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Cities are mankind’s most universal contribution on earth. Throughout human history, it is within cities that mankind has explored all counterpoints of himself in relation to his physical world: man within architecture, man within nature, man as individual and communal being, man and machine, mankind within temple and shelter. From the ancient urbs of Rome to the modernity of downtown America, the historical aim of urban planning has been to impose physical order on things that by nature are chaotic. For two millennia, cities have been formed by the seemingly omniscient hand of urban planning or, less fortunately, by the lack thereof. Herein lies the virtually impossible meaning of urban planning.

Defining Urban Planning

Urban planning is both art and social science. It encompasses the contemporary city, the historical site, architecture, the environment, economics, and social interaction. Urban planning constructs the city of today while creating the model of the city that will exist in the next decades. Unlike architecture, urban planning is a public profession dedicated not to individual clients but to the common good, which is a weighty responsibility. Even for an urban planner, it is difficult to define the obligations and limits of the profession. To attempt to define urban planning, this article will limit itself to physical planning, to major Western cities, and to the most influential threads in the history and theory of planning.

Parameters of the subject of physical planning include facilities for housing, transportation, education, health care, and basic urban infrastructure, such as streets, sidewalks, and water supply, down to the most mundane enterprises of sewers and waste disposal. Urban planning, although often unobserved, is operating on the micro- and the macroscale. The city, as we experience its immediate urban form, is composed of street pattern, skyline, vista, and details such as streetscape, signage, and building setbacks. Urban planning must also deal with the larger issues of city form and the distribution of urban land resources through zoning, land use controls, density, and neighborhood considerations. In the urban environment, open space, greenery, and parks are integral to urban planning, and public art enlivens the city; the arts and nature are fundamental to urban design. The context of buildings is an important design element of cities; hence, the relationships of new architecture to existing urban fabric and to historical districts must be respected by the planner. The city must further be considered not in isolation but in its larger regional context. These parameters only begin to define the minimum functional city.

In the greatest of cities, function is only a starting point for urbanism, and urban design reaches higher toward monumentality, achieved through the symbolic meaning of visual configurations and architectural landmarks. We can observe historical examples of planned cities that have exceeded the expectations of function to become symbolic urban spaces in New York, London, Paris, and Rome.

A Brief History of Urban Planning

Modern Western urban planning has its origins in the Roman concept of the castrum city, the infinitely logical encampment created in a coherent grid in the Roman provinces, still visible in the antique sections of European towns, such as the City section of London, in the Île de la Cité of Paris, or in Tuscan squares. Thus, the contemporary idea of a city as an entity that can be envisioned, designed, constructed, and administered by a thinking authority, a kind of bureaucratic but benevolent despot (which might be thought of as the theoretical basis of modern city planning), is really quite an ancient concept. After the decline of the Roman Empire, the concept of the ordered city declined as well, as order was more often relegated to the sacred space of the cathedral than to the secular space of the city. In the French town of Chartres, for example, one finds the chaos of the medieval city’s streets pushing up against the organized mass of the divinely ordered architectural universe of the cathedral.

The Renaissance, with its rebirth of ancient forms, derived and ultimately monumentalized the Roman ideal of city planning. Michelangelo’s plan for the Roman Campidoglio is one of the most complete and perfectly executed plans for a city sector, constructed to front a medieval agglomeration of buildings that themselves had grown up on the edge of the once highly ordered Roman Forum. Although the Campidoglio was intended not as an inhabitable city but as a symbolic urban space, it followed the Roman ideal of the imposition of physical order on chaos. Based on Michelangelo’s ingenious geometric patterning and centered on the Roman statue of Marcus Aurelius, this Renaissance masterpiece recalls the order and majesty of ancient Roman planning.

Great baroque urban schemes dwarfed even these Renaissance plans. Bernini’s extension of St. Peter’s exterior space into Rome via his colonnade set the stage for sweeping baroque urban-planning schemes, with their spatial command and shaping of urban space. Cities extended themselves as medieval city walls were torn down and replaced with dynamic baroque schemes throughout Europe. Whole cities became works of art as urban planning reached its dramatic heights in the 16th and 17th centuries.

The greatest sweep of urban planning, however, was yet to come in the deconstruction and reassemblage of Paris in the 19th century. Paris saw the massive imposition of planning on a chaotic, medieval city with the fervor of Baron von Haussmann’s straight, grand étoile, or star, of boulevards, with bridges and Napoleonic monuments highlighted. The grand radiating boulevards of Paris created vistas and promenade spaces through the city that we now identify with the French Enlightenment, with clarity and reason in urban design. The influence of French planning can be felt in the United States in L’Enfant’s radiating plan for Washington, D.C.

Urban planning in London is quite a contrast to Paris, for London never experienced an overlaid unifying design but remained instead a kind of crazy quilt city of interconnected sectors, some of which have within them their own individual internal order. In the United States, Boston is the closest analogy to London in form: antique, irrational street patterns contrasting with 19th-century planned sectors. Geometric classicism in urban design had enlightened London from the 18th through the early 19th century in the planning of the west end. London’s Bloomsbury, in particular, was developed with order imposed via gridded streets and squares and by the graceful repetition of building forms in the standardized 18th-century row houses.

In opposition to the urbane geometric order of Bloomsbury, however, British urban planning likewise produced plans that were decidedly antiurban and picturesque. The late 19th century in England felt a schism between city and town, urban life and suburban, that developed as a reaction to the tragic consequences of industrialization. Picturesque inventions in urban planning, the schemes for garden cities and suburbs for the amelioration of slums, such as Ebenezer Howard’s Garden Cities of Tomorrow (1902), were alternatives to cities. In the United States, the City Beautiful movement, epitomized by Daniel Burnham’s Chicago and San Francisco plans, with their romanticized picturesque curvilinear lines, can be traced to this aesthetic.

Thus, the ideal of the planned city has been seen to move over two millennia from encampment to étoile, from geometric griddedness to picturesqueness, and now again will return to the enduring grid, for the most profoundly influential imposition in history of plan on a city is certainly the grid configuration on New York City. The grid of Manhattan, the consummate city, in conjunction with Central Park, created the city plan by which all other cities are judged. The configuration dictates the lives of millions who define their physical space by the plan: “uptown, downtown, east side, west side.” The significance of urban planning is demonstrated every day on the streets of New York City, for the concrete canyons of Manhattan, so often romantically sung, are in fact more prosaically the product of New York City’s 1811 grid city plan, its 1860s Olmsted park plan, and its 1916 skyscraper zoning laws.

Modern Urban Planning

In the 20th century, there was a tremendous shift in the historical concept of urban planning from art to technics. The practice of urban planning from the mid- to late 20th century had little to do with the artistic grandeur of earlier times and more to do with the technician’s approach to the city as a functional entity. Massive urban population growth, the movement from rural to urban areas, two major world wars, the machine economy, the automobile, and the triumph of Marx over monarchy meant that the burden of urban planning became more about the amelioration of living conditions for the masses and less about a carriage ride through the park for those who could afford a carriage.

As urban planning took on the life of the masses, it acquired a new urgency. In the 20th century, theories of urban planning swung in wide and contradictory arcs—with very concrete consequences for cities. From the broad-stroke city plans of Le Corbusier to the curbside observations of Jane Jacobs, the city in the 20th century had seemingly every perceptive perspective and every evil visited on it. There actually exist American cities where one can trace the theoretical swings in urban planning simply by riding a bus across town, seeing the once bright future and the dashed hopes of urban occupants strewn in planned fervor on the landscape. In the East New York section of Brooklyn, where the federally funded Model Cities program collapsed before completion (but not before tearing down all existing buildings), the scarred urban land was left vacant for decades. Urban planning acquired a checkered history in the 20th century. Let us next investigate how this came to be in our times. If good intentions really did make paving, we could put an end to asphalt.

Early 20th-Century Planning

The early 20th century tended toward a utopianism in urban planning that we find bizarre today, exemplified in the metaphorical crystalline city depicted in Fritz Lang’s film Metropolis. These early utopian planners survived one world war, lived in urban devastation, and were trying to create new cities from the depths of disillusionment with their European past. Certain of the early utopian modernists, such as Walter Gropius and the German Bauhaus designers, had humane aspirations underlying their metaphors, and they tried to bring analysis to tragedy. Empathizing with the proletariat, Gropius sought through planning to bring them the most basic necessities—in his words, “Existenzminimum,” or minimum standards for living. He brought to his compassionate stance for the disenfranchised a new scientific standard, attempting for the first time to quantify quality-of-life issues: minimal space requirements, standards of health and hygiene, and light and fresh air in the city.

With their methodological approach, the planners of Germany reconstructed their warravaged cities and built some of the largest housing projects for the urban masses ever attempted, the Siedlungen, or housing projects, of the 1920s to 1930s. Although perhaps oppressive and mechanistic by today’s values, these repetitive plans were humanely intentioned. The modern European ideals of urban planning became international through the meetings of CIAM (Congrès Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne), held in Europe from the 1920s to the 1950s, and were disseminated by J.L. Sert in his prophetically titled Can Our Cities Survive? (1942).

The most powerful, although perhaps not the most prudent, voice of CIAM and of 20th-century urbanism in general was, of course, Le Corbusier. Following in the French tradition of Haussmann, through his sweeping unbuilt Parisian plans on paper—the Contemporary City (1922) and the Ville Radieuse (1935)—Le Corbusier reinvented French creative urban design. Although his urban designs were brilliant aesthetic exercises, they were frightening living environments. Le Corbusier’s plans are grandiose and potentially destructive of cities that, unlike the German, were not even destroyed by war. Le Corbusier introduced into modern urban planning the fallacy of viewing the city solely as a spatial pattern seen metaphorically and visually from above, forgetting that below, humans seek to live out their sometimes irrational, unpatterned urban lives.

If one were to compare the long-term influence on urban planning of Gropius’s Bauhaus functionalism and Le Corbusier’s French aestheticism, one might conclude that the derivations of both were harmful to the urban fabric of the 20th century. What differentiates them, however, is intention: the city for the common man or the city for self? While in the history of urban planning we can trace Gropius’s methodical study of the angle of the sun as it hit the windows of his Siedlungen, we are likewise told the anecdote of Le Corbusier’s designing the city of Brasilia while sitting in a restaurant, cavalierly scrawling crossed lines on a cocktail napkin. Although there is ample room for ego and self-aggrandizement in architecture, it should have no place in the discipline of urban planning.

Against the European background of the planning debates of CIAM came the work of the most famous American architect of the 20th century, Frank Lloyd Wright, who designed but never built his theoretical Broadacre City in 1938. The “Broadacre” of the title was accurate, for the design allowed each resident one acre of land for subsistence farming, but the word “City” was certainly a misnomer, for Wright’s utopia was the very antithesis of the concept of city. It was antiurban in every sense, isolationist in its vision, and totally automobile dependent, so much so that we may credit Broadacre City with spreading the concept of the suburb and inadvertently its concomitant sprawl all over the United States. Wright’s vision, born of his agrarian American roots and of the Depression, was not to ameliorate urban problems but to offer an American alternative that would render the city a nasty anachronism of the preautomobile age.

Critiques of Urban Planning

Without question, by the early 20th century, cities in Europe and the United States needed fixing. By necessity, the rise of urban planning as a profession distinct from architecture, economics, and urban sociology was taking root with such major constituents as the New York Regional Planning Association. After utopianism took its last gasp through the planners of the 1939 New York World’s Fair, cynicism about cities replaced beliefs in beauty and human aspiration in urban planning. As planning moved away from beauty and toward technology as its goal, it lost its soul. A nadir of urban planning was reached in the mid-20th century with the advent of statistical and technological planning severed from all humanitarian concerns, as Cold War thinking marked city plans destructively with the introduction of military-industrial planning applied to city planning. Cities lost their individual realities as new planners were schooled only in applications of generic models without human content and taught to substitute mindless formulas invented for the design of complex nuclear war machines. Cities, however, are not submarines, and humans are not mathematical models. With the desperation of those who felt inferior to the technologists, urban planners repressed their innate social motivations. Disastrous results, such as the wholesale destruction of neighborhoods as “slum clearance,” were often compounded by highspeed freeways cutting through neighborhoods. Worst-case examples left acres of urban land looking bombed.

By the mid-20th century, thoughtful critical voices were emerging as a counterpoint to the grandiose schemes of the utopian 1920s and 1930s and the cynical 1950s and 1960s. Primary among those voices were those of two American planners and their texts of simple messages, Kevin Lynch’s The Image of the City (1960) and Jane Jacobs’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961), which together helped turn the tide of city planning toward a closer examination of the existing urban fabric and to the patterns of behavior of its inhabitants. Both had a kind of folksy style that appealed to urban planners, architects, sociologists, and even the general public, so often the enemy of urban planning, and thus both books have continued to be influential for decades.

Lynch was observational and insightful. On the one hand, he explained the nature of cities with a rational model, defining the city as a hierarchy of spaces; on the other hand, he simultaneously presented the irrational side of urban patterns based on humans’ uncanny ability to navigate urban space in relation to memory and landmarks. What makes Lynch’s approach so novel is that it was based not on a preconceived or imposed model but on actually asking city dwellers how they moved within their physical environment. Jacobs, who wrote literally from the perspective of her own window on her street in lower Manhattan, showed that the social interactions of an active pedestrian street life of a city are the essence of the urban place. She defended the life not only of city people but of city buildings as well, pointing out cogently the significance of retaining old buildings within cities. The Death and Life of Great American Cities remains a memorable David-versus-Goliath of wrong-headed urban planning.

Perhaps the quietly successful revolution of Lynch, Jacobs, and others of this bent now needs reexamination, for it is spurring on movements in urban planning that are actually antiurban. Jacobs wanted to preserve old buildings not as historical artifacts or selfconsciously arty edifices but as low-rent generators of urban innovation. Instead, we are today boutiqueing our cities out of existence, falsifying the urban fabric. Further, nostalgic but inauthentic new towns spring forth on former desert- and farmland all over the United States, and these false places are controlled by restrictive covenants that are the antithesis of urban life. Beware planners bearing faux cities that, although certainly pretty, by definition cannot ever be real urban environments.

The Future of Urban Planning

The point of urban planning is to encompass the complexity of human experience and to formulate for that experience a physical environment that will be ever self-renewing. Authentic urban places existed in the 20th century, and they give us hope for the life of the city in the 21 st century. In London, a supreme example of urbane living is still found in Bloomsbury’s squares of parks and row houses and in the 20th-century revival of 17thcentury Covent Garden. In Paris, a zenith of 20th-century urban design was achieved by the physical reorganization of the museums, from the Louvre to the Gare d’Orsay along the Seine, relating beauty, urban form, antiquity, and modernism, in the image of I.M.Pei’s metaphorical pyramid. In Chicago, the last decade of the 20th century witnessed the expansion of urban beauty, fulfilling again the visions presented to the world in the first decade of the century by Daniel Burnham and Edward H.Ben-nett in their Plan of Chicago. Parkways, boulevards, urban parks, and well-ordered streets display Chicago’s vision as a city in a garden. In New York, urban planning has created the scaffolding on which city life thrives. To find urban planning for oneself, experientially, explore the planned places of Manhattan. Walk any day, any season, from Rockefeller Center up Fifth Avenue toward Central Park. Observe the living urban tableau of sleek skyscrapers, hot dog stands, hasty inhabitants, and yellow taxis in counterpoint to the park’s oasis of rocks, trees, and sky. Certainly this is as close to the complete human experience of the active and the contemplative, of order amid chaos, of the power of urban planning, as any city experience is ever likely to come.


Sennott R.S. Encyclopedia of twentieth century architecture, Vol.3 (P-Z).  Fitzroy Dearborn., 2005.

  1902, Garden Cities of Tomorrow , Ebenezer Howard
  1922, the Contemporary City, Le Corbusier
  1935, the Ville Radieuse, Le Corbusier
  1938, Broadacre City, Frank Lloyd Wright
  1960, The Image of the City, Kevin Lynch

1902, Garden Cities of Tomorrow , Ebenezer Howard

1922, the Contemporary City, Le Corbusier

1935, the Ville Radieuse, Le Corbusier

1938, Broadacre City, Frank Lloyd Wright

1960, The Image of the City, Kevin Lynch



Jacobs, Jane, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, New York: Random House, 1961; London: Jonathan Cape, 1962

Kostof, Spiro, The City Shaped: Urban Patterns and Meaning through History, Boston: Little Brown, and London: Thames and Hudson, 1991

Le Corbusier, Urbanisme, Paris: Crès, 1924; as The City of Tomorrow and Its Planning, translated by Frederick Etchells, New York: Payson and Clarke, 1929; reprint, New York: Dover, 1987

Lynch, Kevin, The Image of the City, Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1960

Sert, José Luis, Can Our Cities Survive? An ABC of Urban Problems, Their Analyses, Their Solutions, Based on the Proposals Formulated by the CIAM, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, and London: Milford and Oxford University Press, 1942

Wright, Frank Lloyd, An Autobiography, book 6, “Broadacre City,” Spring Green, Wisconsin: Taliesin, 1943

Urban Visions: Experiencing and Envisioning the City

Urbino: The History of a City and Plans for Its Development

Urban Structures for the Future

Matrix of Man: Illustrated History of Urban Environment

Plan of Chicago: Prepared Under the Direction of the Commercial Club, During the Years MCMVI, MCMVII, and MCMVIII (Classic Reprint)

The Improvement of the Park System of the District of Columbia: I.--Report of the Senate Committee on the District of Columbia. II.--Report of the Park Commission

The South Street Seaport development plan

The Origins of Modern Town Planning








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