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Town Planning and Codes

By LASN associate editor Prof. Buck Abbey, ASLA, CELA, Robert Reich School of Landscape Architecture, Louisiana State University

Letchworth, England, called the first "garden city." The red triangle indicates new housing. Howard's design provided for farms, forests, industrial sites, residential areas, business districts and, of course, parks and gardens.

" We believed thoroughly in green belts and towns of limited size planned for work as well as living ."--Clarence Stein and Henry Wright, town planners, 1929

Town planning did not start with new urbanism as the popular press of today might have you believe. Town planning can be traced as far back as the 4th century B.C. by urban historians. The seaside town of Miletus, Greece was designed with formal rectangular lines circumscribing a town center.

In the Middle Ages and throughout the design-oriented Renaissance, other designers proposed plans for towns. The prolific Leonardo da Vinci designed several such communities in his day. Many European towns today show some of the central ideas of town planning from the 15th and 16th centuries. Even as late as the 17th century, Plymouth Plantation in the new world was laid out by the Pilgrims with an understanding of land use, building arrangement, open space, agricultural production and defense.

But perhaps the biggest step forward in town planning came with the published work of Ebenezer Howard and his treatise on garden cities in 1898. This publication directly influenced the work of architects Stein and Wright in the 1920s and the work of the new urbanists in the late 1990s. Ebenezer projected the importance of open space and green belts in community design. He visualized compact towns where people could live, work and recreate in a very social way. His garden city provided for farms, forests, industrial sites, residential areas, business districts as well as parks and gardens. Stein and Wright, with the help of Marjorie Sewell Cautley, a landscape architect, picked up this idea and implemented it in their design for Raburn, New Jersey in the 1920s. Their response to open space with the concept of the "super block" with internal communal open space planted with native trees, shrubs and naturalized ground covers brought to town planning the concept that the purpose of community was not just to shelter people but to increase the quality of one's living.

ABOVE & BELOW: A cul-de-sac and park in Radburn, New Jersey. Stein and Wright, with the help of Marjorie Sewell Cautley, a landscape architect, picked up Howard's idea and implemented it in their design for Raburn, New Jersey in the 1920s. The concept for the community was not just shelter but to increase the quality of one's living.

Radburn, New Jersey

New urbanism can easily be linked to the American new town movement inspired by Stein's and Wright's plan for Radburn. This experiment in planning designed and built by the City Housing Corporation of New York following WWI. Their purpose was to house men returning from war and immigrant families that were flooding New York looking for low-cost housing. Radburn, in present day Fairlawn, New Jersey was quite innovative in the way the town plan blended houses and open space in a spacious composition of open space, lawns and native plantings. In addition, this community features novel ideas concerning the automobile, house siting and the design of neighborhood open space. But perhaps the most innovative aspect of this community was the Radburn code.

Radburn was one of the first American new town settlements designed with a code of restrictions and architectural guidelines. This was something new to town planning not envisioned by pioneer town planners such as Leonardo, Wren, Howard and Olmsted. The written code has become the companion of the drawing, sketch and scale model as tools to develop livable, sustainable communities in the 21st century. It all started with the so called "Radburn idea" in 1928.

Sir Ebenezer Howard (1850-1928) is credited with conceiving the "garden city," which he first put in to practice by founding in 1903 the city of Letchworth, just north of London. His bust in Letchworth is a testament to his vision.

The Radburn Code

New urbanism discussed in previous columns of LASN is a contemporary descendent of the Radburn code. Town planning with the use of covenants, restrictions and architectural control may be said to have started on March 15, 1929 when the Radburn Association was formed to oversee the design and construction of what was referred to as a modern town for the "motor age." A town planned for cars when the automobile's impact on community design and landscape architecture was first being noticed. The Radburn code was crafted to control the design and location of "single-family and multi-family dwellings, garages, stores, factories, streets, walks, parks, playgrounds and other structures and areas." This code was drafted to create a community ensuring the health, safety and welfare of property owners, while establishing architectural beauty and landscaped open spaces for town citizens.

The Radburn Association Guidelines of Architectural Control, supplemented by the Declaration of Restrictions provides more detail design standards for architectural renovations as well as standards for landscaping. Landscape standards include tree removal, landscaping and vegetable gardens. Fences, retaining walls, swimming pools, and decks are also mentioned. There are even standards for greenhouses, patios, exterior lighting, driveways, irrigation systems and ancillary site structures. Special standards provide for landscape elements for nonresidential buildings and structures. The latter are not as sophisticated as most contemporary community landscape codes. But remember, this is a community first built in the 1920s. What is important about the Radburn code is that this community began a town building procedure where design is controlled by words on paper.

New Urbanism and Radburn

New urbanism zoning is based upon form-based zoning codes that are an organizations of words and diagrams that are used to build communities. The block, the building and pedestrianism rather than the automobile are central concerns of new urbanism town planning.

Compact, mixed-use neighborhoods are fundamental. Civic space, composed of parks, greens, squares, plazas, playgrounds, walkable streets, interconnected neighborhoods are essential landscape aspects of new urbanism. The new urbanist's have looked to Radburn for inspiration so stated architectural critic Vincent Scully in the book New Urbanism, Toward Architecture of Community.

Practicing landscape architect and students should take a second look at Radburn, New Jersey, its code as well as its planned town character as designed by Clarence Stein, Henry Wright and landscape architect Marjorie Sewell Cautley. New urbanism started here.

D.G. "Buck" Abbey, Associate Professor of Landscape Architecture at Louisiana State University, is LASN's Associate Editor for Ordinances.

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December 9, 2019, 11:07 am PDT

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