Gothic Steam Phantastic

Town planning

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The city as a smooth running machine

and how to apply for steampunk settings

During the nineteenth century, there have been a lot of major changes in town planning. Some are already mentioned in the Town and Country-article, but there is a lot more to say about it. Steampunk, usually an urban thing, can be more exciting with more knowledge about the setting - not only a description, but also why the alternative cities are like what they are... Being a town planner, I can give some interesting information on it.

Major changes in town planning are the following:
  • change in city-defence systems
  • separating work and housing
  • growth of (urban) population
  • introduction of mass transport
  • humanist ideas for the benefit and health of citizens
  • planning the town

The city’s defence system

Until about three-quarters into the nineteenth century, the city’s defence system consisted of a city wall with city gates. Modern warfare and suburban living had this system outdated, and many of these systems were abandoned. Between the old, mediaeval city and the younger outskirts was a large area of “nothing”, the former city wall or its ruins, and the moats that -in some cases- were filled with the remains of the wall.
Many cities have chosen to make this nothing into parks (mentionable is the name of the garden-architect Springer, who designed many parks on former city-walls) or large boulevards. The moats, if still existent, were made into decorative ponds.
The exact date of the possibility of tearing down the city walls is dependent on the technologic development of warfare. As soon as the city walls no longer give protection against missiles, they are rather useless in the defence system. However, the walls had other meanings as well, being the border to the city, where some other laws might apply. Interesting is the Jewish interpretation of the city, they had the cities closed by a religious border. For such reasons, the city walls might have been replaced by chains.
Mediaeval city gates might have been too narrow to let modern traffic pass without jamming it. Instead of replacing, the city council could decide to tear the gate down. In other cities, the value of the mediaeval city gate was more important, and instead, they tore down a part of the city wall next to the gate, so the traffic could enter the city without driving through the gate.

Another development was the idea that armies should be able to oversee the streets. This is especially a Parisian topic. After the revolution of 1789, the mediaeval city was cut into pieces by wide, straight boulevards, designed by Haussmann. This was not to let traffic flow easier through the city; the idea was that soldiers could take a straight aim at revolutionaries, instead of having to fight them in the narrow, ancient alleys of Paris. When fighting with a sword, narrow alleys might be no problem, but with riffles, they are. Again a technological development in warfare that changed the city’s face.
Such breakthroughs have been made in other cities as well. Part of it with the same reason, or with the argument that an army could reach the right spot quicker, or indeed that of faster traffic through the inner city.

Separating work and housing

The industrialisation made it necessary that labourers no longer lived in the place they worked. In earlier times, most men and women worked at home, having their own shop or delivering the goods to a shop nearby. With the introduction of machines, especially running those on a central steam engine, it was for some jobs no longer possible to work at home. The labourer had to leave the house and go the the factory. Where mills became the centre of activities, other work was centralised there as well. Administration, logistics, a central board... and all who worked there, no longer worked at home.
This development is still going on. The corner-shops under the house of the shopkeeper makes place for the supermarket, supermarkets work together with other branches of trade and other shops in hypermarkets or megamalls. Instead of a few shops and manufactures close to home, each individual has to go farther from home in order to either gain money or spend it. Of course, this has a lot to do with the evolution in transport, both for the individual as for the logistics that have to bring the goods to the stores.

Were the first factories close to the dwelling places, later the housing was planned in its own area. This development has started with the small garden-cities. The idea behind the garden-city was that the labourers worked, lived and played close to the factory. The factory owner had build houses and auxiliaries (as shops, theatres, parks) for its labourers. It was like a farmer who had his personnel living in the farm and on the yard.
For larger factories or conglomerates, larger garden-cities have been build, some real suburbs, new towns away from the old cities, only serving as a place to live for those who worked in the factory that owned the place - not unlike the communist dream.

The ideal garden-city soon became part of modern town planning and the ideas of space, good housing standards, mass-production and traffic-flows became the example for the building of complete new housing areas by the city councils.

Growth of (urban) population

Two things made the urban population grow like never before. First, with the industrialisation, the town became the place where the labour, and thus the money was. Many poor men and women migrated from rural areas to the towns to make a living.
On the other hand, innovations in health care decreased the number of people who died at a young age. Citizens did not only become older, but also more people made it to be an adult and could have children of their own.
Both developments asked for a lot more urban housing.

If more housing was not provided, more people lived per available room, this leading to dramatic scenes, with whole families, including a lot of children, living in one room.
Some people who had a little money could become rich by having housing build that was cheap, but generated a lot of income from rent. The houses were not only cheap to build, but lacked any comfort as well. There was no one to check on safety in these buildings either. Bathrooms and toilets had to be shared with other families.
Some of these buildings still exist.
Only in the twentieth century, in western Europe laws were made that described what the minimum requirements were for housing (1902, Housing Law of Holland).

Introduction of mass transport

With all the people moving, and above that, all goods that had to be transported, the face of the city changed dramatically. Had the street been a place to live in earlier times, it now became the place to move. This goes for individual transport (the automobile), but also that of public transport, and the transport of goods to the central shops and markets (think about all the food that is needed to keep the urban population alive).
Were normal streets to some extent still usable for modern transport (most mediaeval inner cities still can be crosses by car), development in rail transport asked for a new design.

In some cities, the inner city was crossed by underground rail transport. On street level, there were entrances to the subway system, no big change. Streetcars, who are short and slow, could use rails laid in the main streets of cities. Trains, however, were a larger problem.
What we see, is that many metropolises have their train stations in a ring around the inner city (London, Paris, Vienna, Rotterdam, Moscow to name a few). Only a few made it to connect one or more of these stations with rail tracks (in some cities, the subway is used for this). To avoid such problems, the city of Amsterdam had build four isles at the cities waterfront to have its central station close to the inner city and make it reachable for the trains.
This ring of stations is were the trains stop, and the passengers have to get out to continue their journey. If they want a train to another part of the country, they have to take a cab to another station. It was convenient to some extend, because in many cases all these lines (with their stations) were owned by different rail companies, and now they did not have to share stations or tracks. For town planning, this development had been disastrous. The resulting stations, a head-station, need a lot of space, because locomotives have to be turned around in order to make the next journey. For passing trains, that did not need to stop in the city, huge rings of tracks were build, girting the city and it’s outskirts.

Other developments made good mass transport necessary as well. Central hot spots in transport, such as sea- and airports, but also the larger (international) train stations. To make the ports and stations function, it is necessary that enough people can reach the place with ease and comfort. Mass transport could transport the voyagers and their luggage to the central places of transport.
This way, the main roads and rail tracks were planned or developed.

Humanist ideas on health

With the rediscovery of the Garden of Eden, there was more interest for health and nature in the nineteenth century. Especially at the Fin de Siècle, health movements made their way to the public.
A part of this movement made it that it became important that housing areas had to have more nature in them (parks) and utilities to keep the body healthy (sport parks). What we see is that, starting in the garden-town, “green rooms” are planned into the towns and cities and is no longer that what might remain after building housing.
These were not only small spots to sit and watch the flowers, but also the so-called green lungs that had to reach deep within the heart of the city and that made nature available close by for every citizen.

Planning the town

Many of aforementioned developments and innovations made it necessary to actually plan the growth of the urban areas. It was no longer freewheeling on ideals, or strategic planning for the military, it was about making the cities into a smooth running machine. Because making the town bigger was no longer a more or less private enterprise involving a few houses, but instead a mass enlargement of several hundred of houses, including auxiliaries, green rooms, factories and place for traffic, the city council had a change to make town planning a kind of art.
This art used ideas of harmony and beauty integrated in the urban design, especially during the age of the Jugendstil/Art Nouveau. What is important, is that the Jugendstil applied figurative art to household objects, stairs no longer were stairs, but objects with patterns of branches, leaves and flowers, stained glass windows where no longer windows, but paintings in light. This also goes for the cities, no longer where they rows of houses, but beauty carved out of stone. An important town planner at this time was Camillo Sitte, who wrote the first book on modern town planning (“Der Städtebau nach seinen künstlerischen Grundsätzen” - city building according to its artistic basics)

At the same time, some urban planning theories were developed. Notable are those of Max Weber, who defined the places where industry evolved, and Walther Christaller, who surveyed the theory of the central places.

How to apply this in a steampunk setting

I hope I made it clear that (technologic) development is very important in the history of town planning. Where steampunk is usually about technologic innovations, one simply has to ask questions about the impact this has on the appearance of the towns. Here is a kind of check-list:
If the French Revolution would not have taken place, would the break-thoughs in mediaeval cities have taken place? What about steam-fantasy were the police and the army are still armed with swords instead of riffles? If airships roam the skies, mostly as battleships, is there still a use for city walls? Or does the city need other means of protection?
How big are your factories actually? How many people work there, and more important: where do they live? How do they get to their work? How are they fed? How does the fuel for the machines come to the factories?
Is your transport underground or not? How visible is transport then? If you use private airships of any kind, how will that change street life?
Do you have humanists in your setting, or are your labourers unmotivated slaves? Are they healthy? Who provides housing, and why?

© Yaghish 2003

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