The Neighbourhood Unit | The Urban Idiot

Urban Idiocy: Brilliant ideas that ruined our cities – part five

Much urban idiocy comes from the misapplication of a good idea, and there is no better idea than the idea of a neighbourhood. Indeed, The Academy of Urbanism has a Great Neighbourhood Award and over the last 10 years has shortlisted, visited and written about 30 of them.

It’s true they were not all neighbourhoods, not in the strictest sense of the word – many were city quarters which were home to very few neighbours. However, we can surely agree that neighbourhoods are good. Places where neighbours know each other, where there are resilient community ties and a strong sense of identity. This should surely be something that we seek to create when planning cities?

The problem is that in order to do this the planning system has a tendency to try and codify the good idea, invariably killing it in the process. With the neighbourhood this started in the 1920s in New York. At the time the number of cars in the city was increasing exponentially but people hadn’t yet developed any road sense and new fangled ideas like traffic lights and pedestrian crossings were yet to catch on. The result was carnage and at one point a child a day was being killed in New York by the car.

We have written about this before in relation to Rayburn layouts (The Idiot 1). It is easy to forget that the accident rate in the early days of motoring was vastly higher than it is today and many planning innovations of the time were designed to stop the bloodshed – such as the Neighbourhood Unit.

This started with playgrounds. A New York City planner called Clarence Perry suggested that the city should build playgrounds to provide an alternative to children playing on the street. He developed a formula suggesting how many playgrounds the city needed and this in turn was used to divide the city into neighbourhoods. He went on to design a spatial framework for these neighbourhoods, each of which would be bounded by main traffic routes but with no through-traffic, allowing the playground to be built in the traffic-free heart of the resulting super-block.

Perry soon realised he was onto something and developed the notion of the ‘neighbourhood unit’. (The attachment of a word such as ‘unit’ to a concept as wholesome as a neighbourhood is a sure sign that idiocy is in the offing). The idea was set out in Perry’s 1929 monograph, The Neighbourhood Unit: A scheme for the arrangement of family life and community.

This proposed an ideal neighbourhood unit based on a particular population with a measured-out set of community facilities such as a primary school and community centre alongside the central playground. All designed as an inward facing unit, freed from through-traffic and surrounding main roads.

However, because Perry was initially trying to deal with the existing city, he continued to envisage that commercial development and shops would be located on the main roads and therefore on the edge of the neighbourhood – thus creating a confusion about the location of the neighbourhood centre. Lewis Mumford lauded Perry for taking the organic idea of neighbourhoods that develop naturally in cities and turning it into a codified planning tool to create the ‘modern equivalent of a medieval quarter or parish’.

This might have been alright, but most urban idiocy involves a process of Chinese whispers by which ideas are picked up, misunderstood, reinterpreted and thus morph into something quite different. The designers of new housing schemes and particularly new towns pounced on the idea of the neighbourhood unit as just the building block they had been looking for.

In doing so they resolved the confusion about where the centre of the neighbourhood should be by creating pedestrianised shopping precincts at the heart of the neighbourhood. The peripheral streets could thus be kept clear of development to run freely through landscaped corridors (Parkways) meeting majestically at grade-separated roundabouts. Thus was the city turned inside-out, allowing cars to be separated from people and creating play facilities, schools, facilities and retailing in just the right quantities for the allowed population of the neighbourhood units.

The city that most represents this idea in the UK is Milton Keynes. However, as Michael Edwards wrote in 20011, this is only true because the notions of the traffic-free neighbourhood unit had become so established that the masterplan for the city was subverted by its own engineers. Before Michael Edwards became an academic at the Bartlett he had been a member of the team led by Llewelyn Davies, Weeks, Forestier-Walker and Bor who had been appointed to masterplan Milton Keynes by the newly formed development corporation in 1968.

The plan for Milton Keynes was incredibly radical. Rather than a series of concentric rings, the town was developed as a 1,000m grid of roads with neighbourhoods, facilities and employment distributed across the grid to allow people to live close to where they worked and to avoid a tidal rush hour. The logic was that there should be no city centre, but in the days before the shopping mall (in the UK at least) this was felt to be a step too far.

The question was how to organise all of this so, as Edwards recounts, a young planner by the name of Francis Tibbalds was sent off for the weekend to draw up the team’s findings. The result was ‘such a triumph of synthesis, with diagrams, charts and sketches illustrating a lucid, elegant, hand-written text that it was Xerox-ed as it stood for the Board, without typing’.

What Tibbalds had done was to resolve the contradiction inherent in the neighbourhood unit. He proposed slowing down the traffic on the main grid streets to 30mph and created a second grid of local streets halfway between the junctions on the main grid. He then moved the neighbourhood centre to the point where the local streets crossed the main grid. This, he suggested, should be the focus for higher density housing and retailing (which thus benefitted from passing trade) while the schools and playgrounds, along with low density housing, should be placed at the intersections of the local streets at the centre of the grid squares. Every local resident would have four local centres within a 1,000m walk.

This was the plan that was delivered to the Development Corporation, but it wasn’t the one that was built. It all started to unravel when the Corporation’s engineers decided that traffic speed on the grid should not be restricted. This meant that the traffic light junctions had to be replaced with roundabouts and the minor street grid could only be accessed safely via slip roads and crossed by footbridge or underpass. Pretty soon the plan was amended so that the main grid streets ran in landscaped corridors and the neighbourhood centres were forced to retreat to the centre of the grid squares. As in New York in the 1920s, it illustrated that the neighbourhood unit has nothing to do with neighbours or parishes and everything to do with highway engineering.

Next year the Academy will be holding an event in Milton Keynes to celebrate the 50th anniversary of its foundation. There will be many Milton Keynes enthusiasts at the event who will no doubt argue that this is not idiocy at all. Milton Keynes may be a city turned inside out, but they love it.

With its accessibility by car, its quiet neighbourhood centres, its distribution of employment opportunities and its thousands of trees and hectares of green space it is the city reinvented.

Maybe so, but the neighbourhood unit is still idiocy because it is not based on an understanding of urbanism. In most traditional towns and cities neighbourhoods stand on crossroads and their shops benefit not just from the trade of the local community but from much wider passing trade. Neighbourhoods without through-traffic tend to become either exclusive enclaves or isolated ghettos. Their children may be safer from cars, but poorer neighbourhoods tend to have higher street crime. And then there is the whole notion of ‘neighbour’ as something more than the people who live next door.

Communities cannot be measured-out and apportioned as the neighbourhood unit implies; they form and reform, evolving over time and tend to atrophy when constrained physically. The crossroads neighbourhood is livelier and socially mixed. Sure it can be a little chaotic and traffic can be a problem, but now that we are comfortable with the traffic light and the pedestrian crossing, or even better the shared space, we can tame the car and no longer need to make the good neighbourhood into the idiotic neighbourhood unit.

The Urban Idiot

1. Edwards, M (2001) ‘City design: what went wrong at Milton Keynes?’ Journal of Urban Design 6(1): 73-82

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