Have you ever wandered around a quaint old English village with its stone cottages, thatched roofs and village green or pond, dotted with happy ducks? Or one of those ancient coastal towns in Spain or Italy, clinging to a steep hillside, all the houses painted in different cheerful colours, all crowded together as if for common protection? In each case the streets tend to be narrow, because it was all that was needed in days gone by. Windows are small, because glass was dearer than stone or wattle and daub and in any case most people were out working on the land most of the day, not wasting time gazing through their windows! In both cases, they’re really wonderful aren’t they; they fit in perfectly with their environment, totally different from each other, but absolutely right in their native settings.
And guess what! Not a single town planner was involved in either of the images I’ve created above. It was all done by ordinary people, aware of their environment, the materials available to them and the uses to which the buildings were to be put. Obviously, there were the natural limitations placed on their work, the necessity to build near a regular supply of drinkable water, enough depth of soil to allow the growing of crops plus open pastureland so that cattle and sheep could be kept, or handy to a convenient launching place for fishing boats. But all these problems were natural ones and they themselves were a part of the balance and beauty of nature, so as long as people worked with them, rather than against them, the almost inevitable result was a pleasing one. Bureaucracy was also at a very low ebb in those days, no massive Town or County Councils to tell everyone what they had to do, just (usually) the local road board, charged with making certain that connections with neighbouring villages was maintained. As we can still see today, almost anywhere in country England, Spain or Italy, everything worked exceedingly well, with most structures from two hundred or more years ago, still standing, proud and beautiful!
Then, along came the industrial revolution and almost immediately the villages grew into towns – especially those near to recently discovered deposits of coal, iron ore and clay suitable for pottery – and from there it was a short step that turned the successful towns into cities, as country people rushed to where the money was, or so they thought.
Suddenly it became vitally important that there should be some sort of planning, especially as unscrupulous factory owners were knocking up row after row of what we now call slum dwellings for their employees to live in at rents which left them little enough money to move elsewhere! Even the factories themselves were simply built in the most convenient place (from the owner’s point of view) with little or no thought for the environment, just so that the clay, coal or iron ore were as close as possible, cutting down on transport costs.
So Councils grew and became more powerful, again not always for the good of ordinary people, because Councillors tended to a large extent to be the very people who owned the factories and the mines! Nonetheless a certain state of order did gradually creep in to the scheme of things and Town Planners were invented, resulting in the quality of building increasing, both domestically and industrially. Schools, churches, public libraries and shops were planned for individual estates; standards of building were set, which had to be followed by builders, or ignored at their peril! This state of improvement went on for many years, but of course it wasn’t a perfect system.
Today, the whole thing has got out of hand, with planning departments being run by a lot of highly educated bureaucrats, heads filled with rules and regulations, but very little common sense. So we get ugly city centres, roads where no one wants them, housing estates built with little in the way of infrastructure and, above all little or no idea of what a “pretty” building or environment should look like. Very few of the structures going up today will still be here in a hundred years’ time, they’re all designed to be removed long before then and replaced by some other monstrosity. The continuity we have enjoyed for hundreds of years will, I am afraid be lost for ever, which is very sad!
So enjoy the views of the old places while you can – they may not be around for much longer!
Do you like older places with architecture and design that rivals ours today? Or do you perform modern town planning? Tell us your thoughts below.