A Brief History of Urban Planning


In this article, I shall give a brief outline the historical development of several theories, trends and styles in urban planning and the growth of cities. For all intents and purposes, this article will focus almost exclusively upon examples drawn from European and North American urban patterns. After a brief overview of how city populations have changed radically over the last couple centuries, I will describe several of the most notable urban planning styles and trends as they developed in response to the myriad of problems that were associated with large and growing industrial era cities.

Prior to the 18th century, the vast majority of cities and towns had populations of about two to three thousand people, with 85-90% of the population living in small agricultural hamlets and villages of 300-400 people scattered across the countryside. Generally, a market town would likely develop at a suitable place to serve the needs of the surrounding villages – usually defined as being within a convenient one-day’s walk (approximately 12 miles). This was of course back in the days when farmers brought their goods to market on donkeys or horse-drawn carts so that populations needed to live close to the land that fed them – thus limiting the size of cities and towns. As a general rule, what larger cities and towns that did exist at this time in history generally had their origin as either A) a consolidation of several neighboring villages; B) a key transportation point (such as a river-crossing or harbor); or C) proximity to a power-center such as a castle, palace or key religious institution.

In pre-industrial Europe of that time, there were perhaps 20-30 cities in the 10-20,000 population range with another half-dozen in the 50-150,000 range (Florence, Rome, Milan, Venice, Paris & London). In every case, these larger urban centers were located either on the coast or on navigable rivers – a necessity for food supply given the lack of refrigeration. All of these old cities and towns have intricate and complicated street patterns in their oldest districts – often called ‘organic’ pattern as the streets generally follow the topography of the land – twisting and turning in odd directions.

It is only with the advent of the 18th century industrial revolution where we see the beginning of a steep rise in urban development and city sizes. The city is where industry was usually located or developed and this attracted more and more people looking for work and/or higher wages or opportunities. Thus, throughout the 18th & 19th centuries, urban populations all over Europe and North America rose rapidly, with London and Paris passing the million mark by 1800 and many other cities in the 100,000-500,000 population range. Even at this time, all of these large cities were located upon coastlines or navigable rivers.

Between 1840 and 1960, a veritable spider web of canals, railroads and highways was laid down across Europe and North America. With the assistance of electrical power and the wonders of refrigeration, it was now possible for many cities to grow ever larger, outgrowing the old need for coastlines and navigable rivers. Elaborate systems for the supply of fresh water, sewage, garbage, public health services and public transit were developed to address the needs of a vast growing metropolis.


The first notable trend in urban planning arises with renaissance era political authorities, most notably absolutist-minded princes of Europe, seeking to fortify or to ‘perfect’ their capitol cities. The spoked wheel was deemed to be the most perfect city shape for the purpose of military and civil defence – to allow easy routes for the movement of troops to quell riots in the center of the city – or to move rapidly to defend the walls against external enemies. The city of Palmanova in Italy (built 1593-1623) is an almost perfectly preserved example of this type of radial starburst design with extensive fortifications and outworks.

But military and civil control were not the only driving passions of these renaissance princes. Artwork and beautification were also high on their minds, with figures such as Michelangelo laying out new streetscapes in Rome. In the hands of a great artist, these new corridor streets became Grand Avenues, cutting through the old fabric of the organic city and linking together key landmarks with well placed sight-lines for optimal viewing pleasure and taking advantage of dramatic topography. Wherever possible, these avenues were set wide to admit of being lined with trees. Monuments, Cathedrals, Government Buildings, Palaces or Museums would serve as focal points for these avenues and promenades. Plazas, gardens, waterfalls, equestrian statues and/or public fountains used for dramatic effect in marking the route. These grand avenues would serve for ceremonial processions of the princely power. This “Baroque” or “Grand Manner” style is also often associated with neo-classical architecture, with a focus upon symmetry, marble columns and government buildings that look like ancient Roman Temples.

Rome (Renaissance & Mussolini eras), Paris (post-Haussmann), Versailles, Washington D.C., and St. Petersburg are some of the most notable examples of this “Grand Manner” in urban design applied in practice.


In the face of growing problems associated with the early industrial city, such as high-density urban slums, poor health and sanitary conditions, industrial pollution and smog, one of the first attempted solutions was a throwback to the now cherished medieval past. Thus was born the idea of the industrial village – patterned upon an old medieval village. Instead of peasants in their cottages working in the feudal lord’s fields, we had workers in their cottages (or dormitories) working in the company factory – away from the ugliness of the newly industrial city. A focus upon ‘planned picturesque suburbs’ is associated with this period – a reaction against the ugliness of the industrial revolution and the absolutist political character of the Grand Manner. This trend or style that is called Gothic Revival celebrates the human scale and seeks to recreate the natural organic street pattern of old medieval towns and villages. In many ways, this style or trend is ‘anti-city’ as it seeks to escape from urban squalor by working with a smaller scale in the countryside, and taking advantage of modern forms of transportation – such as canals and railroads – to link up with distant markets. This era also coincides with a revival of medieval-gothic styles of architecture in residential as well as institutional buildings. Government legislature buildings in many British colonies display this favoured style of the 19th century.


Setting up a series of small industrial villages in the manner of the small English mill or mining towns was only partially successful because the enormous scale of industrial production required, or encouraged, ever larger cities as centers of production and consumption. While elaborate sewage systems and public health services went a long way to curbing the worst problems, many challenging problems remained. Big industrial cities were deemed to be inhuman in scale, reducing human beings to mere cogs in a machine. Big industrial cities were still decried as filthy, polluted and congested.

The first signs of this new response to the ugliness of the industrial city comes in the form of several late 19th century plans for new “ideal” cities laid out in an entirely different pattern.. The various parts of a city were to be separated and isolated into industrial, commercial, public service and residential zones – insulated from each other with greenbelts of parklands and plenty of trees. Straight arterial roadways would carry the traffic, while low density residential zones would be laid out with meandering or curving streets reminiscent of the medieval village. Riverside, Illinois and Glendale, Ohio are two notable 19th century examples from the USA of this type of ‘ideal’ planned town. Frederick Law Olmsted was a noted practitioner of this style and his design for Central Park in NYC are considered a classic example of this new style.

In 1898 Ebenezer Howard published his landmark book “To-Morrow, A Peaceful Path to Social Reform” – later renamed and republished in the USA as “Garden Cities of To-Morrow”. Here the ideal of the self-contained and modestly scaled city is laid out with precision. Howard believed that this style of urban planning was really only possible with socialistic or communal property laws. Nevertheless, Unwin & Parker, two early 20th century British urban planners, picked up on Howard’s ideas and put many of them into practice with traditional private property holdings. The most notable example is Letchworth in England, a “garden-city” commuter town served by rail from London. In the 1920’s & 30’s, many of these “garden-city” inspired commuter suburbs were built all over England, France and North America, surrounded by green-belts of parkland.


Developed around the same time as the ideas of Garden Cities, and in response to the same problems of the industrial monster city, Modernism in urban planning goes in the opposite direction as that of the Garden Cities. Modernism celebrated the density, excitement and egalitarianism of the modern city and strove to improve upon it with new ways of urban living. Many noted modernist architects criticised the ‘old’ European cities as tradition-bound and inefficient for modern living. Modernism required new open spaces to showcase modern skyscrapers and an efficient traffic network. Le Corbusier (a notable French modernist architect) made many practical suggestions for a graduated road-network (fast traffic on arterial roadways, local traffic on smaller side streets and a network of pathways to serve pedestrian traffic) to serve the needs of modern living.

Modernism in urban planning also came to be associated with large scale renewal projects after WWII in both Europe and North America. Many large bombed out cities or decrepit industrial slums were bulldozed and laid down as if new – with huge blocks of residential buildings and efficient road networks.


The one thing that is most notable in many of today’s larger cities is that all of the styles described here are often all present together and co-existing. Certainly the “City Beautiful” movement admired several aspects of the “Grand Manner” – as well as having its roots in “The Gothic Revival” movement. Modernism has placed its stamp with a network of highways and system of graduated roads, along with forests of glass skyscrapers and odd-shaped cantilevered buildings. And once again, there is a ‘gothic revival’ of sorts going on with a popular movement towards preserving older buildings, building on a smaller or more ‘human’ scale and mixed-use zoning laws with less reliance (and favortism) upon automobiles for inner city transportation. One thing is certain – large urban cities remain as popular as ever with major cities continuing to grow ever larger as more and more people are attracted to the bright lights of the big city.

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