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.