David Rogers on what 2006 looked like 86 years ago – complete with motorways, green belts and new towns


Some things never change. The middle class is always rising, the Middle East is always, as now, in crisis and prefab is always on the verge of a breakthrough. Other things move in cycles: stories about Birmingham’s rise/decline occur every 11 years, possibly as a result of sunspot activity; we’ve just been through a fine example.

And some things are genuinely new, and it’s extraordinarily difficult to predict them before they’ve happened, or even to notice them when they’re happening (consider the internet). So one edition of the magazine from 1920 – something of a golden age – deserves a manly handshake and a hearty good show for this attempt to predict the future of Urban Design.

The problem was clear: “In pre-war days it was the Englishman’s boast that his capital was the largest city in the world, and one can imagine that much the same pride might have animated the great reptiles of the Mesozoic period, ignorant that they had increased in bulk beyond the limits of their environment and were doomed.”

Somehow these “great undesigned aggregations” had to be reconciled with “the natural forms of human life”. In the magazine’s solution, many of the important developments of the coming century drift hazily into view. One is the transformation of city centres into inner cities.

“The better classes are to an increasing extent migrating to the suburbs, leaving a central class composed of the poorest and least intelligent among the community.”

Reflecting, no doubt, the influence of William Morris, DH Lawrence and the romantic literature of the time, the writer was convinced that access to agricultural land was essential to the health of the soul. And the poor thickos in the “central class” would be “hemmed in by a broad belt of occupied territory, making it well-nigh impossible to get into the open country without a journey that is out of reach both as to time and expense”.

But where we immediately think of drug-related shootings, the writer horrified his readers with a younger generation that “obtains its recreation by looking at professional football matches and the like”, a process that was bound to be “ruinous to our manhood”.

One answer to this grim spectre was to “group small towns around the big city in such a way that while the workers can live and work in the town they can send their most promising children into the central town for hire or university education, or go there themselves for cultural life and relaxation”. A description that could be taken as foreshadowing the new towns movement.

The clear advantage of this plan was that every citizen would be given the possibility of “intimate contact with nature and the soil”. Quite what this entailed may best be left to the reader’s imagination.

The new towns would be separated from the city by “an agricultural belt” (read: green belt) and connected to it using “wide carriageways as free from cross traffic as railway lines, aside from subsidiary roads that would join at very infrequent intervals” (read: motorways).

Where it was less on the money was the idea that these “great roads would also embody side strips of parkway along the fringes of which would stand valuable sites for building”. Not too much call these days for housing with a good view of the M2. But before you smile, dear reader, how about making a similar set of predictions for the next 80 years?

What the adverts say

While the magazine’s editorial pages present an official commentary on the times, the adverts alongside them do the same, but in a more revealing way.

So, whereas a 1910 tradesman touches his cap and draws the reader’s attention to his piles, and a 1960 ad shows a mechanical joint filler with the Chomondley-Warner line “SEE HOW IT RESILES”, a flooring firm in the 1970s did it like this …