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Glorious urban failures provide us with excellent opportunities to learn and understand mistaken urban planning concepts and their consequences. This post focuses on one of the more dramatic urban failures, which happened to take place in Britain.

After the second world war, the modernistic approach to architecture and urban planning took hold. While many Europeans countries did not build as much as less developed countries after the war, they still managed to build extensively, and especially Britain. Following the New Towns Act of 1946, the British government promoted the development of tens of new towns in the 1950s and 1960s – probably the worst period of town planning in the West and maybe even the entire world throughout history. On top of all the crappy cities built in Britain during this period, Cumbernauld shines the brightest (or gloomiest). Cumbernauld was established during the 1950s as an independent town north east of Glasgow and at the time was considered the greatest achievement of town building ever and a role model for cities across the world.

Before delving into details, we should note the zeitgeist that led to the building of Cumbernauld. It was the height of Brutalist Modernism and the dominant town planners vision consisted of complete separation between pedestrians and vehicles in the name of safety and freedom of movement. This approach created a town with no crosswalks, and plenty of overpasses and underpasses for pedestrians. On top of the brutal architecture and infantile transportation planning there was a complete separation of land uses, meaning the entire city was made of residential buildings only, and only in its center there were commerce and other uses.

The structure of Cumbernauld city center deserves a special scrutiny. This is not a classic city center of commercial streets with mixed-use buildings along them (including residences, offices and public buildings), but a rather a single huge mega-structure that goes by the name Cumbernauld Town Center. This building was supposed to be built in five phases and have an enormous section of 800 meters on its long side (that’s over 13 street blocks in the compact downtown of Portland, Oregon). Instead of a real city center, this mega-structure was supposed to contain all the functions that the planners thought real cities should have in their center- commerce, education, public buildings, offices, a hospital, a central bus station, a large parking lot for thousands of cars and so on in one huge structure. The planners strove to make the the residential areas in Cumbernauld as sterile as possible so that everyone will conduct whatever business they have under the roof of a single structure. The utopia that the planners of Cumbernauld offered won many prizes and critiques and influenced an entire generation of architects and planners for better or worse. Following the criticism of Cumbernauld, a movie came out in 1970 that describes the high quality of life in the new town and its innovative and successful urban planning. The movie makers boasted that Cumbernauld is the city of the future and would serve as a role model for many cities still to be built.

The PR movie in its entirety is here. The essence can be seen from 11:00 at which point the transportation plan which is the root of all evil is described:

Unfortunately, the reality struck in the faces of the planners. The city center mega-structure of Cumbernauld was partially built over the years, and parts of it were demolished (including the hotel that was there once) and transformed to a modern shopping mall. Cumbernauld never became the city of the future and it’s just a poor suburb of Glasgow today. The town itself and especially its city center structure are notoriously known as the worst urban plan ever conceived in the UK and have won prizes for extremely bad architecture, most notably the Carbuncle Award (twice!). Here’s a short video clip from 2005 on the Cumbernauld dystopia (and another article):

The town itself still draws the attention of planning circles and like other bad places offers a great subject for public discussions:

The subject of post-war planning and new towns in Britain and elsewhere deserves further attention, and I hope to return to this subject soon.