• I often want to post articles on urban planning and development that don't relate to London or more general ones. The largely unregulated period of rapid expansion of Western cities, which is currently being sort-of repeated, although often in even more extreme ways, across the world in many less wealthy countries, e.g. Mexico, is one of the main factors shaping our lives, whether we live in cities or away from them.

    The railways were the first decisive factor in the modern-era explosion of cities. There had always been concentrations of power before then and people had flocked to seats of power for protection and to participate in the economic activity they invariably attracted. The largest ancient megacities, e.g. Angkor, are generally estimated to have been home to around 1 million people; I think this is probably an underestimate in most cases. It may have been true for Rome, the best-documented ancient megacity, but I think there were much larger places. Part of the problem with the archaeological record is that it tends not to document wooden construction very well, e.g. in what we could today call 'shanty towns', and more research needs to be done on this. However, the kind of economic concentration brought about by railway development was probably unprecedented.

    It can be seen particularly strikingly in Britain, whose 'industrial revolution' started before that in any other European countries, and it has arguably had more drastic consequences here than those elsewhere. Simply looking at any map of Britain shows the imbalance between its largest cities and the rest of the country, whereas other European countries have a lesser imbalance than this. Needless to say, industrial activity in Britain has declined in recent decades, and the development of automobile transportation and move away from rail have meant that it is often located away from cities, but initially most modern industries apart from mining were centred on cities.

    Before the coming of the railways, with the exception of a few powerful cities like London or York, Britain and all other European countries had an evenly-spaced network of small market towns whose economy relied largely on being marketplaces for the surrounding agricultural communities. This also meant that more specialised craftspersons than in most villages traded from market towns. It was a stable and sustainable way of living until it was thrown into disarray by the railways.

    With the sudden rapid development of cities, it became necessary to think of a regulatory response to what was happening, although this didn't really gather steam in Britain until the middle of the 20th century. Before then, much development was undertaken without any real awareness of the consequences. London's development explosion owed much to the development of, first, suburban railway lines and then underground lines. Suburban railway lines initially caused what's often called 'string of pearls' development clustered around railways stations along largely radial railway lines. When the first forms of buses (horse-drawn, later trolleybuses) or trams came along, it became possible to connect people living further away from the railway stations to those, and to the relevant town centres, and the spaces between the 'pearls' were quickly filled in, causing the now-familiar London sprawl. The Underground network, with typically more closely-spaced stations, had an even more dramatic effect on centralisation. Workers, who were often unable to afford pre-Underground train fares, no longer had to walk into the city, which thousands did every day for their commute. The Underground was cheaper and so affordable on some lines (and still was barely profitable, because it turned out you can't really run a railway for profit, but that's another story).

    This rapid pace of urban development was a mixed blessing. Rural communities were left impoverished as they suffered from rapid depopulation, with people joining the urban proletariat (and were likewise very poor). The extreme concentration of activity in cities resulted in slum-like living conditions especially close to the centre (where unscrupulous slum landlords crammed too many people into very little space and constructed dangerous buildings on the cheap). It was clear that something needed to be done to regulate the power of landowners, and so eventually the Town and Country Planning Acts (England/Wales and Scotland) were passed in 1947.


    These have, over the years, been watered down in various ways to the extent that landowners have reclaimed some of the powers they effectively lost, and while there are some very good planning departments, one only has to look at the development of the London skyline over the last two decades to see how the planning system has failed in its regulatory function.

    Anyway, I find it all very interesting, so let's have a thread.