The Abercrombie Plans

abercrombie plan communities map 1942The beautiful map above is part of the press pack for Utopia London (2010) and was produced for one of the two Patrick Abercrombie plans for the city in the 1940s. The County of London Plan (1943) was commissioned by London County Council and authored by Abercrombie and fellow architect John Henry Forshaw, whilst the Greater London Plan (1944) was drawn up a year later by Abercrombie alone. Both were responses to the pertinent wartime urban problems London was facing such as overcrowding, poor housing quality, family poverty, disease and traffic congestion. So at varying scales, Abercrombie’s plans for designed to foster a new type of urbanism. One borne out of the ensuing post-war virtues of order and dignity.

As the map shows, Abercrombie’s vision was centred around new towns. These multiple city blobs, resembling spores on a petri dish, were designed to re-distribute meaningful, liveable space in and around the fringes of the densely-built ‘City’ and West End areas. They were to form the pivot for the re-zoning of London following the devastating effects of the Blitz. Note also the bacterial presence of wharves, warehouses and railways in the dark grey. Incidentally, the Thames itself is an even darker shade of grey. The London Tube Map of the present day depicts a fresh, light blue Thames in stark contrast to the murky oil slick of Abercrombie’s. The London of the 1940s was one of deficiency and lack.

In fact, one of the key themes of the County of London Plan was a provision of green space. A fantastic flickr set of scans from the plan are available to view online, with a double page spread devoted to the visualization of an ‘open space deficiency’  in the city as well as a proposed ‘open space plan’ to combat it. On the former, areas with no parks within a 1/2 mile walking distance are shadowed in black. It’s a frighteningly large expanse stretching across the Thames, swallowing up swathes of Southwark, Camberwell and Peckham to the south, parts of Stepney, Bethnal Green and Shoreditch to the north-east, as well as Finsbury, Camden Town and Islington to the north-west. Only Hampstead Heath prevents further areas falling into the abyss.

The new arterial ‘parkways’ as Abercrombie and Forshaw name them, were to be designed to address two issues; both the traffic congestion of central London and the green space deficiency of peripheral towns. The authors wanted to foster a kind of decentralized London consisting of local amenities such as shops, markets and new residential areas. On the open space map of the County of London Plan, these parkways were so-called because they were to create a kind of linear green space alongside the circular road network, ensuring that inhabitants of the dark spaces would see light. Segregating different speeds of road user was to be the dual solution to traffic congestion and open space. London citizens could walk along tree-lined avenues without fear of being hit by extra-urban traffic, elevated to high-level roads (for more click here).

The rhetoric employed by Abercrombie and Forshaw questioned a loss of opportunity for London to rebuild not only its architectural integrity but also its vision and its imagination, and this call to arms asked:

can we plan our London; give it order and efficiency and beauty and spaciousness? Can the County of London Plan become the real plan of London? (p. 12)

Abercrombie’s plans were never fully realised. They were designed as optimistic renderings of a post-war London, functioning and circulating as material hopes for its citizens. An urban aspiration or utopia.

For more, watch a clip from the BBC’s Britain From Above series on ‘The Changing Face of London’. Below is a promotional film – ‘The Proud City‘ designed to garner support for the Abercrombie Plans. Further discussion on the plans can be read here.