What an Old British Cartoon Can Teach Us About Urbanism

A World War II era case for walkable communities

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British Central Office of Information

Many of us who write about cities like to share rediscovered videos from times gone by. The videos are especially notable when ideas with currency today are discussed in other contexts, providing opportunities to compare, contrast and sometimes be humbled by history.

Here is a prescient video from 1948, about "Charlie." This cartoon protagonist champions the basics of the new town movement in post-war Great Britain, a Garden City-inspired effort to alleviate housing shortages. The initial phases of the movement brought towns such as Stevenage, Crawley, Hemel-Hempstead, Harlow, Hatfield and Basildon (see Osborn and Whittick's classic The New Towns (1963) for the full story).

An interesting tidbit: as the video explains, the "neighborhood centre" was a key premise of the British new towns. It was based on the guiding principles of the Reith Report as implemented through the New Towns Act of 1946. Similar to then-contemporary American "neighborhood unit" principles, new towns commonly featured structured neighborhoods of 5,000 to 10,000 inhabitants with at least one elementary school, local shops, a park and a public house.

What can we learn from the ever-optimistic Charlie (who ends the video on a bicycle)? Take a look at the video, or review the script below, courtesy of the British National Archives:

Here's a key quote:

Charlie: Our town was going to be a good place to work in, and a grand place to live in, with plenty of open spaces; parks, and playing fields where people could enjoy them, flower gardens, and of course there'd have to be an attractive town centre too, with plenty of room for folks to meet. Good shops, a posh theatre, cinemas, a concert hall, and a civic centre.

Chairman: We have to plan the residential area next. Let's consider it as a series of neighbourhoods and take any one of them. Now - how shall we plan? Most important of all is the child. So we'll need pedestrian routes for the pram-pusher. Nursery schools within 400 yards of every home. Primary schools within safe and easy reach. Each neighbourhood must have its own.

Chairman: Oh, there'll be a pub quite near enough for you. And finally, we started on the houses. The site was planned for maximum sunshine and then everyone could take his choice.

Charlie: Detached houses. Semi-detached. Terraced houses. Flats for people who wanted them, hostels where the young folks could get together, and bungalows for the old ones. And so we moved right in. I'm telling you - it works out fine; just you try it!

I would argue that the city neighborhoods sought by creative class, multi-modal "Charlies" of today are nothing new, right down to the hoped-for micro-brew a short walk or bike ride away.

About the Author

  • Charles R. Wolfe is an attorney in Seattle, where he focuses on land use and environmental law and permitting, including the use of innovative land use regulatory tools and sustainable development techniques.