Urban Design Library

New Lives, New Landscapes

Urban Design Library #26
Nan Fairbrother

A sign of the times is that a book I purchased in January 1974 can now be had for a penny on Amazon!

New Lives, New Landscapes indeed. This seminal book, published in paperback a year after the death of its author, was one of a number of works that reached beyond the professions to a wider audience. It addressed profound environmental concerns and marked the transition from a post-war to a contemporary society.

Nan (Nancy) Fairbrother was born in 1913 and qualified as a landscape architect but drew on a wider background as an English graduate, physiotherapist and writer. Fairbrother was also one of a group of important female contributors in an otherwise maledominated built environment world, and in this light she can be regarded alongside Sylvia Crowe, Elizabeth Denby, Jane Drew and Jane Jacobs.

An abiding theme of the book is the concern for the way that people lived, alongside an almost Arts and Crafts preoccupation for what contemporary living required. The New Towns movement, reaching its apogee at the time of writing with the delivery of Milton Keynes and Cumbernauld, was under scrutiny.

Fairbrother was reacting to the degradation of places across the country which in the mid-1950s had led another outsider, Ian Nairn, to warn of the perils of unrestricted and ill-planned development.

Perhaps because of her wider experience, having lived in London and Buckinghamshire, raised a family and written a variety of books before taking up landscape architecture, Fairbrother’s comments take on a different, wittier and more engaging tone than that of other commentators of the early 1960s. Initial publication by the influential Architectural Press was widened by Penguin’s reissue through its Pelican series on planning (edited by Peter Hall), bringing it into the company of Colin Buchanan’s Traffic in Towns and Herbert Gans’ People & Plans. Fairbrother thereby reached a wider readership, which had been her aim.

The book came out at a time of growing environmental and ecological concerns about the impact of industry on human society. Dereliction and destruction both by physical as well as managerial actions or inactions are continuing themes of the book, but the author goes beyond another treatise on the environment to clearly set out a public policy agenda.

The cover of the Pelican edition shows a gravel quarry with dinghies sailing in the newly formed lakes, making the point about marginal, rururban land and the need for continual management of the landscape and nurturing of new relationships between places and people.

Its publication was also when the professions were realising that their separate skills in architecture, planning, engineering and landscape needed to be better related. The 1964 Planning Advisory Group report had called time on the UK’s still incomplete coverage of Development Plans which had started in 1947. Planning legislation in 1968 introduced a strategic approach, as well as a new emphasis on housing improvement and conservation. General Improvement Areas were introduced in 1969, in an all–too-slow response to housing conditions, and the admission that the 1957 Public Health Act powers on clearance and new house building were not going to solve the housing crises. All these initiatives made her broader approach in tune with the times and New Lives remains invaluable as a commentary on its author’s time and ours.

A thorough bibliography of 106 entries from John Evelyn to Lynch, Nairn and Jacobs, as well as all the key reports of the era, demonstrate the range and depth of her studies.

Although not avowedly political, New Lives is a book of its time and offers practical proposals to address the issues the author has raised. They are reflected in her notion of ‘landscapes for an Industrial democracy’ and a four-point plan based on the landscape concepts of organisation, pattern, material and texture.

These considerations are fully set out in the book as how to improve the management and development of such a new industrial landscape to create new landscapes for new lives.

Looking back at this work, it is striking that there is a real sense of optimism as to how this will be achieved:

‘By the goodwill of an industrial population, by the public ownership of land inevitable in an industrial economy, by the management of the increasing areas for which industry provides no grounduse, by planning controls in the cause of amenity - this would be to solve our landscape problems, as they must be solved, not in terms of a vanishing past but of the new industrial economy which has itself produced them.’

Read today that concluding paragraph could easily invoke cheers, rage, laughter, tears or indeed all of the above, as we are still challenged by those concepts and see how far we have yet to travel.

However in the preceding paragraph Fairbrother sensibly states:

‘The proposals suggested in this book have been an attempt to translate accepted land use policy into appropriate landscape by simple general principles. Even if incompletely applied these could do nothing but good.’

Whilst being a book very much of its time and place, Nan Fairbrother has given us very wise guidance, and remains a source of practical advice and a justification of why her themes still matter.

URBAN DESIGN 147 Summer 2018 Publication Urban Design Group

As featured in URBAN DESIGN 147 Summer 2018

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Read On

Minton Anna, 2012 | Ground Control, Fear and happiness in the twenty-first century city | Penguin
Nairn, Ian, 1959 | Outrage: On the Disfigurement of Town and Countryside | Architectural Review  

New Lives, New Landscapes Publication Urban Design Group
Reviewed By
Graham King, Head of Strategic Planning, Westminster City Council