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The new urban social history? Recent theses on urban development and governance in post-war Britain

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  29 April 2020

James Greenhalgh
University of Lincoln, Brayford Campus, Lincoln LN6 7TS, UK
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Thesis Review
Copyright © The Author(s), 2020, Published by Cambridge University Press

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1 It is common to label the immediate post-war period, running until anything from the early 1950s to 1960, as ‘reconstruction’ or ‘rebuilding’, the subsequent period until the late 1970s is then seen distinctly as ‘renewal’, although these are not uniform usages. As John Gold has observed, the post-war was a period when the ‘re’ prefix (adding regeneration, redevelopment, replanning, remaking etc.) flourished. J. Gold, ‘British urban renewal, 1951–1970’, paper given at The Transformations of Urban Britain since 1945 conference, University of Leicester, 9 Jul. 2013. Here, I have generally favoured ‘redevelopment’ as a catch-all term for the collection of town planning and infrastructural development projects that broadly took place after World War II.

2 Recent publications illustrating the still-vibrant interest in this subject include Clark, J. and Wright, V., ‘Urban regeneration in Glasgow: looking to the past to build the future? The case of the “New Gorbals”’, in Clark, J. and Wise, N. (eds.), Urban Renewal, Community and Participation (London, 2018), 4570CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Flinn, C., Rebuilding Britain's Blitzed Cities: Hopeful Dreams, Stark Realities (London, 2018)Google Scholar; Greenhalgh, J., Reconstructing Modernity: Space, Power and Governance in Mid-Twentieth-Century British Cities (Manchester, 2018)Google Scholar; Smith, O. Saumarez, ‘Central government and town centre redevelopment, 1959–1966’, Historical Journal, 58 (2015), 217–44CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

3 Bullock, N., Building the Post-War World: Modern Architecture and Reconstruction in Britain (London, 2002)Google Scholar; Cherry, G., Cities and Plans: The Shaping of Urban Britain in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries (London, 1988)Google Scholar; Gold, J., The Experience of Modernism: Modern Architects and the Future City, 1928–1953 (London, 1997)Google Scholar; Gold, J., The Practice of Modernism: Modern Architects and Urban Transformation, 1954–1972 (London, 2007)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

4 On this point, see Ortolano, G., Thatcher's Progress: From Social Democracy to Market Liberalism through an English New Town (Cambridge, 2019)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

5 Klemek, C., The Transatlantic Collapse of Urban Renewal (Chicago, 2011)Google Scholar.

6 Couperus, S., ‘Building democracy anew: neighborhood planning and political reform in post-blitz Rotterdam’, Journal of Urban History, 42 (2015), 9921008CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Hanna, E., Modern Dublin: Urban Change and the Irish Past, 1957–1973 (Oxford, 2013)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Vall, N., ‘Two Swedish modernisms on English housing estates: cultural transfer and visions of urban living 1945–1969’, Contemporary European History, 24 (2015), 517–36CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

7 S. Gunn, review of O. Saumarez Smith, Boom Cities: Architect Planners and the Politics of Radical Urban Renewal in 1960s Britain (review no. 2361), Dec. 2019, available online:, accessed 20 Mar 2020.

8 A. Kefford, ‘Constructing the affluent citizen: state, space the individual in post-war Britian: 1945–79’, University of Manchester Ph.D. thesis, 2015; O. Saumarez Smith, ‘Planning, politics and central area redevelopment, circa 1963’, University of Cambridge Ph.D. thesis, 2015.

9 Scott, J.C., Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (London, 1998)Google Scholar; Joyce, P., The Rule of Freedom: Liberalism and the Modern City (London, 2003)Google Scholar.

10 Black, L. and Pemberton, H. (eds.), An Affluent Society? Britain's Post-War ‘Golden Age’ Revisited (Aldershot, 2004)Google Scholar.

11 Smith, O. Saumarez, Boom Cities: Architect Planners and the Politics of Radical Urban Renewal in 1960s Britain (Oxford, 2019)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

12 Tomlinson, J., ‘De-industrialization not decline: a new meta-narrative for post-war British history’, Twentieth Century British History, 27 (2016), 7699CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

13 For the future direction of this type of study, see Alistair Kefford's British Academy Fellowship project ‘Commercial property development and the remaking of British cities, 1954–1998’, available online:, accessed 20 Mar. 2020.

14 Saumarez Smith, ‘Planning, politics and central area redevelopment’, 192.

15 Alexander, A., Britain's New Towns: Garden Cities to Sustainable Communities (London, 2009), 149–56CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Clapson, M., Invincible Green Suburbs, Brave New Towns: Social Change and Urban Dispersal in Postwar England (Manchester, 1998), 121–95Google Scholar; Forsyth, A. and Peiser, R., ‘The British new towns: lessons for the world from the new-town experiment’, Town Planning Review, 90 (2019), 239–46CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

16 H. Rivera, ‘Political ideology and housing supply: rethinking New Towns and the building of new communities in England’, Bartlett School of Planning, University College London Ph.D. thesis, 2015.

17 Ibid., 254.


18 Ibid., 179–87.


19 Ibid., 182.


20 S. Mass, ‘At the heart of the city: the battle for British marketplaces, c. 1925–1979’, University of Michigan Ph.D. thesis, 2018.

21 Jacobs, J., The Death and Life of Great American Cities (New York, 1998; orig. edn 1961), 434–5, 440Google Scholar; Mass, ‘At the heart of the city’, 121.

22 C. Manley, ‘New town urbanity: theory and practice in housing design at Harlow’, Mackintosh School of Architecture Ph.D. thesis, 2014.

23 CIAM (Congrès Internationaux d'Architecture Moderne), was formed in June 1928 by 28 European architects to promote modern architecture as a social art. CIAM was highly influential in the formulation of post-war planning doctrines, especially through the 1933 Athens Charter in which they outlined the principles of zoning, rehousing and traffic flow as central to creating a functional city. The MARS (Modern Architectural Research) group was founded in 1933 becoming an influential British architectural think tank. It is best remembered for its series of plans for London. See Gold, J., ‘The MARS plans for London, 1933–1942’, Town Planning Review, 66 (1995), 243–67CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Mumford, E., The CIAM Discourse on Urbanisms, 1929–1960 (Cambridge, MA, 2002)Google Scholar.

24 Manley, ‘New town urbanity’, 309.

25 Pikó, L., Milton Keynes in British Culture: Imagining England (Abingdon, 2019)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

26 Mass, ‘At the heart of the city’, 124.

27 Zweiniger-Bargielowska, I., ‘Rationing austerity and the Conservative party recovery after 1945’, Historical Journal, 37 (1994), 173–97CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

28 Trentmann, F., ‘Beyond consumerism: new historical perspective on consumption’, Journal of Contemporary History, 39 (2004), 387–91CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

29 J. Meredith, ‘Cities of the plan: visions of the built environment in northern England, c. 1960–1985’, University of Washington Ph.D. thesis, 2018.

30 Ibid., 19.


31 Ibid., 314.


32 Gunn, S., ‘The rise and fall of British urban modernism: planning Bradford, circa 1945–1970’, Journal of British Studies, 49 (2010), 849–69CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed, at 858; Greenhalgh, J., ‘Consuming communities: the neighbourhood unit and the role of retail spaces on British housing estates, 1944–1958’, Urban History, 43 (2016), 158–74CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

33 M. Parker, ‘Making the city mobile: the place of the motor car in the planning of post-war Birmingham, c. 1945–1973’, University of Leicester Ph.D. thesis, 2015, i.

34 Gunn, S., ‘People and the car: the expansion of automobility in urban Britain, c. 1955–70’, Social History, 38 (2013), 220–37CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Gunn, S. and Townsend, S.C., Automobility and the City in Twentieth-Century Britain and Japan (London, 2019)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

35 Parker, ‘Making the city mobile’, 227.

36 Kefford, ‘Constructing the affluent citizen’, 112–18, and ch. 2 more generally.

37 Ibid., 39.


38 Parker, ‘Making the city mobile’, 229.

39 Davis, J.Reshaping the welfare state? Voluntary action and community in London 1960–1975’, in Goldman, L. (ed.), Welfare and Social Policy in Britain since 1870. Essays in Honour of Jose Harris (Oxford, 2019), 197212CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Davis, J., ‘Community and the Labour left in 1970s London’, in Williams, C. and Edwards, A. (eds.), The Art of the Possible: Politics and Governance in Modern British History, 1985–1997: Essays in Memory of Duncan Tanner (Manchester, 2015), 207–23Google Scholar; Shapely, P., Deprivation, State Interventions and Urban Communities in Britain, 1968–79 (Abingdon, 2018)Google Scholar.

40 D. Ellis, ‘Pavement politics: community action in Leeds, c. 1960–1990’, University of York Ph.D. thesis, 2015.

41 Ibid., 18.


42 On the reformulation of the British working classes as consumers, see Offer, A., ‘British manual workers: from producers to consumers, c. 1950–2000’, Contemporary British History, 22 (2008), 537–71CrossRefGoogle Scholar. On citizens as consumers of welfare, etc., see M. Hilton, ‘The Birmingham Consumer's Group and affluent Britain’, in Black and Pemberton (eds.), An Affluent Society?, 167–84; Shapely, P., The Politics of Housing: Power, Consumers and Urban Culture (Manchester, 2007)Google Scholar.

43 A. Andrews, ‘Decline and the city: the urban crisis in Liverpool, c. 1968–1986’, University of Leicester Ph.D. thesis, 2018.

44 Smith, O. Saumarez, ‘The inner city crisis and the end of urban modernism in 1970s Britain’, Twentieth Century British History, 27 (2016), 578–98Google Scholar.

45 Tomlinson, J., ‘Thrice denied: “declinism” as a recurrent theme in British history in the long twentieth century’, Twentieth Century British History, 20 (2009), 227–51CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

46 Egerton, D., The Rise and Fall of the British Nation: A Twentieth-Century History (London, 2018)Google Scholar, for example xxix and 281; Ortolano, Thatcher's Progress, 17–21.

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