Why are some cities laid out like checkerboards while others look like tangled, chaotic webs? Urban planners have been trying to find the ideal layout for cities ever since humans started living together in large numbers.
The following highlights some of the major milestones of city planning and some of the most common ways in which cities have developed over the years – all highlighted with aerial photography.
The history of urban planning can be traced back to the Mesopotamian, Minoan, Harrapan and Egyptian societies of the 3rd millennium BCE, who arranged structures and streets at right angles often using the grid format.
On the other side of the world, the ancient Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan was also intricately planned. The isolation of this Central American culture from the rest of the world implies that, as humans, we have an innate love for well-organized settlements, whether they are designed for efficiency, grandeur, defense or public health. Our needs and technologies have changed over the years, however, and with that our cities have, too.
Fortified cities were very common in Medieval Europe, but they can be found all over the world. This city type surrounds a nucleus, such as a fortress, which is often located on a peak or a naturally protected site. The remaining city grows outward from that point, according to local geography, and the core city is generally defended by an additional wall. So, like modern cities, walled cities vary greatly depending on their locations.
There are several cities of this type from Europe to Asia that have been preserved into modern times. Cities like Carcassonne (France), Erice (Italy) or the beautifully preserved ancient city of Pingyao (China) all offer modern visitors a glimpse into a time where it was the cities, not national governments, who were responsible for ensuring society.
As long as the fear of invasion remained, new settlements outside the city walls would also be walled in and integrated into the defenses of the larger city. But societies slowly became safer, and trust in the national government rose. Cities began to expand with less thought put into defense, and walls were removed to make room for buildings. Cities established in such periods were often able to develop with very little planning.
Despite centuries of development, portions of the old walls remain in many historic cities. In other cities where the old walls were removed, you can still tell where the old fortifications were located due to the layout of roads or city parks. The defensive walls of Frankfurt, Germany, for example, were deconstructed in the early 1800s and developed into parks whose defensive shape is easily recognized on a modern map.
Most modern metropolises started out as tiny settlements, such as the fishing village of Edo that became Tokyo (Japan). Most cities expanded through the ages by way of both planned and organic growth, lending them an interesting balance of order and disorder that made them what they are today.
Starting in the Renaissance, the European ruling class bought into the idea that cities should be designed to display grandeur. This was usually done at the request of kings or emperors who wanted their city to become more “impressive”. Of course, many historic districts became the victims of such projects.
This type of development occurred primarily in imperial cities, where historic quarters were torn down to make room for wide boulevards lined by stately buildings. The most prominent example of such a development is Georges-Eugène Haussmann’s reconstruction of Paris under Napoleon III.
With the goal of making the city grander – but also less congested and healthier – Haussmann proceeded to cut wide boulevards through the historic quarters, even sacrificing the house he was born in. Nevertheless, some of the old, chaotic streets still exist in some places such as Le Marais or Montmartre.
As industrialization began to take hold of the western world, cities became increasingly crowded and polluted as new factories and homes were constructed with little government intervention. Urban planners began to create new, often utopian visions that would contribute to making urban living healthier.
One such idea was the so-called Linear City developed by Arturo Soria y Mata. His idea was to establish a central line for the railway, along which different industrial functions could be established. Workers could live close to their workplace along this line and it would be arranged so that the prevailing winds would first travel over the residential side and then to the industrial side, thus improving public health. The project culminated in the Ciudad Lineal district of Madrid, which still exists today. Linear cities, however, may also occur due to the local topography, developing along rivers, shorelines or mountain valleys.
Automobiles greatly impacted the work of city planners. Cars made it possible for average citizens to travel long distances, but they also introduced new challenges.
People could no longer gather or congregate on the streets, as cars posed a significant threat due to their speed. They also introduced a new form of pollution and required space of their own. Urban freeways cut through cities, commuters swelled daytime populations and city planners were tasked with finding unobtrusive parking solutions.
Although the grid plan dates back to antiquity (Alexandria being a prime example), it is the most typical layout pattern in modern metropolises, whose streets and square blocks often resemble a checkerboard when viewed from above. Often associated with American cities like New York City and Chicago, square blocks can be found all over the world, from Barcelona (Spain) to Campo Grande (Brazil) and Johannesburg (South Africa).
While most cities benefit from a mix of planned and unplanned development, there are a few cities that were completely planned from the top-down. These visionary projects are built on an undeveloped site, usually based on an individual’s desire to create the perfect urban environment. In most cases, however, the population swells beyond the original planned capacity and, despite the planner’s best intentions, the city begins to expand and develop more naturally.
In the 1950s, Oscar Niemeyer planned an entirely new capital for Brazil: Brasília. Unlike Rio de Janeiro, it was to avoid the classical and baroque architecture of the colonial period, and be completely free of slums. Its most unique feature is that, when viewed from above, you can see that the streets were laid out in the shape of a giant airplane. Critics say the city is not designed for pedestrians, with strict zoning instead of mixed-use, but it did win the honor of World Heritage status from UNESCO.
A modern iteration of this top-down planning can be found in greenfield smart city projects, such as Songdo (South Korea). In such projects, it can be hard to predict what a city will need in the future, or whether enough people will actually decide to live there. There is hope, however, if you consider the example of India’s planned township, Navi Mumbai. Constructed in the 1970s, it’s population has swelled to over 1.5 million.
Cities are becoming denser. We’re seeing more and more mixed-use tall buildings that combine commercial, retail, hotel and residential space. Sustainable buildings and smart cities are becoming more common. There’s also a shift towards fewer cars, more pedestrian friendliness and greater reliance on public and multi-modal transportation strategies.
The effect on city planning remains to be seen, but one thing is for sure: a good mix of planned growth and natural development seems to have worked for many major metropolises.
One thing we know for sure: urban living is the most sustainable form of habitation when you look at the per-capita consumption figures of city versus suburban or rural environments. City living is also a lot of fun and provides ample opportunity for healthy social interaction. And cities must give back to their people by providing reasonably priced housing, good public mobility, walkable distances, and plenty of parks and greenery.