The European City in History

The Nature and History of Cities

Introduction

    The name city is given to certain urban communities by virtue of some legal or conventional distinction.  It also refers to a particular type of community, the urban community, and its generic culture, often called “urbanism.”  In legal terms, in the United States, for example, a city is an urban area incorporated by special or general act of a state legislature.  Its charter of incorporation prescribes the extent of municipal powers and the frame of local government, subject to constitutional limitation and amendment.  In common usage, however, the name is applied to almost every American urban centre, whether legally a city or not, and without much regard to actual size or importance.  In Australia and Canada, city is a term applied to the larger units of municipal government under state and provincial authority respectively.  New Zealand has followed British precedent since the abolition of the provinces in 1876; the more populous towns are called boroughs under the Municipal Corporations Act of 1933 and earlier legislation.  In the United Kingdom itself, city is merely an official style accorded towns either in their historical identity as episcopal sees or as the beneficiaries honoris causa of a special act of the crown (the first town so distinguished was Birmingham in 1889).  Except for the ancient City of London (an area of about 677 acres in  central London under the jurisdiction of the lord mayor), the title has no significance in local government in the United Kingdom.  In all the other countries of the world, the definition of city similarly follows local tradition or preference.

    City government is almost everywhere the creation of higher political authority, state or national.  Some European countries have adopted general municipal codes which permit centralized administrative control over subordinate areas through a hierarchy of departmental prefects and local mayors.  Socialist countries also employ a hierarchical system of local councils that correspond to, and are under the authority of, governing bodies at higher levels of government.  In English-speaking countries, devolution of powers to the cities occurs through legislative acts that delegate limited self-government to local corporations.

    As a type of community, the city may be regarded as a relatively permanent concentration of population, together with its diverse habitations, social arrangements, and supporting activities, occupying a more or less discrete site, and having a cultural importance that differentiates it from other types of human settlement and association.  In its elementary functions and rudimentary characteristics, however, a city is not clearly distinguishable from a town or even a large village.  Mere size of population, surface area, or density of settlement are not in themselves sufficient criteria of distinction, while many of their social correlates (division of labour, nonagricultural activity, central-place functions, and creativity) characterize in varying degree all urban communities from the small country town to the giant metropolis.

Initial Requirements for Urban Development

    It was no accident that the earliest of man’s fixed settlements are found in the rich subtropical valleys of the Nile, the Tigris, the Euphrates, the Indus, and the Yellow rivers or in such well-watered islands as Crete.  Such areas provided favorable environmental factors making town living relatively easy: climate and soil favorable to plant and animal life, an adequate water supply, ready materials for providing shelter, and easy access to other peoples. Although man with ingenuity has been able to utilize almost any environment for town living, environments favorable to the production of food and shelter and ease and comfort of living clearly possessed advantages for the beginnings of urban life.

    A distinguished historian, Ralph E. Turner, has suggested that various pre-urban developments made possible the technology and organization permitting city life.  These included psychological elements such as recognition of “in-group” versus “out-group” interests; the notion of a universe, even if mysterious, that could be controlled; and belief in the existence of a soul.  The in-group and out-group differentiation provided a basis for respect for the rights of others and for life, property, and family values.  The notion that man could control the world in which he lived was of great importance, even if the methods of control were primitively based on magic and religion.  The belief in a soul helped make life on Earth more acceptable, even if hard, for life became then only an incident in a long journey.  Pre-urban developments that paved the way for urban life also included such factors as traditionalism, a power structure, and a form of economic as well as social organization. Traditionalism lay in the acceptance and transmission of what had worked in the life of the group and was therefore “right” and to be retained.  Some form of power structure involving subordination was necessary, for leadership was a vital element in urban living in that it was essential to the performance of such vital functions as sustenance, religious practices, social life, and defense.  Also prerequisite to group life were new economic and social institutions and groupings such as property, work, the family, a system for distribution of commodities and services, record keeping, police for internal security, armed forces for defense.  New value orientations and ideologies may also have affected the course of urbanization, though their importance is still highly conjectural.  There are those who have felt that urbanization depended on a new outlook; it meant that people had become more rationalistic (and less mystical); it meant that, for purposes of building, they were more willing and able to defer immediate for more desirable later gratification; it meant more emphasis on achievement and success as distinguished from status and prestige; it meant a cosmopolitan as distinguished from a parochial outlook; and it meant that relations between people were more ordered,  impersonal, and utilitarian, rather than only personal and sentimental.

Early Cities:  The Ancient world.

    About 10,000 years ago in the Neolithic Period, man achieved relatively fixed settlement, but for perhaps 5,000 years such living was confined to the semipermanent peasant village – semipermanent because, when the soil had been exhausted by the relatively primitive methods of cultivation, the entire village was usually compelled to pick up and move to another location.  Even when the village prospered in one place and the population grew relatively large, the village usually had to split in two, so that all cultivators would have ready access to the soil.

    The evolution of the Neolithic village into a city took at least 1,500 years--in the Old World from 5000 to 3500 BC.  The technological  developments making it possible for man to live in urban places were, at  first, mainly advances in agriculture.  Neolithic man’s domestication of  plants and animals eventually led to improved methods of cultivation and stock breeding and the proliferation of the crafts, which in turn eventually produced a surplus and freed some of the population to work as artisans,  craftsmen, and service workers.

    As human settlements increased in size, by reason of the technological advances in irrigation and cultivation, the need for improving the circulation of goods and people became ever more acute.  Pre-Neolithic  man leading a nomadic existence in his never-ending search for food moved largely by foot and carried his essential goods with the help of his wife and children.  Neolithic man, upon achieving the domestication of animals, used them for transportation as well as for food and hides.  Then came the use of draft animals in combination with a sledge equipped with runners for carrying heavier loads.  The major technological achievement  in the early history of transportation, however, was obviously the  invention of the wheel, used first in the Tigris-Euphrates Valley about 3500 BC and constructed first with solid materials and only later with  hubs, spokes, and rims.  Wheels, to be used efficiently, required roads, and thus came road building, an art most highly developed in ancient times by the Romans.  Parallel improvements were made in water  transport--with rafts, dugouts, the Egyptian reed float, eventually wooden boats, and of course canals used for both navigation and irrigation.

    By about 3500 BC urban populations were distinguished by literacy, technological progress (notably in metals), social controls, political  organization, and emotional focus (formalized in religious-legal codes and symbolized in temples and walls).  Such places, dated by historical means, existed on the Sumerian coast at Ur and in the Indus Valley at  Mohenjo-daro during the 3rd millennium and, before 2000 BC, had also  appeared in the Nile and Wei-ho valleys.  Cities proliferated along overland trade routes from Turkestan to the Caspian and then to the Persian Gulf and eastern Mediterranean.  Their economic base in agriculture (supplemented by trade) and their political-religious institutions made for an unprecedented degree of occupational specialization and  social stratification.  From central vantage points, cities already gave some coherence and direction to life and society in their hinterlands.

    The growth of cities, however, was by no means the inevitable outcome  of a succession from primitive life to civilization.  As S. Piggott pointed out  in “Role of the City in Ancient Civilizations” (in Metropolis in Modern Life, ed. by E.M. Fisher [1955]), an alternative and, in some ways, inimical type of community had arisen in the steppe-lands of Asia based upon animal husbandry: the nomadic encampment.  Like their urban contemporaries, the nomads were no longer “primitive” men.  In addition to pastoralism, they had developed great oral traditions, abstract art styles, and numerous crafts, albeit no formal architecture.  Led by warrior chiefs, these self-sustaining migratory peoples encroached upon the settled agricultural-trading areas to the south.

    During the 2nd millennium the Indus civilization was engulfed by an onslaught of Aryan nomads, while other peoples, using horses and chariots, penetrated the urban heartland from Mesopotamia to Egypt.  In these circumstances of prolonged upheaval, survival required the perfection of warlike arts and predatory supply systems, which  transformed the urban communities into paramilitary states – e.g., the  Hittite, Egyptian, and Mycenaean empires.  Citizenship, though still a ceremonial service, was increasingly associated with the bearing of arms.  After 1200 BC even the city-empires (a city-camp hybrid) lapsed into chaos and disorder until the lifting of the Hellenic “dark ages” during the  8th century BC and the transplanting of the syncretic city-state beyond the eastern Mediterranean by Phoenicians and Greeks.

Cities:  Autonomous and dependent cities in the Greco-Roman World.

    The heterogeneous peoples that created the Greco-Roman world  inherited a technological and nonmaterial culture from southwestern Asia which helped mollify barbarism and nourish the growth of cities.  Their trading colonies, from the Crimea to Cadiz, eventually brought the entire Mediterranean within the orbit of civilization.  It was in the Greek city-state, or polis, however, that the city idea reached its peak.  Originally a devout association of patriarchal clans, the polis came to be a small self-governing community of citizens in contrast to the Asian empires and nomadic hordes.  For citizens, at least, the city and its laws constituted a moral order symbolized in magnificent buildings and public  assemblies.  It was, in Aristotle’s phrase, “a common life for a noble end.”

    When the old exclusive citizenship was relaxed and as new commercial wealth surpassed that of the older landed citizenry, social strife at home and rivalry abroad gradually weakened the common life of the city-republics.  The creativity and variety of the polis gave way before the unifying forces of king-worship and empire epitomized by Alexander the  Great and his successors.  To be sure, many new cities were planted between the Nile and the Indus through which the amenities and forms of  city-culture were carried back to the east, but the city itself ceased to be an autonomous body politic and became a dependent member of a larger political-ideological whole.

    The Romans, who fell heirs to the Hellenistic world, transplanted the city into the technologically backward areas beyond the Alps inhabited by pastoral-agricultural Celtic and Germanic peoples.  But, if Rome brought order to civilization and carried both to barbarians along the frontier, it made of the city a means to empire (a centre for military pacification and  bureaucratic control) rather than an end in itself.  The enjoyment of the  imperial Roman peace entailed the acceptance of the status of municipium – a dignified but subordinate rank. Initiatives passed to the centre; and, in the east, the culture of provincial cities became imitative, their politics trivial.  They contributed little to the larger economic life beyond the needs of their social elites and the payment of taxes; they tapped the surpluses created by local agriculture and trade in rents and tribute.  As Roman citizenship became more universal and formal, the idea  of public duty gave way to private ambition.  Municipal functions  atrophied; and, except for their fiscal duties, it was in a passive role that the city survived into the Byzantine era.

Cities:  Medieval and Early Modern Era

Key Theme:  Medieval cities: from fortress to emporium.

    In Latin Europe neither political nor religious reforms could sustain the Roman regime.  The breakdown of public administration and the breach of the frontier led to a revival of parochial outlook and allegiance, but their focus was not upon the city. Community life now centred on the  fortress (burgum) or castle (castellum); the term city (civitas) was attached to the precincts of the episcopal throne, as in Merovingian Gaul.  (see also Index: Middle Ages)

    Early medieval society was a creation of camp and countryside to meet the local imperatives of sustenance and defense.  With Germanic variations on late Roman forms, communities were restructured into functional estates, each of which owned formal obligations, immunities,  and jurisdictions.  What remained of the city was comprehended in this feudal-manorial order, and the distinction between town and country was largely obscured when secular and ecclesiastical lords ruled over the  surrounding counties (comté, Grafschaft) as the vassals of mock  emperors or barbarian kings.  Social ethos and organization enforced submission to the common good of earthly survival and heavenly reward; the true city, civitas Dei, was not of this world.  The attenuation of city life in most of northern and western Europe was accompanied by  provincial separatism, economic isolation, and religious otherworldliness.   Not before the cessation of attacks by Magyars, Norsemen, and Saracens did urban communities again experience sustained growth.

    Recovery after the 10th century was not confined to the city or to anyone part of Europe. The initiatives of monastic orders, seigneurs, or lords of the manor, and merchants alike fostered a new era of increased tillage, enlarged manufacture, money economy, the growth of rural population, and the founding of “new towns,” as distinguished from those “Roman”cities that had survived from the period of Germanic and other encroachments. In almost all the medieval towns the role of the merchant was central: his needs and aspirations had a catalytic effect and, largely as a consequence of mercantile enterprise in the long-distance staple trade, cities were to flourish once more. Under commercial stimulus, feudal obligations were relaxed and European society was made over anew by the city and the marketplace in pursuit of self-government and economic gain.

    Before the year 1000 contacts with rich Byzantine and Islamic areas in the Levant had revitalized the mercantile power in Venice, which commanded the profitable route to the Holy Land during the Crusades.  Meanwhile, merchant communities had attached themselves to the more accessible castle towns and diocesan centres in northern Italy and on the main traveled routes to the Rhineland and Champagne. They later appeared along the rivers of Flanders and northern France and on the west-east road from Cologne to Magdeburg.

    It was no coincidence that the 12th and 13th centuries, which saw the founding of more new towns than any time between the fall of Rome and the Industrial Revolution, also witnessed a singular upsurge toward civic autonomy. Throughout western Europe, towns acquired various kinds of municipal institutions loosely grouped together under the designation”commune.”  Broadly speaking, the history of the medieval towns is that of the merchant elites seeking to free their communities from lordly jurisdiction and to secure their government to themselves.  Wherever monarchical power was strong, they had to be content with a municipal status, but elsewhere they created city-states.  Taking advantage of renewed conflict between popes and emperors, they allied with local nobility to establish communal self-government in the largest cities of Lombardy, Tuscany, and Liguria.  In Germany the city councils sometimes usurped the rights of higher clergy and nobility; Freiburg im Breisgau obtained its exemplary charter of liberties in 1120.  The movement spread to Lübeck and later to the net of Hanse towns on the Baltic and North seas, touching even the Christian “colonial” towns east of the Elbe-Saale rivers.  In the 13th century the “Great Towns” of Bruges, Ghent, and Ypres, creditors of the counts of Flanders, virtually governed the entire province.  In France, revolutionary uprisings, directed against nobility and clergy, sometimes established free communes, but most communities were perforce content with a franchise from their sovereign more limited than those enjoyed by English boroughs under the Norman Conquest.  Finally, the corporate freedom of the towns brought emancipation to individuals.  When bishops in the older German cities treated newcomers as serfs, the emperor Henry V affirmed the principle Stadtluft macht frei (“City air brings freedom”) in charters for Speyer (or Spires) and Worms; “new towns” founded on the lands of lay and clerical lords offered freedom and land to settlers who took up residence for more than “a year and a day.”  In France the villes neuves, or “new towns” (e.g., Lorris), and bastides (e.g., Montauban) likewise conferred rights on servile persons.

    In the 14th century, the urban movement subsided as Europe entered on a period of political anarchy and economic decline that did not much abate before the 16th century.  At a time when local specialization and interregional exchange required more liberal trade policies, craft protectionism and corporate particularism in the cities tended to hobble the course of economic growth.  The artisan and laboring classes, moreover, now challenged the oligarchical rule of the wealthy burghers and gentry, disrupted local government, and ultimately destroyed the basis of civic autonomy: prolonged social warfare led to “popular” despotisms and fiscal bankruptcy.  Visitations of plague, fanatical crusades against heresy, and Turkish encroachments on the routes to Asia worsened conditions in town and country alike.  Europe turned inward upon itself; and, except for a few large centres, activity in the marketplace was depressed: the cities surrendered their liberties and their population.  These centuries of decline were relieved only by the slow process of individual emancipation and the cultural efflorescence of the Renaissance, which laid the intellectual basis for the great age of geographical and scientific discovery exemplified in the new technologies of gunpowder, mining, printing, and navigation.  Not before the triumph of princely government, in fact, did political allegiance, economic interests, and spiritual authority again become centred in a viable unit of organization, the absolutist nation-state.

Cities:  The city and the nation-state.

    The virtue of absolutism in the early modern period lay in its ability to utilize the new technologies.  Through the centralization of power, economy, and belief it brought order and progress to Europe and provided a framework in which individual energies could once more be channeled to a common end.  While the nation stripped the cities of their remaining pretensions to political and economic independence (symbolized in their walls and tariff barriers), it created larger systems of interdependence in which territorial division of labor could operate.  Though new mercantilist policies built up national wealth, they did not necessarily foster the growth of cities.  All too often the wealth of nations was dissipated in war.  Much of the income produced in town and country went to bolster the monarch’s power and advertise his fame; the splendor of court life and the baroque glory of palaces and churches were paid for by merchant enterprise and the toil of peasants and craftsmen.  Only in colonial areas, notably the Americas, did the age of expansion see the planting of many new cities, and it is significant that the capitals and ports of the colonizing nations experienced their most rapid growth during these years.  Under absolutist regimes, a few large political and commercial centres grew at the expense of smaller outlying communities and the rural hinterlands.

    By the 18th century, the mercantile classes were increasingly disenchanted with monarchical rule.  They resented their lack of political influence and assured prestige.  They objected to outmoded regulations that hindered their efforts to link commercial operations with the systematic improvement of production.  Eventually, they would unite with other dissident groups to curb the excesses of absolutism, erase the vestiges of feudalism, and secure a larger voice in the shaping of public policy.  In northwestern Europe, where these liberal movements went furthest, the city populations and their bourgeois elites played a critical role out of all proportion to their numbers.  Elsewhere, as in Germany, the bourgeois were more reconciled to existing regimes or, as in northern Italy, had assumed a passive if not wholly parasitical role.

    With the exceptions of Great Britain and the Netherlands, however, the proportion of national populations resident in urban areas nowhere exceeded 10 percent.  As late as 1800 only 3 percent of world population lived in towns of more than 5,000 inhabitants.  No more than 45 cities had populations over 100,000, and of these fewer than half were situated in Europe.  Asia had almost two-thirds of the world’s large-city population, and cities such as Peking, Canton, and Edo (now Tokyo) were larger than ancient Rome or medieval Constantinople at their peaks.  Clearly, the mere presence of large cities or merchant elites anywhere in the world did not ensure the development of a dynamic social economy: the decisive factor was industrialism.

Cities:  Industrialization and the Modern World

    Before 1800, innovations in agricultural and manufacturing techniques had permitted a singular concentration of productive activity close to the sources of mechanical power--water and coal.  A corresponding movement of population was accelerated by the perfection of the steam engine and the superiority of the factory over pre-industrial business organization.   From the standpoint of economy, therefore, the localization of differentiated but functionally integrated work processes near sources of fuel was the mainspring of industrial urbanism.  Under conditions of belt-and-pulley power transmission, urban concentration was a means of (1) minimizing the costs of overcoming frictions in transport and communications and (2) maximizing internal economies of scale and external economies of agglomeration.  Although the intellectual and social prerequisites for industrialization were not uniquely present in any one nation, an unusual confluence of commercial, geographic, and technological factors in Britain led to far-reaching changes in such strategic activities as textiles, transport, and iron.  Britain became “the workshop of the world” and London its “head office.”  Differentiation went so far that the cotton, woollen, and iron districts became more specialized and productive, each proceeding within its own cycle of technical and organizational change.  By the mid-19th century, similar if less comprehensive industrial organization was evident in parts of France, the Low Countries, and the northeastern United States.

    The concentration of the manufacturing labor force in “mill towns” and “coke towns” gradually undermined traditional social structures and relations.  Age-old problems of public order, health, housing, utilities, education, and morals were aggravated by the influx of newcomers from the countryside.  High rural birth rates combined with the industrialization of agriculture to release not only the country’s foods and fibres but its children as well. Though the lowering of mortality in the 19th century was later offset by declines in fertility, the population of the more industrialized nations boomed into the 20th century, and the greater part of the increment migrated to the larger towns.  The outcome was rural depopulation and the urbanization of society.  Local institutions, often of medieval origin, were unable to cope with conditions that exaggerated poverty, disrupted family life, and complicated personal adjustment.  Piecemeal reforms did little to improve the new milieu because, in the last analysis, the “city problem” arose not so much from the lack of public authority as from an unwillingness to pay the costs of social planning and improvement.   Generations of urbanites experienced a continuing disorganization of their lives and work before the rising productivity of machines and increasing popular pressures on government could arrest the worst effects of this profound transformation.  Slowly and painfully, the city’s population adapted to its norms and enjoyed its satisfaction.  New economic and cultural opportunities in the city evidently compensated for its congestion and strain.

    In the century after 1850, world population doubled, and the proportion living in cities of more than 5,000 inhabitants rose from less than 7 percent to almost 30 percent.   Between 1900 and 1950 the population living in large cities (100,000 plus) rose by 250 percent, the rate of increase in Asia being three times that of Europe and the United States.   Nevertheless, the pattern of industrial urbanization (an overwhelmingly nonagricultural economy organized in a hierarchical system of different-sized cities ranging from one or more metropolitan centres at the top to a broad base of smaller-sized cities underneath) was still largely confined to the economically advanced areas: Europe, North America, Japan, and to a lesser extent Australasia.  Meanwhile, industrial urbanism had entered its metropolitan phase.  The widespread use of cheap electric power, the advent of rapid transit and communications, new building materials, the automobile, and rising levels of per capita personal income had led to some relaxation of urban concentration.  City dwellers began moving out from older downtown areas to suburbs and satellite communities where conditions were thought to be less wearing on nerves and bodies.  Rising central-area land values, traffic congestion, increased taxation, and festering slums reinforced the exodus.  At the city’s core the composition of the resident population came to include growing proportions of the aged, minority groups, and the very poor.

<>    In the reshaping of the 20th-century city, advantages for residence and consumption probably played a more decisive role than advantages for production.  Thus, while its advantages for manufacturers have diminished, the city remains the only feasible locus for the mass of specialized service activity that forms so large a part of the modern economy: the city offers maximum access to people.  The spread of the city, however, has further weakened the vitality of local government: the difficulty of defining appropriate administrative boundaries has been added to the older problems of powers and finance.  The task is to find viable forms of government for vast metropolitan districts, sometimes identified as conurbations, which sprawl across the countryside without unity or identity.

Cities and Urban Planning

    Urban planning and redevelopment is aimed at fulfilling social and economic objectives that go beyond the physical form and arrangement of buildings, streets, parks, utilities, and other parts of the urban environment.  Urban planning takes effect largely through the operations of government and requires the application of specialized techniques of survey, analysis, forecasting, and design.  It may thus be described as a social movement, as a governmental function, or as a technical profession.  Each aspect has its own concepts, history, and theories.  Together they fuse into the effort of modern society to shape and improve the environment within which increasing proportions of humanity spend their lives: the city.

Cities:  The Development of Urban Planning:  Early history.

    There are examples from the earliest times of efforts to plan city development. Evidence of planning appears repeatedly in the ruins of cities in China, India, Egypt, Asia Minor, the Mediterranean world, and South and Central America.  There are many signs: orderly street systems that are rectangular and sometimes radial; divisions of a city into specialized functional quarters; development of commanding central sites for palaces, temples, and what would now be called civic buildings; and advanced systems of fortifications, water supply, and drainage.  Most of the evidence is in smaller cities, built in comparatively short periods as colonies.  Often the central cities of ancient states grew to substantial size before they achieved governments capable of imposing controls.  In Rome, for example, the evidence points to no planning prior to late applications of remedial measures.

    For several centuries during the Middle Ages, there was little building of cities in Europe.  There is conflicting opinion on the quality of the towns that grew up as centres of church or feudal authority, of marketing or trade.  They were generally irregular in layout, with low standards of sanitation.  Initially, they were probably uncongested, providing ready access to the countryside and having house gardens and open spaces used for markets and fairs or grazing livestock.  But, as the urban population grew, the constriction caused by walls and fortifications led to overcrowding and to the building of houses wherever they could be fitted in.  It was customary to allocate certain quarters of the cities to different nationalities, classes, or trades, as in cities of East Asia in the present day.  As these groups expanded, congestion was intensified.

    The physical form of medieval and Renaissance towns and cities followed the pattern of the village, spreading along a street, a crossroad, in circular patterns or in irregular shapes – though rectangular patterns tended to characterize some of the newer towns.  Most streets were little more than footpaths – more a medium for communication than for transportation – and even in major cities paving was not introduced until 1184 in Paris, 1235 in Florence, and 1300 in Lübeck.  As the population of the city grew, walls were often expanded, but few cities at the time exceeded a mile in length.  Sometimes sites were changed, as in Lübeck, and many new cities emerged with increasing population--frequently about one day’s walk apart.  Towns ranged in population from several hundred to perhaps 40,000 (London in the 14th century).  Paris and Venice were exceptions, reaching 100,000.

    Housing varied from elaborate merchant houses to crude huts and stone enclosures. Dwellings were usually two to three stories high, aligned in rows, and often with rear gardens or inner courts formed by solid blocks.  Windows were small apertures with shutters, at first, and later covered with oiled cloth, paper, and glass.  Heating improved from the open hearth to the fireplace and chimney.  Rooms varied from the single room for the poor to differentiated rooms for specialized use by the wealthy.  Space generally was at a premium. Privacy was rare and sanitation primitive.

    During the Renaissance, however, there were conscious attempts to plan features, such as logistically practical circulation patterns and encircling fortifications, which forced overbuilding as population grew.  As late as the 1860s, the radial boulevards in Paris had military as well as aesthetic purposes.  The grand plan, however, probably had as its prime objective the glorification of a ruler or a state.  From the 16th to the end of the 18th century, many small cities and parts of large cities were laid out and built with monumental splendor. The result may have pleased and inspired the citizens, but it rarely contributed to the health or comfort of their homes or to the efficiency of manufacturing, distribution, or marketing.

    The planning concepts of the European Renaissance were transplanted to the New World.  In particular, Pierre l’Enfant’s plan for Washington, D.C. (1791), illustrated the strength and weakness of these concepts; it was a plan ably designed to achieve monumentality and grandeur in the siting of public buildings but was in no way concerned with the efficiency of residential, commercial, or industrial development.  More prophetic of the layout of U.S. cities was the rigid, gridiron plan of Philadelphia, designed by William Penn (1682), with a layout of streets and lots (plots) adaptable to rapid changes in land use but wasteful of land and inefficient for traffic.  The gridiron plan traveled westward with the pioneers, since it was the simplest method of dividing surveyed territory.  Its special advantage was that a new city could be planned in the eastern offices of land companies and lots sold without buyer or seller ever seeing the site.

    The New England town also influenced later settlement patterns in the United States. The central commons, initially a cattle pasture, provided a focus of community life and a site for meetinghouse, tavern, smithy, and shops.  It became the central square in county seats from the Alleghenies to the Pacific and remained the focus of urban activity.  Also from the New England town came the tradition of the freestanding, single-family house.  Set well back from the street and shaded by trees, it had an ornamental front yard and a working backyard and became the norm of American residential development.  This was in contrast to the European town house, with its party wall and tiny fenced backyard.

Cities:  The Nineteenth Century.

    In both Europe and the United States, the surge of industry during the 19th century was accompanied by rapid population growth, unfettered individual enterprise, great speculative profits, and remarkable lapses of community responsibility.  During this era, sprawling, giant metropolitan cities developed, offering wealth and adventure, variety and change.  Their slums, congestion, disorder, and ugliness, however, provoked a reaction in which housing reform was the first demand.  Industrial slums in European and American cities were unbelievably congested, overbuilt, unsanitary, and unpleasant.  The early regulatory laws set standards that improved upon the slums of the time but seemed a century later to be impossibly low.  Progress was very slow, for the rent-paying ability of slum dwellers did not make it profitable to invest in better housing for them.  Housing improvement as an objective, however, recurred continually.  Early significant improvements in public health resulted from engineering improvements in water supply and sewerage, which were essential to the later growth of urban populations.

    Toward the end of the 19th century, another effort to improve the urban environment emerged from the recognition of the need for recreation.  Parks were developed to provide visual relief and places for healthful play or relaxation.  Later, playgrounds were carved out in congested areas, and facilities for games and sports were established not only for children but also for adults, whose workdays gradually shortened.

    Concern for the appearance of the city had long been manifest in Europe, in the imperial tradition of court and palace and in the central plazas and great buildings of church and state.  In Paris, Georges-Eugène, Baron Haussman, became the greatest of the planners on a grand scale, advocating straight arterial boulevards, advantageous vistas, and a symmetry of squares and radiating roads.  The resurgence of this European tradition had a counterpart in the “city beautiful” movement in the United States following Chicago’s World Columbian Exposition of 1893.  This movement expressed itself widely in civic centres and boulevards, contrasting with and in protest against the surrounding disorder and ugliness.

Cities:  The Twentieth Century.

    Early in the 20th century, during the sprawling growth of industrial cities, factories invaded residential areas, tenements crowded in among small houses, and skyscrapers overshadowed other buildings.  To preserve property values and achieve economy and efficiency in the structure and arrangement of the city, the need was felt to sort out incompatible activities, to set some limits upon height and density, and to protect established areas from despoilment.  Zoning was the result.

    As transportation evolved from foot and horse to street railway, underground railway or subway, elevated railroad, and automobile, the new vehicles made possible tremendous urban territorial expansion.  Workers were able to live far from their jobs, and complex systems of communications developed.  The new vehicles also rapidly congested the streets in the older parts of cities.  By threatening strangulation, they dramatized the need to establish orderly circulation systems of new kinds.

    Metropolitan growth so intensified these and other difficulties that the people living in cities--who for the first time outnumbered the rural population in many countries--began to demand an attack upon all of these problems.  In response, city planning by mid-century aimed not at any single problem but at the improvement of all aspects of the urban physical environment through unified planning of the whole metropolitan area.  This introduced issues of national planning and in many countries brought city planning into the field of planning the nation’s economic and social resources as a whole.

Cities and the Goals of Modern Urban Planning

    The ultimate goals had always been social, even during the period when city plans themselves related only to physical change.  They had been and continued to be deeply involved with intermediate economic objectives.  The expression of the goals was, of course, coloured by the culture of the society seeking them.  Of increasing weight was the goal of equality of opportunity and the redress of the grievances of disadvantaged minorities.  Within this value system the physically oriented urban planning of the first half of the 20th century had evolved a set of environmental objectives that continued to be valid: (1) the orderly arrangement of parts of the city--residential, business, industrial--so that each part could perform its functions with minimum cost and conflict; (2) an efficient system of circulation within the city and to the outside world, using to the maximum advantage all modes of transportation; (3) the development of each part of the city to optimum standards, in terms of lot size, sunlight, and green space in residential areas, and parking and building spacing in business areas; (4) the provision of safe, sanitary, and comfortable housing in a variety of dwelling types to meet the needs of all families; (5) the provision of recreation, schools, and other community services of adequate size, location, and quality; (6) the provision of adequate and economical water supply, sewerage, utilities, and public services.

    Even these superficially clear objectives, however, were not fully operational.  They involve such terms as “adequate” and “high standard,” which are relative rather than absolute, and change with new insights from experience or research (medical, psychological, social) and with new technological achievements.  Inherent in the concept of city planning was the recognition that an ideal is not a fixed objective but will itself change, that the ideal city can be striven toward but never achieved.  This turned the focus of planning away from the “master plan” and toward a stress upon the process and the directions of change.

Source:  Encyclopedia Britannica (slightly edited).


This Page is Maintained by Robert W. Brown
Last Update:  09 January 2007

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