Urban Planning, 1794-1918: An International Anthology of Articles, Conference Papers, and Reports. John Reps.
Reviewed by Richard Harris
Published on H-Urban (November, 1999)
The scholarly potential of the web has hardly been tapped. Most academics enjoy free access to this virtually costless method of distributing information. It now competes with print in journal publishing, although not to a significant degree with books because most people do not enjoy reading multiple screens of text. (That is also a reason to keep this review short.) Among its more obvious uses is as a site for bibliographies, whose usefulness is enhanced by on-line search capabilities, and for the distribution of specialised materials which cannot justify conventional publication. The website on planning history that Cornell University planning historian John Reps has constructed combines and exemplifies the web's potential in this regard. In the process, it offers a valuable resource for those who are interested in the early history of planning in America and, to a lesser extent, Australia and Western Europe. <p> Over a period of four years Reps has assembled, and has now made available, 174 published documents that touch on the history of planning and that were published before 1919. These extend from Granville Sharp's "Explanation of the Annexed Plan" (London, 1794) to Frederick Law Olmsted's "Lessons from Housing Developments of the United States Housing Corporation", published in the <cite>Monthly Labour Review</cite> in 1919. In his own words, Reps has selected "[...] statements about the techniques, principles, theories, and practice [made] by those who helped to create a new professional specialization". <p> In addition to the 174 original documents, Reps has produced a supplementary bibliography of about equal length, which includes some material that he intends to incorporate into the main text data base in due course. He has written a short general introduction, which notes that in its formative years city planning focussed on physical planning and attracted wide popular interest. This claim is borne out by the selection of readings to which Reps offers hyper-links at the end of his introduction, for example Sylvester Baxter's article on "The German Way of Making Cities Better," published in the <cite>Atlantic Monthly</cite> in 1909. There are no links to other websites that deal with urban or planning history. <p> Readers may search and organize the bibliographical data base by author, subject, or date of publication. Best of all, in principle the site also offers the possibility of keyword searches, both of the data base and also of the text of each document. Because of technical difficulties this option has not yet been available internally, but the two most popular web browsers both offer search capabilities that are an acceptable substitute. Thus, for example, one can search initially for documents that contain the word "zoning" in the title, and then within each document to find exactly where this subject is mentioned or discussed. <p> Since the material on the website consists only of text, it downloads quickly. The site is simply and clearly organised: the home page leads to another from which the reader can go to Reps' introduction, organise the main bibliography by author, subject, or date, or go to the supplementary bibliography. My only quibble is that the background on this page is a scattering of cumulus across a blue sky; something urbane would set a more appropriate tone. The whole is mercifully short on flashy applets, and other rhetorical flourishes. <p> It is difficult to know how to judge a resource of this kind. As a costless addition to available, published materials it must be very warmly welcomed by anyone who is interested in the early history of urban planning in the United States. Many of the documents that Reps has made available have not been republished, and are difficult to locate. They are an excellent resource both for research and also for teaching. The majority of items were published between 1900 and 1919, but even so they complement the later twentieth-century focus of much recent scholarship. Reps has added introductions to many of the selections. These are especially helpful in the case of the more obscure items, and indeed are a resource in their own right. <p> Viewed as a finished work, the website has its limitations. Reps acknowledges that neither the main nor the supplementary bibliographies are comprehensive. The scope is unclear. The title suggests almost a global reach, but Reps' introduction takes as its point of reference the recent growth of interest in planning history in the United States, which is clearly the focus of attention. Reps offers fifteen subject headings, of which only two pertain to places outside the United States. One offers a small sampling of European material; the other a larger choice of contributions on the early planning of Australia's capital. Some other European material is scattered elsewhere but, like the Canadian content, it is thin. Of course this website is not a completed product. Reps intends to add items from the supplementary bibliography into the main text database, and indeed the site was updated in early March between the second and third times that I examined it. By the time that this review is distributed it may well have changed again. Like the city, it should be judged as a work in progress. <p> Reps' site is necessarily a labour of love, and it is not clear whether many will follow his example. Scholarly anthologies take a good deal of time to assemble, and as yet websites carry little weight in the assessment of scholarly merit. If this judgement is ever to change then that will be because pioneers like John Reps have demonstrated, through their commitment to scholarship, that it should change.
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