Lessons from a 1924 Town Plan

weston_swamp mapWhile Weston is a suburb of Boston, it still retains the character of a New England village because of the historical houses, landscapes, and stone walls that line its roads. In 1912, Arthur Shurtleff, who was also the designer of the Paul Revere Mall in the North End (then “The Prado”), reconfigured the town center by draining a swamp behind the old town hall in order to create the majestic Town Common, across which a new Georgian-style town hall was built.[1] In 1924, Shurtleff followed up with a comprehensive town plan. Since the 1920s, the town’s restrictive land use regulations, a by-pass to Route 20 built in the 1930s, and consistently high property values have all contributed to the town’s on-going preservation.

Fast-forward to 2016. Utile is working with landscape architect Skip Burck and his team on the redesign of Weston’s town center. Reading Shurtleff’s concise nine-page town plan, buried within the Reports of the Town Officers of Weston, Massachusetts for the Year Ending December 31, 1924, provides us one of the clearest and non-ideological rationales we have read for why cities and towns should occasionally do a comprehensive plan. The first chapter, entitled “How Town Planning Saves Costs,” is both a politically adept justification for Shurtleff’s consulting services and a list that is still relevant. In addition to our Weston work, we have also applied Shurtleff’s lessons to our on-going citywide planning initiatives in Boston and Cambridge.

The impetus for a comprehensive plan in 1924 was the same as today. Disruptive technology was causing rapid growth.  Automobile ownership was increasing rapidly and the resulting traffic was wreaking havoc on small towns that fell along the historic highways that led into Boston, including Route 20 as it made its way through Weston.

Shurtleff’s recommendations were presented as a fourteen point list. They included the widening of roads where necessary, while not making new roads wider than they needed to be. They also established the need for new roads to meet at four-way intersections rather than the ad hoc way that the road network had evolved to date. Aesthetic concerns fell after more pragmatic considerations. Number thirteen aimed at “the prevention of scattered arrangements or confused groupings of public and semi-public buildings,”[2] while number fourteen sought to avoid “monotonous arrangements of streets which would repeat the same block patterns, the same street alignments, (and) cross sections and street junctions over large areas at the cost of unnecessary dreariness and lack of variety.”[3]

Influenced partly by the role that swamp drainage played in creating the Town Common, Shurtleff’s 1924 plan focused on the “problem” of swamps, which covered 800 acres in the 1920s. Shurtleff’s map of Weston’s swamps (pictured above) was one of only three maps that were included in his final report. Shurtleff was adamant that “steps should be taken in the near future to prevent slum conditions in the center of town along the margins of the great swamp” and “that a relief of the present traffic congestion of the town”[4] could be solved by draining part of the swamp. Shurtleff’s plan set in motion the Route 20 bypass road that helped preserve the town center’s character. Other cities and towns along the road, like neighboring Wayland and Waltham, were not so lucky. They have suffered from the ever-increasing encroachment of traffic and the corresponding super-sizing of roads and intersections.

In the 1924 plan, Shurtleff mentions that his 1912 project to drain the swamp and create the Common had an impact on the actions of other towns. “Dedham has recently acquired fifteen or twenty acres of swamp in the heart of town to prevent unsanitary and undesirable development of this ground for cheap houses and public garages.”[5] Shurtleff was especially worried about the encroachment of garages near Weston’s historic cemetery that backed up to the swamp.  Unfortunately, one of these garages still survives as an anomaly at an important location in the town center.

Shurtleff concludes his discussion about swamp management by asking the reader to remember “that a large portion of the park system of Boston and part of the stream border reservations of the Metropolitan Park System were made primarily to solve sanitary problems.”[6]  Shurtleff emphasizes that the recreational and aesthetic rationales for these parks “resulted from rather than preceded the effort to abate nuisances existing or imminent.”[7] In all of his recommendations, Shurtleff leverages specific pragmatic considerations and translates them into a comprehensive design approach. Shurtleff’s ability to conceive and communicate the productive interrelationship between design, engineering, economic development and politics makes his work and writing highly relevant to Utile today.

–Tim

[1] In 1928, Shurtleff was lured to Williamsburg, Virginia by John D. Rockefeller, Jr. to be the Chief Landscape Architect.

[2] Reports of the Town Officers of Weston, Massachusetts for the Year Ending December 31, 1924, p. 63

[3] Op. Cit., pp. 63-64

[4] Op. Cit. pp. 66

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

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