and design incorporating both town and countryside, with an emphasis upon understanding how best to incorporate traditional value and modernity. Oxford and Durham benefitted from his ideas on townscape and are key examples of his theories and models today.
“In the 1940’s 80%of the UK population lived in urban areas. The most urban population in the world.”
‘Town Planning’ is a very solid primer and introduction to the subject of urbanism particularly when considering the relationship of Architecture versus Town Planning and how these disciplines may better work together. The human centered ideology is an important constant throughout and is and should be a key aspect of present and future planning, architecture and design. We should not lose sight of this. The text below, although not an extensive overview, highlights the key ideas and agendas of Thomas Sharp. We will come to the idea of the male and female role in this later…… but at this point let us consider the idealistic agenda of creating a “utility for collective living” as a hugely positive act.
“Town Planning is an attempt to formulate the principles that should guide us in creating a civilised background for human life.”
Sharp shares the view that historically (mid 19th century), architecture understood what it was and while not strictly planned, the builders of the time controlled their relatively small scale sites and this ensured a degree of consistency builder to builder, area to area and an air of urbanity grew. With less pressure upon space than we face today the idea of green spaces, common areas and the creation of human environments was more feasible, through now classic streets featuring vistas and detail that could only now be looked upon as a beautiful extravagance. We appreciate them all the more in the context of modern day ‘solutions’ that impose upon us how we should live out our lives.
With a seemingly negative view of architecture and planning of the time, the idea of individuality, personality is continually emphasized when considering the grander masterplan which may neglect details that enable human interaction and experience. “Monotony through repetition (in architecture) is bad” while “The recognition of the natural desire of the citizen to preserve some symbol of his individual existence, even while he conforms to wider social demands for the sake of collective effect is a first essential towards the public acceptance of really urban architecture.”
This is a significant period in terms of evaluating and setting priorities, World Wars 1 and 2 are significant in the timing of this publication, having recently come out of WW1 (1914-18), WW2 had commenced (1939-45) and town planning would take a decidedly different direction, survival!!!
“Town and country planning is planning for living: Planning for living is planning for peace: And most planning in war is planning for death, or the avoidance of it.”
Interestingly, this period highlights the importance of towns as human centred hubs and, as with most things, they were never more popular than when they were ‘taken away’. Plans were implemented to move woman and children to areas out of town, less prone to attack, however removing the social interaction was to big a loss and despite the risks families moved back to the towns. Further prioritising the idea of humanity in any urban planning that may be carried out for the future, and perhaps why it has failed on so many occasions in the past, through stack them high ‘community’ approaches!
It is evident within the book that Sharp has some clear opinions, contentious at times, and is not afraid to share them and if you do a little background research you find that this did result in periods of unemployment. However, all points are raised and debated, for and against resulting in a well balanced text which still feels relevant today. Various planning methodologies are discussed but rather than discuss each individual method we can look at Sharp’s preference for ‘satellite towns’. But first we should consider the male and female perspective within the theories, which gives the text a certain place in time and context, which although unsurprising is not particularly relevant today. It is very clear that the town is perceived as male orientated and that the female population are very much secondary in any planning that may enable the town to evolve going forward. It is also not lost on Sharp, the developing communications that will guide the development of the town, but he does not lose sight of the importance of human engagement.
“The telephone, the radio, television are without doubt great inventions that have brought large benefits to mankind. But they can never satisfactorily be a substitute for normal social intercourse. Man is a social animal. He depends for a great deal of his happiness on the company of his fellows. That is why men go to football matches, race meetings, to clubs and pubs: that is why women like shopping in a busy street.”
The period coming out of war is an opportunity to rebuild, develop and make better, but there is concern that perhaps we have seen the best of British planning and architecture. Will we ever improve upon London circa 1850 which laid claim to be the “best built capital in the world”? There is a worry that we will never better this and the sprawling towns and cities, particularly Manchester and Birmingham, race out of control with little consideration of people or place. Sharp’s preference for satellite towns is in contrast to this evolution and focuses upon satellites providing social life, economy and industrial life while the centre has more specific purposes in addition, such has hospitals, universities etc.
It should be considered at this stage that predictions of population growth (which played a large part in framing planning models) were exactly that and as it turns out, were inaccurate. In certain cases underestimated, particularly for the UK, and in other cases extremely exaggerated for example New York, USA. Planners predicted 21 million population by 1965, it was in fact 7.7 million, this did however coincide with the world fair! It could be argued successfully that these predictions were in fact created to benefit the justification of certain planning models and that they were in fact nothing more than a ‘stab in the dark’. In conjunction with this it should be highlighted that size and rapidity of growth are generally accepted as symbols or indicators of prosperity, so it is no surprise that these figures are often inflated.
The following calculations and theories again place the ideologies in the context of the time but are interesting nonetheless;
“It was calculated that the ground left after an ordinary small house had been built on a plot covering one twelfth of an acre was the smallest area upon which a man could grow sufficient vegetables to support himself and his family and still have enough left to sell and make a comfortable small profit that would supplement the wages he earned.”
“the desirable maximum number (based upon 50 persons per acre) is just over 100,000 inhabitants” for a town. This is based upon a town being 2 miles across i.e. 1 mile from town centre to country. Which also considers feeding the town and the proximity of production to consumption. However should a town be more than 2 miles across then it becomes less efficient and residents are cut off from the countryside. An important aspect within Sharp’s theories and the ‘female’ aspect of any planning i.e. Town male and country female, the countryside must evolve and adapt to survive;
The countryside “is a living organism and it is impossible to preserve any living organism in the condition at which it has arrived at any particular moment in time. To preserve it is merely to kill it.”
Throughout, Thomas Sharp displays his appreciation of detail on both a large planning scale to a proportionately smaller, but no less significant, architectural and design scale. The imperative focus is human experience. We can also learn from the social nature of the text and the understanding of co-existence and how we may better enable this to occur. Whilst with all models it is important to understand that, in the majority of cases, they are a best fit but should strive to be a response to facts that may better enable a better quality of life.
Arguments are balanced with both sides considered and clear conclusions reached that feel relevant today in many cases. It is hard not to warm to his ideals, whether ultimately achieved or not and it is important to exercise these ideals as well as learn from mistakes of the past and if there is one that we strive to achieve, it is this;
“We must reailse that the town can be beautiful, it can be healthy, it can be efficient, it can be a utility for the living of a full and happy life, if only we have sufficient care to make it so”
Hopefully, despite all the modern day challenges, and the collection of successes and mistakes made in the past, we can look forward to a future that considers well-being and beauty, in some form or another, as part of the town planning, architecture and design agenda.
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