Podcast Transcript 300: Town Planning in Practice
This is episode 300!! I can’t believe we made it this far! Thanks to Streetsblog for posting these shows since 2013. To celebrate, we’re sharing chapter one of our recently released audiobook “Town Planning in Practice” by Raymond Unwin. This classic from 1909 was one of the first to discuss town planning and urban design at the beginning of the 20th century.
This episode originally appeared at Streetsblog USA and a full transcript is below.
This is Talking Headways, a weekly podcast about sustainable transportation and urban design. I’m Jeff Wood and yes, you are in the right place. This is episode 300. We made it to 300 episodes, and I’m not quite sure how, but here we are. On today’s episode, we’re going to share with you chapter one of the first audio book we’ve produced, an excerpt from Raymond Unwin’s 1909 classic “Town Planning in Practice.” We released it, it’s for sale. Go to theoverheadwire.com or raymondunwin.com to purchase it, that is if you want to listen to the whole thing. We hope you enjoy it, I loved putting it together. We’ll give you chapter one.
And I wanted to play DJ again, like we did in episode 200. Oh, those were the days… I want to say a big thank you to our listeners, especially those that started with us in 2013, but also those who joined us along the way. I want to say a big, big thank you to our Patreon supporters. Seriously, you all, I can’t ever thank you enough for supporting the show. And if you love the show and want to keep it coming each week, you consider supporting on Patreon, patreon.com/theOverheadWire. And for folks who have been with me and The Overhead Wire newsletters since 2006, we’ve come a long way since then, and I wanna thank you, thank you, thank you so much. Really appreciate it. So this is episode 300.
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We’re going to have more, some more stuff after the break. So stay with us. Now, okay. So you might be wondering, “Why do an audio book? From 1909 no less?” And my answer is pretty simple. For one, I’m all about sharing information, and these early books are ways to share the idea of planning and urban design with the different audience, but also a way for some of you to go back and read the classics without having to crack open the book or find it at the bookshop.
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These are hard to come by these days, especially this one. So I want to put together a bookshelf of books I think are interesting for audio. This one just happens to be on the APA’s top planning books from after 1900. So were working on a few other books as well, but this is just, you know, this one just happened to be the first one. Also one day I walked into the house and I saw a book I wanted to read, and I didn’t want to read it, but I want to listen to it. And this way I could do some of the other things like wash dishes or do laundry or scrub the bathroom while I’m learning. So that’s where this idea came from basically. And along the way, I learned some crazy stuff about monopolies in book publishing, and did you know that on Amazon and Audible will give you 45% royalties if you’re exclusive with them, but only 25% if you publish everywhere?
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They own 80% of the market. So it seems that it’s a bad example of a monopoly. But guess what, we’re everywhere. If you want to use Libby to read this audio book, you can, you should ask library to pick this one up, put it on Rakuten, put it on Overdrive, we’re on every service, including Libro.fm, audiobooks.com, and yes, we are on Audible, though I would highly recommend you don’t go there. But if you want to listen to this pod as a podcast, go to Raymondunwind.com and you can buy it from Awesound. It’s the first one on the list at raymondunwind.com. It allows you to download the book as a podcast to your podcatcher. Also, they give me a 75% royalty for the book, which means specifically I can start making more books sooner.
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So it’s all about sharing information. I want you guys to learn something fun, just like I do each week. So that’s enough about that. Thanks so much for listening to episode 300, we’ve got chapter one here of “Town Planning in Practice: An Introduction to the Art of Designing Cities and Suburbs” by Raymond Unwin and read to you by Mark T`ester. By the way I picked Mark because Raymond was from the same region of England, and I wanted a bit of continuity. So I hope you enjoy it. Go to theoverhead wire.com or raymondunwin.com if you want to learn more. And last but not least, I want to thank Streetsblog for putting this podcast on their blog since 2013, every Thursday it’s up there. And I really, really appreciate it. So if you get a chance to go to usa.streetsblog.org and check out the site, Streetsblog California, Streetsblog Denver or San Francisco, Chicago, LA, Massachusetts now and New York City.
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So go check it out if you get a chance, thank you guys so much for posting the podcast on your blog, and hopefully we’ll get to 300 more.
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The Overhead Wire Media presents “Town Planning in Practice: An Introduction to the Art of Designing Cities and Suburbs” by Raymond Unwin, original publication by T. Fisher Unwin, London 1909. Narrated for you by Mark Tester. For more information on Raymond Unwin or how to get access to the illustrations displayed in this book, please visit raymondunwin.com. Chapter One. Civic art as the expression of civic life. The last century has been remarkable, not only in this country but in some others, for an exceedingly rapid and extensive growth of towns.
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In England this growth has produced most serious results. For many years social reformers have been protesting against the evils which have arisen owing to this rapid and disorderly increase in the size of towns and their populations. Miles and miles of ground, which people not yet elderly can remember as open green fields, are now covered with dense masses of buildings packed together in rows along streets which have been laid out in a perfectly haphazard manner, without any consideration for the common interests of the people. It is not to any design adopted for the benefit of the whole that we are indebted for such semblance of order or convenience as may be found here and there in these new areas.
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The very complete system of country roads following usually the lines of old tracks, and made for convenience of access to and from the town, has undoubtedly formed a connecting frame for the network of streets which has sprung up along and between them. A part of these developments, too, has taken place on estates of large size, where there has been a limited possibility of comprehensive planning and where it has been to the advantage of the individual owner to consider the convenience of a tolerably large area. But for these two circumstances, the confusion of our town plans would have been even worse than it is.
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Today it is hardly necessary to urge the desirability of a proper system of town planning. The advantage of the land around a growing town being laid out on a plan prepared with forethought and care to provide for the needs of the growing community seems self-evident; and yet it is only within the last few years that any general demand for such powers of town planning has been made. The corporations and other governing bodies have looked on helplessly while estate after estate around their towns has been covered with buildings without any provision having been made for open spaces, school sites, or any other public needs.
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The owner’s main interest, too often his only one, has been to produce the maximum increase of value or of ground rent possible for himself by crowding upon the land as much building as it would hold. The community, through its representative bodies, having watched the value of land forced up to its utmost limit, has been obliged to come in at this stage and purchase at these ruinous values such scraps of the land as may have been left, in order to satisfy in an indifferent manner important public needs. In this way Huge sums of public money have been wasted.
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In the year 1889 Mr. Ebenezer Howard published a little book entitled ” Tomorrow,” in which all this was very forcibly stated, and in which he suggested that it would be comparatively easy to try the experiment of developing a town on the precisely opposite and obviously rational method of first making a plan, and, by the exercise of foresight, providing in that plan for all public needs likely to arise, and then securing the development of the town along the lines of this plan. This scheme was so obviously rational and desirable that in a comparatively short time it attracted the attention of a sufficient number of reformers to create a strong Garden City Association;
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and as a result of their efforts in popularising the idea, in the year 1903 an estate was purchased of about 3,800 acres at Letchworth in Hertfordshire, by the First Garden City Company, upon which there has now come into being the nucleus of a considerable town. This movement was too theoretical and experimental to appeal very widely to the English people, but another book was forthcoming of quite a different character. “The Example of Germany,” by Mr. Horsfall, first published in 1904 (University Press, Manchester), showed how in Germany the same problem of rapid increase of towns had been dealt with on lines much akin to those advocated by Mr.
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Howard. Unfortunately, the English people do not in very large numbers read books in foreign languages; and until the publication of Mr. Horsfall’s book turned general attention to the matter it was known to only a few in this country that for many years in Germany, and indeed in many other countries, orderly planning and designing of town development formed a part of the ordinary routine of municipal government. Since the publication of Mr. Horsfall’s book the facts have become generally known. International congresses of housing reformers and architects, the exchange of international courtesies, between municipal bodies, and the work of various associations and individuals, have contributed to spread the knowledge that powers for planning and controlling the development of their cities more or less on the lines of those possessed by Germany are enjoyed and successfully used by the municipalities of most countries except America, France, and England up to the present time.
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This is the kind of evidence which the Englishman likes, and on the strength of this the demand for town planning powers has become so general and so influentially backed by municipal corporations that the Government has already passed through the House of Commons a Bill conferring upon municipalities some, at any rate, of the necessary powers; and it is confidently expected that such a Bill will become law during the present year. Although we have only just realised the importance of the comprehensive and orderly planning of our towns, it must not be supposed that nothing has hitherto been done to cope with the evils raised by their rapid growth.
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On the contrary, much good work has been done. In the ample supply of pure water, in the drainage and removal of waste matter, in the paving, lighting, and cleansing of streets, and in many other such ways, probably our towns are served as well as, or even better than, those elsewhere. Moreover, by means of our much abused building bye-laws, the worst excesses of overcrowding have been restrained; a certain minimum standard of air-space, light, and ventilation has been secured; while in the more modern parts of towns a fairly high degree of sanitation, of immunity from fire, and general stability of construction have been maintained, the importance of which can hardly be exaggerated.
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We have, indeed, in all these matters laid a good foundation and have secured many of the necessary elements for a healthy condition of life; and yet the remarkable fact remains that there are growing up around all our big towns vast districts, under these very bye-laws, which for dreariness and sheer ugliness it is difficult to match anywhere, and compared with which many of the old unhealthy slums are, from the point of view of picturesqueness and beauty, infinitely more attractive. The truth is that in this work we have neglected the amenities of life. We have forgotten that endless rows of brick boxes, looking out upon dreary streets and squalid backyards, are not really homes for people, and can never become such, however complete may be the drainage system, however pure the water supply, or however detailed the bye-laws under which they are built.
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Important as all these provisions for man’s material needs and sanitary existence are, they do not suffice. There is needed the vivifying touch of art which would give completeness and increase their value tenfold; there is needed just that imaginative treatment which could transform the whole. Professor Lethaby has well said, “Art is the well-doing of what needs doing.” We have in a certain niggardly way done what needed doing, but much that we have done has lacked the insight of imagination and the generosity of treatment which would have constituted the work well done;
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and it is from this well-doing that beauty springs. It is the lack of beauty, of the amenities of life, more than anything else which obliges us to admit that our work of town building in the past century has not been well done. Not even the poor can live by bread alone; and substantial as are the material boons which may be derived from such powers for the control of town development as we hope our municipalities will soon possess, the force which is behind this movement is derived far more from the desire for something beyond these boons, from the hope that through them something of beauty may be restored to town life.
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We shall, indeed, need to carry much further the good work begun by our building bye-laws. We shall need to secure still more open ground, air-space, and sunlight for each dwelling; we shall need to make proper provision for parks and playgrounds, to control our streets, to plan their direction, their width, and their character, so that they may in the best possible way minister to the convenience of the community. We shall need power to reserve suitable areas for factories, where they will have every convenience for their work and cause the minimum of nuisance to their neighbours.
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All these practical advantages, and much more, may be secured by the exercise of powers for town planning; but above all, we need to infuse the spirit of the artist into our work. The artist is not content with the least that will do; his desire is for the best, the utmost he can achieve. It is the small margin which makes all the difference between a thing scamped and a thing well done to which attention must be directed. From this margin of well-doing beauty will spring. In desiring powers for town planning our town communities are seeking to be able to express their needs, their life, and their aspirations in the outward form of their towns, seeking, as it were, freedom to become the artists of their own cities, portraying on a gigantic canvas the expression of their life.
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Beauty is an elusive quality, not easily defined, not always easily attained by direct effort, and yet it is a necessary element in all good work, the crowning and completing quality. It is not a quality that can be put on from outside, but springs from the spirit of the artist infused into the work. We are too much in the habit of regarding art as something added from without, some species of expensive trimming put on. Much of the restless, fussy vulgarity we see about us springs from this mistake. So long as art is regarded as a trimming, a species of crochet-work to be stitched in ever increasing quantities to the garments of life, it is vain to expect its true importance to be recognised.
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Civic art is too often understood to consist in filling our streets with marble fountains, dotting our squares with groups of statuary, twining our lamp-posts with wriggling acanthus leaves or dolphins tails, and our buildings with meaningless bunches of fruit and flowers tied up with impossible stone ribbons, William Morris said: ” Beauty, which is what is meant by Art, using the word in its widest sense, is, I contend, no mere accident of human life which people can take or leave as they choose, but a positive necessity of life, if we are to live as Nature meant us to — that is, unless we are content to be less than men.”
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The art which he meant works from within outward; the beauty which he regarded as necessary to life is not a quality which can be plastered on the outside. Rather it results when life and the joy of life, working outwards, express themselves in the beauty and perfection of all the forms which are created for the satisfaction of their needs. Such exuberance of life will, indeed, in due course find expression in the adornment of its creations with suitable decoration, and such adornment may become their crowning beauty; but the time for this is not yet. While the mass of the people live in hovels and slums and our children grow up far from the sight and pleasure of green fields and flowers;
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while our land is laid out solely to serve the interests of individual owners, without regard to the common needs, this is no time to think of the crowning beauty of ornament. We need to begin at the other end. Our immediate business is to lay a firm foundation. Remembering then that art is expression and that civic art must be the expression of the Ufe of the conununity, we cannot well have a more safe practical guide than Mr. Lethaby’s saying that “Art is the well doing of what needs doing” Does the town need a market-place, our rule would teach us to build the best, most convenient, and comely market-place we can design;
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not to erect a corrugated-iron shed for the market and spend what would have done this work well in “decorating” the town park with ornamental railings. First, let our markets be well built and our cottage areas well laid out ; then there will soon grow up such a full civic life, such a joy and pride in the city as will seek expression in adornment. This is not the place to consider in detail the many causes which have led to the rapid growth of town populations. The concentration of industry, the decay of agriculture, the growing contrast in the conditions of life offered in the country and the town, have all had their influence in leading people in such vast numbers to forsake the lonely cottage on the hillside or the sleeping village in the hollow in favour of the dirty street in the town slum.
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The impulse partly springs from the desire for higher wages and the attraction of varied amusement and flaring gas lamps ; but it equally arises from the desire for a greater knowledge, wider experience, and fuller life generally which men realise they can only find in closer association with their fellows. But whatever their motives in leaving their villages, the people have broken many old ties of interest and attachment; it should be our aim to secure that in going to the city they may find new ties, new interests, new hopes, and that general atmosphere which will create for them new homes and new local patriotism.
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Hitherto our modern towns have been too much mere aggregations of people; but it must be our work to transform these same aggregations into consciously organised communities, finding in their towns and cities new homes in the true sense, enjoying that fuller life which comes from more intimate intercourse, and finding in the organisation of their town scope and stimulus for the practice and development of the more noble aims which have contributed to bring them together. Aristotle defined a city as a place where men live a common life for a noble end. The movement towards town improvement of which town planning forms but one branch must have for its aim the creation of such a city as shall at once express the common life and stimulate its inhabitants in their pursuit of the noble end.
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With the expression of the common life, as we have already seen, town planning is intimately concerned, and whether our cities will indeed become great works of art will principally depend on the prevalence of the aim towards a noble end to which Aristotle referred. It is, indeed, from this expression that civic art must draw its inspiration and guidance. We are told by many authorities that expression is one of the fundamental elements in all art, and that the creation of great art results when some great idea is finely rendered. It is probable that in the art of city building great work will again be done when there is a fine common life seeking expression, and when we have so mastered the technique of our art as to have established a tradition capable of giving adequate form to such expression.
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Before attempting to consider in detail the various practical problems of town planning, it will be useful if we can understand something of the reasons which exist for the general lack of beauty in our towns, and further if we try to arrive at some principles to guide us in determining in individual cases what treatment is likely to lead to a beautiful result and what to the reverse. We have become so used to living among surroundings in which beauty has little or no place that we do not realise what a remarkable and unique feature the ugliness of modern life is. We are apt to forget that this ugliness may be said to belong almost exclusively to the period covered by the industrial development of the last century.
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We do not find evidence of it before that period, in our own towns or in those of a character to be compared with our own in other countries. It is not that in other respects older towns excelled modern ones; it is not that they were less overcrowded, that their streets were finer, better kept, or cleaner. On the contrary, excessive overcrowding existed in old towns; the streets were usually very narrow, and at many periods were both dirty and unsanitary. Nor does there appear to have been generally very much conscious planning of the streets.
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Often there is little apparent order or arrangement in the placing of the buildings; and yet, in spite of this, a high degree of beauty almost always marked the effect produced. So much so, that both in this country and in many others wherever one finds a street or part of a street dating from before what may be called the modern period, one is almost sure to see something pleasing and beautiful in its effect. The result, no doubt, is due largely to a greater degree of beauty in the individual buildings; many of these, in fact most of them, were quite simple and unadorned, yet there seems to have been such an all-pervading instinct or tradition guiding the builders in past times, that most of what they did contained elements of beauty and produced picturesque street pictures.
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Something also is due to the hand of time, which, through the sagging of timbers, has softened the lines of the buildings, and through the weathering of the surfaces has mellowed the textures of the materials used in them. The influence of the tradition we have mentioned was not confined to the buildings themselves, but seems to have extended to the treatment of streets and places as well as to such minor details as steps, entrance gates, walls, and fences, which often enhance the beauty of the picture. To a very great degree this tradition appears to have acted unconsciously and almost as a natural force;
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for the absence of symmetry or orderly arrangement is often as evident as the picturesqueness of the architectural grouping is pleasing. In these old towns and streets we read as in an open book the story of a life governed by impulses very different from our own; we read of gradual growth, of the free play of imaginative thought, devoted without stint to each individual building; while the simplicity of treatment, the absence of decoration or ornament in the majority of cases, and the general use and skilled handling of the materials most readily accessible, tell of the usual avoidance of what could be called extravagance.
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Nevertheless, we are impressed by the generous use of material and labour revealed in the dimensions of the beams, in the thickness of the walls, and in the treatment of all necessary features, which suggests that two prominent elements in the tradition whthe individual buildings or on its adaptation to the site and surroundings, no imaginative fitting of it into a picture.
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Instead, some stock plan of a house which is thought to be economical is reproduced in row after row without regard to levels, aspect, or anything but just the one point, can the building be done so cheaply that it can be made to yield a good return on the outlay? Is it any wonder then, that our towns and our suburbs express by their ugliness the passion for individual gain which so largely dominates their creation? How, then, it may be asked, are we to make any progress, for the passing of a Town Planning Bill will not change the character of the life which we see expressing itself in our dreary suburbs?
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And, indeed, if this desire for individual gain represented the only impulse of the citizens, it is little that we could hope to do. But happily this is not the case. There is much that is great and splendidly cooperative in the life of our towns, and our social instinct is already highly developed by the mutual helpfulness of common life. Therefore, though town planning powers wiU not change the individualistic impulses which prevail, they will for the first time make possible an adequate expression of such corporate life as exists. Here, as elsewhere, action and reaction will take place;
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the more adequate expression of corporate life in the outward forms of the town will both stimulate and give fresh scope to the cooperative spirit from which it has sprung. The conscious art of town building is practically a new one for us in England. We shall need to begin somewhat tentatively, and at first we may well be content if we can introduce order to replace the present chaos, if we can do something to restrain the devastating tendency of personal interests and to satisfy in a straightforward and orderly manner the obvious requirements of the community. Though the study of old towns and their buildings is most useful, nay, is almost essential to any due appreciation of the subject, we must not forget that we cannot, even if we would, reproduce the conditions under which they were created;
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the fine and all-pervading tradition is gone, and it will take generations for any new tradition comparable to the old one to grow up. While, therefore, we study and admire, it does not follow that we can copy; for we must consider what is likely to lead to the best results under modern conditions, what is and what is not attainable with the means at our disposal. The informal beauty which resulted from the natural and apparently unconscious growth of the medieval town may command our highest admiration, but we may feel that it arose from conditions of life which no longer exist, and that it is unwise to seek to reproduce it.
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Possibly other forms of beauty will be found more adapted to our present conditions. The very rapidity of the growth of modern towns demands special treatment. The wholesale character of their extension almost precludes the possibility of our attaining that appearance of natural growth which we have admired in the medieval town, where additions were made so gradually that each house was adapted to its place, and assimilated into the whole before the next was added. We already see in the modern suburb too much evidence of what is likely to result from any haphazard system of development.
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Modern conditions require, undoubtedly, that the new districts of our towns should be built to a definite plan. They must lose the unconscious and accidental character and come under the rules of conscious and ordered design. We find that in the few instances in which towns were laid out as a whole in ancient times the plans usually follow very simple rectangular lines, and are quite different in character from those which developed by slow, natural growth.
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A short examination of the different types of town plans will perhaps be the most helpful way of approaching our subject.
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Thanks for joining us for episode 300. The Talking Headways podcast is a project of The Overhead Wire, on the web at theoverheadwire.com. And if you want the book after listening to Chapter One “Town Planning and Practice” by Raymond Unwin, go to theoverheadwire.com or raymondunwin.com to find out more. Sign up for our free trial of The Overhead Wire Daily, our 14 year old daily cities newslist, by going to theoverheadwire.com, click the button at the top right of the site, get two weeks for free with no credit card needed. That’s right. No credit card is needed for two weeks for free of The Overhead Wire Daily. And please, please, please support the pod, by going on to patreon.com/theoverheadwire.
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Many thanks, many thanks, many thanks to our current patreons for their ongoing support. Seriously, you guys, that’s amazing. I appreciate it so much, really. It keeps us going. And as always, you can subscribe to this podcast and our Mondays show on iTunes, Stitcher, SoundCloud, Overcast, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts. And as always, you can find it at its original home at usa.streetsblog.org. See you next time. Thank you so much. Talking Headways. We’ll see you next time. Thanks so much, episode 300 in the can! woo! Laters.