Philosophy of urban planning

After writing my last post about the history of urban planning, I wanted to learn more about Hippodamus of Miletus, the “father” of urban planning. He lived from 498 to 408 BC, and he helped design such Greek towns as Piraeus, Olynthus, Priene, and Miletus. Urban planning at this time was not at all an established discipline, and it wasn’t until Hippodamus came around that even the idea of a city grid was commonplace.

In Hippodamus’ time, urban planning would have been more properly identified as “the philosophy of urban spacing.” It took deep philosophical and rational thought to come to a theory of the best way to plan a town, and it wasn’t immediately obvious that a grid would be a highly effective format.

Aristotle himself was a critic of Hippodamus’ idea of straight streets and a gridded layout. He argued that, while a town planned in a grid is certainly more visually appealing than a haphazardly planned urban area, the latter is better for deterring invaders. If a city is infiltrated, the trespassers would easily be able to navigate through the streets if they are planned out in an orderly way. However, poorly planned streets are much easier to get lost in, and intruders not familiar with the city would be at a loss in such a place. Basically, orderly planning is good for beauty, haphazard planning (or lack thereof) is better for security. Here it is in Aristotle’s own words:

“The arrangement of private houses is generally considered to be more sightly, and more convenient for peacetime activities, when it is regularly planned in the modern style introduced by Hippodamus. For reasons of military security, however, the very reverse is preferable — they should follow the old-fashioned manner, which made it difficult for strangers to make their way out and for assailants to find their way in.” Politics, 1330b17

Aristotle’s Politics goes on to say a lot about the planning style of Hippodamus and about Hippodamus himself, stating that he was “the first man without practical experience of politics who attempted to handle the theme of the best form of constitution” (Politics, 1267b22). The question of the best form of government was a hot topic of philosophy at the time and I think it’s interesting that Hippodamus was cited as the first non-political person to theorize on the subject.

Even though Aristotle states that beauty is the main advantage of orderly town planning, Hippodamus’ grid system was actually developed with practical implications in mind. The town of Miletus and many other Greek cities were planned so as to make elements of the weather less harsh. In Miletus, the buildings and streets were arranged so that the wind from the sea would flow optimally through the town, providing a cool breeze on hot summer days. In addition, other Greek towns were planned so that houses and other buildings would obscure the sun during the summer and face the sun during the winter in order to receive as much sunlight as possible.

As a lover (and degree-holder) of political theory, I think it’s incredibly interesting that even disciplines such as city planning came from philosophic roots. However, radical change does require a radical change in thought, and there were bound to be dissenters when Hippodamus introduced his idea of a gridded town system. The idea has obviously held strong through the two-and-a-half millenia since its inception, and it didn’t take long at all for the idea to stick. Many ancient writers such as Strabo, Aristophanes, Aristotle, Theano of Thurii, and Vitruvius wrote about city planning in either an informative or critical way. Dinocrates of Rhodes helped plan Alexander the Great’s city of Alexandria in the 4th century BC, and it followed a grid pattern, as captured by the 1899 work of André Castaigne, below.

All info and images via and Wikipedia.

Milestones in urban planning

Urban planning has undoubtedly evolved rapidly since the beginning of the 20th century. The Atlantic Cities wrote an article detailing the latest exhibit put on by SPUR (San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association) called “Grand Reductions: Ten diagrams that changed urban planning” which presents vital changes in urban planning through the use of 10 important diagrams.

The image above is Frank Lloyd Wright’s “Broadacre City,” a proposed urban development designed to give each landowner one acre of property on a 36 square mile parcel of land. The idea was first made public in 1932 during the rise of America’s shift towards suburbanization and sprawl. Wright’s idea would only have furthered the suburban problem that is currently being beaten down by the new-age urbanism of shared spaces and tight-knit communities in urban centers. As Broadacre City spaces neighbors out and focuses on land rather than community, an America modeled after this vision would leave citizens distant and isolated.

Hippodamus of Miletus of the 5th century BC is often regarded as the “father” of urban planning. From his wikipedia:

His plans of Greek cities were characterised by order and regularity in contrast to the more intricacy and confusion common to cities of that period, even Athens. He is seen as the originator of the idea that a town plan might formally embody and clarify a rational social order.

One can say that urban planning started with Hippodamus of Miletus, as he introduced orderly city planning which was the first to be truly planned. However, the SPUR exhibition begins its history of modern urban planning with Ebenezer Howard‘s garden city of 1903, seen below.

Ebenezer Howard designed the garden city at the turn of the 20th century in order to combat the polluted and overcrowded cities that made up a large part of urban life in his day. The idea was to have a 12,000 acre city with a population of 58,000 in the center with several smaller cities of 9,000 acres and populations of 32,000 connected by canals to the center city. Spreading everything out would reduce pollution and the entire “garden city” would be roughly 66,000 acres with a population of 250,000. The idea was adopted in the planning of two English towns, Letchworth and Welwyn, but neither worked quite as ideally as Howard’s plan, and both contributed to the problem of urban sprawl characterized by the first half of the 20th century.

This is an interesting concept introduced in New York City’s 1916 zoning laws. It basically says that skyscrapers in New York City must taper off as they get taller as to maximize the amount of sunlight the streets below receive. It’s a clever idea that more cities really should implement. Not only does it make the streets of NYC brighter and more lively, but it also results in what I consider to be a beautiful skyline as seen below.

The exhibition closes with the idea that planners are moving more towards environmental planning due to the ever-increasing global temperature. The focus of planning has shifted and planners are now more conscious of the environment and it can be seen in their work. The environment is a priority whereas it was hardly considered during the first part of the 20th century.

SPUR’s exhibition is open until February 28th, 2013 and is held at the SPUR Urban Center Gallery in San Francisco. It’s free so check it out!

All images and info via The Atlantic Cities and Wikipedia