Raymond Unwin and Gretna: the Art of Designing Cities and Suburbs

4 August 2007 | blog, comment, frameworks, neighbourhood, place making, small towns

Central Avenue, Gretna designed by Raymond Unwin and C M Crickmer

Our current work on a masterplan for Gretna has brought us into contact with the work of Raymond Unwin. Unwin set out a plan for the development of Gretna early in World War I as a new settlement to house the considerable number of workers in the munitions factory that had been developed nearby on the Solway Firth.

In Gretna today, only a few streets and buildings are attributed to Unwin and his partner C M Crickmer but these have a special character and quality that mark them out from the rest of the town. Some of the characteristics of these areas include broad tree-lined streets with narrow roadways and grass verges, generous gardens and brick housing – either terraced or four-in-a-block – with shallow plans and long frontages.

Raymond Unwin and C M Crickmer designed Gretna - aerial

The area is laid out in a winding picturesque pattern of streets focusing on set-pieces including a church and a formal park. It is so obvious that these areas are the work of a skilled hand with a particular attitude to building towns – it is more than just architecture.

In his book Town Planning in Practice: An Introduction to the Art of Designing Cities and Suburbs (published in 1911 but reprinted by the Princeton Press in 1981), Unwin wrote:

“My experience has been that when the town planner himself becomes the site planner, and concentrated the whole of his thought on one portion of the site, arranging buildings and open spaces upon it, he can generally improve considerably in detail on the preliminary scheme sketched out in connection with his town plan.”

“In site planning a thorough study of the site and a survey of its levels, its trees, the prospects which it affords, and any features of interest it contains are as essential to success as in the case of town planning. It has been too common for site planners to work out there plans on paper only, and to save themselves trouble by clearing away trees and hedgerows, wherever these happen to come in the way of the plan. No system can be more foolish, for a new building estate, at best, looks raw and poor, the gardens empty or filled only with small struggling shrubs and plants; and nothing so helps the early appearance of a building site as the preservation of existing trees, and even sometimes of existing hedgerows. Where for example, a road can be made to run alongside a well-grown old hedgerow a beautiful decoration and a special characteristic is at once secured for that road, and a sense of privacy for the gardens, which it would take perhaps many years to secure by new growth.”

“In planning out a site, whether large or small, one of the first considerations should be to determine the centre point of the design. In any but very small sites there are likely to be required some buildings of a larger or more public character than the dwelling-houses – such, for example, as churches, chapels, public halls, institutes, libraries, baths, wash-houses, shops, inns or hotels, elementary and other schools; and it would probably be well, having decided which, if any, of these are likely to be required, to group them in some convenient situation, and of them to form a centre for the scheme.”

Some of the pages from this book are available on Google Books.

Raymond Unwin plan for Hampstead Garden Suburb

The few streets of Unwin’s work in Gretna amply demonstrate how he was able to turn principle into practice – as he was able to do conspicuously in Hampstead Garden Suburb above. They also sit very comfortable in the 21st century – they are safe and walkable, they keep traffic in check, they have generous private and public open spaces together with well placed centres and focal points.

Raymond Unwin and Gretna is a fascinating story of early 20th century town planning. It has provided us with excellent examples of how to create new neighbourhoods and has given Gretna a worthy pattern for extension and new building.

Link to more information about Unwin and planning in practice.

Link to previous post about the Gretna Masterplan commission.