Lets face it, the role of city planning throughout history has not always been to achieve Owen’s Utopia: “To come to an arrangement which is advantageous to everyone, within a system which will permit continued and unlimited technical improvement.” It’s more the case that cities have served man’s most pressing needs whether that is exchange, worship, security, water supply or simply the fact that humans are “social animals” as Aristotle noted. I would surmise that cities are a reflection of broad social movements of their time and that our environments are outcomes of social evolution.
Early Planning History
In The Continuing City, Vance suggests that the earliest city dwellers did not ask why or how their cities came about. They looked at the city, its location in space and did not ask the gods for clarification. Vance goes on to tell us that in fact, “The main public expression of urban life was religious and some argue that cities first came into existence for religious purposes.” It would follow that after establishing a surplus of food and goods, an elite class would surface to make sure that things were divided equally and consistently. In this social arrangement, the gods came first and they needed temples and places where the people could come to pay homage and receive surplus goods. Thus the city is born.
The forms of early “cities” vary widely. In Form and Meaning in the Earliest Cities, Smith suggests that not only cities with orthogonal layouts indicate central planning, but many settlements throughout the world practiced varying degrees of planning when simply adding a home to an existing group of houses. Smith urges us to move away from the general, narrow, ethnocentric view that urbanity is a western tradition and seeks clues to unlocking the meaning behind cities in the new world and ancient Asian civilizations. Historically, pre-colonial settlements in Mexico and Zimbabwe have not been compared to the great cities of the Romans and Greeks. However, Smith makes the case that city building in the new world shared many of the same roots as those in the west. He cites a ruler’s motivation to please the gods that put him or her in power and the need for monumentality to impress ones friends and enemies. Ironically, our motivations in the modern era have not changed very much. Cities are still competing to show technical or athletic superiority. Why else would they compete so ruthlessly to host the (originally Greek) Olympics?
Any discussion of early city planning would have to include the Greek planner Hippodamus of Miletus who came up with the notion of the orthogonal grid in the middle of the fifth century BC. Hall notes, “To generalize slightly, we could say that the desire for uniformity and rectilinearity has informed most planned urban expansions from the time of Hippodamus until the end of the nineteenth century.” With few exceptions, planned, non-organic cities have used the grid as a means of keeping track of citizens, organizing where they lived (often by class or occupation), and being able to find them when it came time to pay taxes or homage to the gods. These early cities and the Etruscan, Roman and Sumerian cities as well, generally provided order and predictability and were supported by a strong military and central government. Cities formed after the fall of theRoman Empire and throughout the medieval period did not.
Urban Planning in the Middle Ages
When the Barbarians came in 400 AD, the Romans could no longer provide safety and governance in the far flung corners of the empire and city life deteriorated in the west. Cities changed into small city states. They now needed to provide walls to keep out invaders and stake out locations that were easily defensible. Former Roman military leaders took over land they had previously “guarded” and started to attack their neighbors for resources and power. Urban form reflected the beliefs of the time. Organic settlements grew around churches and castles. Protection was provided by God, a King or overlord and a solidly built wall.
In The Urban Millennium, Konvitz describes the Renaissance as, “an intense and imaginative search for knowledge.” The city-states and kingdoms had amassed enough power and wealth and thereby could afford to train and equip armies and pay mercenaries for protection enabling consistent trade and wealth accumulation. Through this thirst for knowledge came a desire for order and control provided by good architecture and urban planning. Florence began its renewal in the 1330’s with ecclesiastic, civic and patrician buildings that brought man closer to the divine.
By 1413, artists including Filippo Brunelleschi, using principles of mathematics had devised a method for depicting perspective and depth in drawings of buildings. This allowed architecture to move from the 2 dimensional Renaissance forms to the grand forms of the Baroque era. Artists quickly became architects and soon geometry, symmetry and style were part of city building. The popes of the time hired the best artists including Michelangelo to complete major civic works with the idea that, “A well ordered environment acted on the public psyche”, borrowing from Descartes. Streets moved from simple grid patterns to radial and diagonal forms allowing long streets to end in focal accents. In 1590, Pope Sixtus embarked on a rebuilding ofRome, creating boulevards and opening up views and perspectives. TheVatican architect Alberti worked to, “integrate buildings into daily life of the citizens.” The new buildings introduced the street wall and proportionality between buildings and the street.
If it Ain’t Baroque, Fix It – Monumentality and the Grand Manner
Grand plans were devised throughout Europe and many colonial outposts to provide, “beauty, commodiousness and magnificence” to the city. Governments flush with cash from colonial pillaging and protected trade routes wanted to make a statement. Cities were to be both utilitarian and beautiful. Via Garibaldi in Genova led the way followed by the famous work of Baron Haussmann in Paris. Other cities including Barcelona and Vienna followed suit cutting swaths through densely inhabited districts to make room for wide boulevards, trees and utilities. Builders followed the demolition with new multistory mansions. Uniformity was paramount in most rebuilding schemes. Plans were created at a monumental scale that looked good from the sky but considering that transportation was not well developed in the 1890’s, it was not very practical for pedestrians and horse drawn carriages. Like many modern plans, they look good in plan view but on the ground, they lose their appeal. Perhaps such plans were meant to be viewed from heaven.
Across the Atlantic, things were less formal. Colonization brought some traditions from Europe but little emphasis was placed on the public realm. Cities reflected the need to be places of orderly commerce and trade. Boston developed organically, mimicking a medieval merchant town format. St. Louis was a classical Bastide grid city. Pensacola followed the form of the Spanish Law of the Indies with a town square and rigid geometry. Philadelphia was divided up as a speculators town with more emphasis placed on equal apportionment of land, than beauty and commodiousness. Washington DC, the capital of the burgeoning Unites States was the only town with some sense of perspective and grace. L’enfant, the plan’s author was fired by George Washington and his plan had to be recreated from memory. To add insult to injury, in 1785 theUS government passed the Land Act, dividing the country into large Sections and townships and completely ignoring any need for the public realm. American cities were built for commerce with a few exceptions where beauty and magnificence were bestowed on government buildings and the Capitol symbolizing a reverence for governance but not for god or kings.
The Modern Era – The Industrial Revolution and the Rise of Machines (and Slums)
The industrial revolution caused mechanization of farms and caused mass migration to the cities. People seeking work in mills and factories crowded into substandard housing and made great sacrifices in their quality of life. Unlike farms, cities provide no subsistence living. All was dependent on the ability to earn enough money to pay for food, shelter and clothing. The laws of supply and demand were cruel and unforgiving. Jacob Riis captured the suffering in the tenements. Marx and Engels wrote about the miseries of capitalism and extolled the workers to, “rise up and seize the means of production”.
Figure 2 “Lodgers in a Crowded Bayard Street Tenement–‘Five Cents a Spot'” by Jacob Riis, Courtesy Wikimedia Commons
Ultimately, the European and American responses to the abominable housing conditions were quite different. The Europeans started with early Housing Commissions and built council housing projects to relieve the overcrowding. Across the Atlantic, the Americans relied more on the private market to build denser housing and failed miserably in their charge to relieve overcrowding offering up the “dumbbell” tenement as a private market solution. However, through additional regulations on the housing market, tenement life was improved and public housing was built.
At the same time, fearing insurrection and mob rule, city leaders sought solutions to the problem of industrial slums. Howard’s Garden City was devised as a way to provide a living for its citizens but also a reasonable quality of life while not straying too far from capitalism. Le Corbusier dreamed of the Radiant City where everyone lived in vertical cities leaving green parks for rest and relaxation below. Frank Lloyd Wright followed with his plan for the sprawling Broadacre City. Ultimately, the rest of Manhattan Island was divided up into 25’ by 100’ lots and sold for development. The pattern is more suited to single family townhomes but this gridded mass has become one of the world’s most dense urban centers.
The urban form we see in our cities today is, like its predecessors, a reflection mankind’s social evolution. Great churches and temples signify man’s allegiance to a higher power. Magnificent civic architecture tells us that citizens place their belief in governance and civic institutions. Finally, awe inspiring sky scrapers festooned with logos like B of A, UBC, and AIG remind us that man’s greatest architectural feats are now aligned with the money that builds them. What will next inspire our social evolution?
Figure 1 – Map of Piraeus, Greece, in 1908, Baedeker’s Handbook of Greece, Leipzig.
Figure 2 – “Lodgers in a Crowded Bayard Street Tenement–‘Five Cents a Spot'” by Jacob Riis, Courtesy Wikimedia Commons
Figure 3 – Toronto skyscrapers, by Jason Spaceman, Wikimedia Commons