Book Review

Towns and Cities: Function in Form

Urban Structures, Economics and Society
Julian Hart

Not many authors have attempted to link economics and urban design; Julian Hart should be commended for doing so. He is neither an academic, nor an urban designer: his observations are based on practice and experience and the text is not laden with innumerable references.

His approach starts from the premise that accessibility to and from markets, combined with the aim of energy saving were the basis for the ‘natural town’. The expansion of towns combined with widespread availability of the private car resulted in conflicting aims, that of accessibility with that of privacy. One of the ways that Hart expresses this conflict is by comparing streets that are places, with roads that are linear corridors with no connection with their surroundings. A system of vectors used to explain this dichotomy makes it seem scientific but is not necessarily very helpful.

From the street-road comparison, Hart moves to levels of density and land uses. His analysis is perceptive and presented in a simple and clear form. For instance he shows how in a liberal planning environment and at low density, there is an unavoidable cycle of renewal and decline that make land values unstable, whilst the opposite is true at high densities; this way he explains the decline of market towns. Or he shows the connection between densities and public and private space. The text is peppered with anecdotal or explanatory boxes that clarify particular points and are some of the gems of the book: the ‘Barnet chalets’ struck this reader as particularly illuminating in its criticism of the habit of designing blocks of flats as if they were houses: ‘semi-detached on steroids’.

There is much more of value and a lot to be learned from this book and the analysis will be useful to students and practitioners. However it is unlikely to lead to a new theory of urban design as the author claims. In spite of the clear effort to link spatial design to economic analysis, there is no indication of how this can lead to a more solid theory. The criticism of existing theories is valid to a point but ignores how practitioners work, as opposed to political and economic influence from interests that diverge totally from the objectives outlined here. The 1960s saw the development of what was called a systems approach to planning which this book has affinities with; unfortunately that approach led to a dead end.

Finally it is a pity that editors didn’t employ a better proof-reader: ‘verses’ are part of a poem, not a Latin word for ‘against’, maybe a small but infuriating detail. Still a book well worth reading.

URBAN DESIGN 139 Summer 2016 Publication Urban Design Group

As featured in URBAN DESIGN 139 Summer 2016

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Towns and Cities: Function in Form Publication Urban Design Group
Reviewed By
Sebastian Loew, architect and planner, writer and consultant