Sunday, 11 November 2012

How Nottingham was nearly Birmingham: Highway Engineering in the 1960s

(Click on images to enlarge)


This was going to be Nottingham - but it looks like Birmingham

Blaming planners for ugly towns is a bit like blaming doctors for eugenics. A one sided kick in the teeth for a practice, which has often achieved a lot of social good, and just as there are different kinds of doctors, with the different political motives, historical contexts and specialisms, then the same is true with planners.


The 1965 Traffic Plan

Take the largely unimplemented 1965 Nottingham traffic plan, drawn up by the FM Little the then Highway Engineer and Planning Officer. No doubt at the time it was influenced by contemporary thinking and developments such as the Buchannan 'Traffic in Towns’, which sort to forestall anticipated grid lock by separating pedestrians from cars and investing heavily in extensive highway engineering. Birmingham, ever re-inventing itself (and throwing away its past) was one of the biggest proponents with Highway Engineer Herbert Manzoni seen my many engineer at the time as some sort of hero. Manzoni retired in 1963 having planned the inner ring in the 40s. Manzoni is described in the Birmingham Pevsner guide as "ambivalent to town planning, indifferent to architecture and contemptuous of history". Ouch!


The proposed motorway and dual layout system - key


The proposed motorway and dual layout system - map detail

So how did this thinking physically effect Nottingham? Maid Marion Way scythed through the Norman street pattern, and busy Victorian shopping streets in St Ann's and The Meadows were lost. Yet unlike Birmingham this provoked a powerful conservationist backlash which is still with us today. Nottingham of course sees itself as a historic town - and rightly so, but this mindset has often created a reluctance about building for the future (for more on that read myself and Adrian Jones' blog on the city's planning history here) Nottingham was thirty years behind Birmingham in embarking on a new road building programe yet by this time there was a strong national reaction to urban motorways, and so the city was accidently saved by its own complacency.


The central area traffic plan

Yet before we embark on a criticism of Little's 1965 traffic plan it is important to remember what Nottingham was like before the redevelopment of the 1960s. Parts of the old Victorian inner city were known for their poverty and physical dilapidation. For example most people in St Ann's were without hot water, baths or their own toilet, never mind their own inside toilet. All this was embellished  through Ken Coates and Richard Silburn's sociological study "Poverty and Forgotten Englishmen" - although much of this was refuted by various local residents (more on that later). There are reports of gutters blocked with industrial fat, flooded cellars, broken sewage systems and epidemics of lice. Independent surveys showed that most people actually wanted to move out into better areas and so the stories of displaced communities when St Ann's was redeveloped are not clear-cut. There was little room for car parking, terrible through traffic in residential streets, no room for new consumer goods and many houses in very poor structural condition with streets covered in brick dust. So FM Little was under political pressure to start a new, use fresh ideas and do something radical and quick.


Park Way, flying over the Park Estate

But Little was a Highway Engineer and not a Planner, and so his report was myopic in the extreme: focusing solely on highways and not on social, economic, landscape or historic information. A planner is like a jack of all trades, responding to different political view points and social and economic pressures when most interest groups only consider their own.  The city's first architect David Jenkin was only appointed in '64 and doesn't appear to have been directly involved, so this was a case of highway first, architecture second. It was hardly an an integrated plan. The report was almost instantly opposed by his fellow planning officers in the Corporation of Nottingham (the Council), the Nottingham Civic Society and a number of local residents associations - especially in St Ann's. In the end it was actually dropped after central government weighed in, probably anticipating further opposition and funding problems if this scheme went ahead.


The Eastern Bypass: roughly Alfred St, Manvers St and LadyBay

So how horrific was it? Very. The Aboreturn and The Park estate would have had a 2 lane dual flyover. Huge junctions and slipways would have sat heavily over Forest Road, St Ann's Wells Road and Huntingdon St. The first inner city suburbs (St Ann's, the Meadows, All Saints) would have been physically and physiologically cut off the post 1877 suburbs (Basford, Forest Fields, Lenton and Sneinton). St Ann's would be cut into four islands and Eastcroft would have a giant flyover and bridge crossing adjacent to Lady Bay. Mansfield Road would be a 3 lane motorway. The Lace Market would have been intersected by a slipway. It doesn't bear thinking about.


Forest Way flying over the Arboretum and All Saints

But FM Little didn't have hindsight. We now know about traffic inducement - if you build more roads for cars then there will be more cars and less pedestrians and public transport. In short he didn't know that it would in time create another grid lock; only one which was larger and uglier than before. We can all imagine a blackened concrete flyover creating a constant droning noise during a Sunday stroll through a desolate Arboretum.


1970 St Ann’s redevelopment showing failed Eastern Bypass

So thank god complacent democratic Nottingham stopped it eh? Or stopped most of it at least - you can still find traces of the Eastern bypass following Alfred Street to Alfred Street South. The southern end of Barker Gate is still a vacant plot awaiting a slipway which never came, and of course we still have the awful 'unwelcome to Nottingham' Broadmarsh gyratory. Maid Marion Way has recently been gently tamed - pedestrians can cross over it rather than under it. What we have now in Nottingham is a city which is comparatively good for walking, cycling and is often seen as a public transport exemplar. Much of this would have been near impossible if 1965 traffic plan wasn’t opposed by the local residents and subsequent generations of city planners.


 The St Ann’s Radburn layout, again showing failed Eastern Bypass

The redevelopment of St Ann's can rightly be criticised for an incoherent Radburn layouts, poor shopping streets and often stark landscape. Yet in someways these massive postwar schemes were successful: after redevelopment all residents had hot water, structurally better houses, room for new consumer goods, more green space, and a healthier environment. Coates' survey showed that most residents preferred the new St Ann's but the biggest thing they missed was the shopping streets and pubs. However, "St Ann's Inner City Voices" by Ruth Johns, refutes a number of Coates and Siburn's arguments through many first hand accounts and argues that people were displaced. There is a general perspective that the area needed the attention but in the end it was far too insensitive. It also shows there have been much campaigning since by SATRA (St Ann's Tenants and Residents Association), FF (Nottingham's Family First) and various councillors to make improvements since. Nevertheless Johns is rightly upset about the area's currently undeserved contemporary reputation and highlights the various active social organisations going strong.

8 comments:

  1. What a fascinating post! Thank you very much for posting. Nottingham really dodged a bullet on this one!

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  2. Great post, really intriguing history I was totally unaware of

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  3. Awesome post,the way you explained it is absolutely informative. Again thanks.Thanks for sharing this info.
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  4. Just a pity all those enlightened people in the 60's,70's & 80's forgot to make use of the abandoned railway system. Instead the cuttings were infilled, bridges/viaducts demolished and permanent way built over for no apparent reason. A tragic loss of a useful asset & amenity which could have resulted in linear parks - a la Arboretum - giving easy, motor free access to the city centre for pedestrians & cyclists particularly those to the north of the city and then they re-invent the tram!!!!

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  5. I'm all for road and rail - I use both heavily and I seriously could not imagine life without either the motorway or railway. However, I do think town centres are for people and cars that have business in the towns should have to go around and in and not through - similar to some towns in France. Whatever about suburbs, the character of old town centres should not be compromised.

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