Spiro Kostof on London

In an article analyzing the 187o’s proposed plan for Rome, Kostof gives a brief summary of his view of Townplanning in the British capital.

[M]any European cities did not possess a legally binding plan, whether autocratically or democratically conceived. The principle of eminent domain was either not specified in law or else severely curtailed; and without this principle, and a strong municipal administration, an urban plan was a pointless gesture. In London, there was no general municipal structure until the Metropolitan Board of Works was established in 1855, and even then its jurisdiction over the whole of London was limited to matters of street lighting, drainage, and occasional “improvements” such as the opening of Shaftesbury Avenue. Only in 1888 was the elective London County Council (LCC) set up, and it straightaway undertook to bring about municipal reform. But the great estates continued to be planned, in all essential details, by the landowners—noble families and corporations—with minimal observance of certain city laws on building materials and heights. The smooth integration of a newly planned estate with the rest of the urban fabric was not a recognized responsibility.

Spiro Kostof, “Roma Capitale” in The Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, Vol 35, No. 1 (Mar., 1976), p. 6.

The British example, of course, is of great importance for British North America, and maybe even more so for English Canada. The principle of eminent domain refers to ‘the power of the sovereign to take property for public use without the owner’s consent’. Typically the owner is paid fair market value for the land. The value of the land is calculated at the time of appropriation. Of course, after completion of the public works, the value of the land is typically much higher. Paris under NapoleonIII-Huassmann managed to leverage this differential as a way of financing further expropriations and the extension of the network of public works.

However, the British town planning tradition seems hemmed in not so much by the principle of eminent domain, as by the lack of will in the population as a whole to invest in building great streets and public open spaces. In western Canada during the years of suburban growth, at the coming of age of the car culture in the twentieth century, this tendency heightened by the desire to preserve the right of way for the motorist. As a result the deterioration of the material quality of heavy-traffic streets has made them unlivable.

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