An Ideal City?

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Town Planning

The practice of town planning is much older than the modern profession. And its desired effects have grown. The aims of planning have varied – to create grandeur, to promote empire and to instil civic pride. This page traces the emergence of these ideals. It leads to pages about planning styles, movements and what planners do today.

Unplanned, organic cities

Humans have built towns and cities for thousands of years. A cluster of huts, a camp by a river, a citadel on a commanding height – numerous places like these have grown organically into permanent settlements. With streets and housing following the contours of the land, many of these organic cities were charming. Others were overcrowded and unsanitary, failing to provide enough sunlight or fresh air. Some made poor use of their sites or outgrew them.

Origins of town planning

Alongside organic communities, planned cities and towns have also existed from ancient times. Often, they followed a simple grid laid over the landscape, with houses placed side by side along straight streets. In the Renaissance (15th century), rulers of city-states aimed to achieve grand effects, with bold geometry and large public areas. In the Baroque era (17th century), this tendency grew and monumental architectural and landscape ensembles were designed and built. Examples include Louis XIV’s Palace of Versailles (17th century) and Pierre L’Enfant’s plan for Washington DC (18th century).

Plans imposed on colonial lands

Towns and cities in the Australian colonies and other 19th-century British colonies were often planned in distant London. The Colonial Office produced plans to be imposed on the land, regardless of how well (or badly) they suited a site.

Planning to instil pride

Creating beauty in towns and cities to inspire civic pride was also a feature of 19th-century park and city plans. Parks and recreational spaces were set aside for citizens’ leisure. An example is New York’s Central Park, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux.

Reforms for industry and society

Town plans also took on broader social ideals in the 1800s in response to the industrial revolution. Workers in factory towns lived in crowded slums with poor drainage and little access to light and air. Social reformers in England proposed solutions ranging from public health improvements to utopian communities. Some factory owners built model towns for their workers, to improve their wellbeing and productivity.

Town planning – the profession

By the early 20th century, town planning was developing as a profession in its own right. Several schools of thought about civic design became influential. They included the Garden City and City Beautiful movements, and the modern revival of historic place-making associated with Viennese planner Camillo Sitte.



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