The attention to planning that characterised the first phases of settlement fell away as towns became larger, and laissez-faire (free-market) ideas became fashionable. Planning and regulations were thought to inhibit private enterprise and were avoided unless absolutely necessary.
The order of the grid plan was compromised as landowners subdivided their properties and built narrow streets and lanes. Inner-city houses were built cheek by jowl, and land uses were mixed – houses could be next to noxious workshops and factories. Household waste either festered in backyard piles or was thrown into streets and drains, encouraging vermin, and polluted streams and drinking water. High death rates from bacterial diseases like typhoid resulted.
Public health movement
While many accepted outbreaks of disease as a facet of city life, from the mid-1870s local boards of health challenged this thinking. In Christchurch the board banned cesspits and contracted scavengers to collect night-soil (human waste) from domestic pan closets. Other cities followed suit. Alongside the construction of water and sewerage networks, the initiative cut mortality rates from bacterial diseases. The improvement in public health highlighted how planning and intervention could improve the quality of city life, giving encouragement to other urban reformers.
The garden-city movement was characterised by environmentalism – the idea that human behaviour was shaped by physical environments, and mean streets created mean people. By placing people in well-designed surroundings, environmentalists believed, it was possible to improve behaviours. It became a core principle of planning, and while belief in it waned over time, the idea that good design and planning can enhance city life did not.
Reformers included the garden-city and town-planning movement. This arose in Britain in the 1890s in response to the squalid conditions in industrial cities. The movement feared these cities were creating a degenerate working population and would cause national decline. The solution was to remove people from metropolitan areas and resettle them in suburban-like garden cities. In such settlements land uses would be zoned and populations restricted to 30,000. The nuclear family would be the main social unit and local community centres would facilitate public life. Not only would former inner-city dwellers’ health improve in garden cities, they might also adopt middle-class values.
The Letchworth model
Letchworth was the first garden city, built outside London in 1903. Spurning the grid plan, its streets followed the topography, and varied in width to accommodate different traffic densities. Low-density housing was set in park-like surroundings, and cul-de-sacs were introduced to encourage social interaction. While Letchworth was successful, it did not create a rush for more such cities. The garden-city advocates recast themselves as a wider town-planning movement with the ambition of reforming existing cities from within.
By the early 20th century conditions in inner-city residential districts were reported as slum-like. A 1903 survey of 300 inner-city Wellington houses found over half were in an unsatisfactory state; many were ‘damp, dilapidated … [and] infested with vermin’, and one-fifth were too overcrowded ‘to allow for conditions of decency and health’.1 For reformers, such conditions highlighted the pressing need for urban renewal and town planning.
New Zealand movement
A New Zealand garden-city and town-planning movement arose in the early 1900s. It proclaimed local cities were becoming afflicted with the same problems as their British counterparts and called for similar solutions. In 1911 local journalist Charles Reade toured New Zealand to expose its slums and promote town planning. His lectures drew large crowds and encouraged government minister George Fowlds to introduce a town-planning bill to Parliament. But municipalities thought it would undermine their power and lobbied to block it. Not discouraged, Reade toured again in 1914, this time with British expert William Davidge. They explained that the main purpose of town planning was the creation of healthy towns and this could be realised through practices like land-use zoning, lower housing densities and different street widths. The tour was a great success and led to the creation of local town-planning associations.