British Central Office of Information

A World War II era case for walkable communities

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

Most Popular

  1. animated illustration: cars, bikes, scooters and drones in motion.
    Transportation

    This City Was Sick of Tech Disruptors. So It Decided to Become One.

    To rein in traffic-snarling new mobility modes, L.A. needed digital savvy. Then came a privacy uproar, a murky cast of consultants, and a legal crusade by Uber.

  2. photo: bicyclists in Paris during a transit strike in December.
    Transportation

    Paris Mayor: It's Time for a '15-Minute City'

    In her re-election campaign, Mayor Anne Hidalgo says that every Paris resident should be able to meet their essential needs within a short walk or bike ride.

  3. Life

    Why Amsterdam May Clamp Down on Weed and Sex Work

    Proposals to ban cannabis for tourists and relocate the red-light district would dramatically reshape the city’s anything-goes image.

  4. A photo of a police officer in El Paso, Texas.
    Equity

    What New Research Says About Race and Police Shootings

    Two new studies have revived the long-running debate over how police respond to white criminal suspects versus African Americans.

  5. photo: Cranes on the skyline in Oakland, California
    Life

    How to Make a Housing Crisis

    The new book Golden Gates details how California set itself up for its current affordability crunch—and how it can now help build a nationwide housing movement.

×