Notes on City Planning

City Planning

Dictionary of American History | 2003 | COPYRIGHT 2003 The Gale Group Inc.

CITY PLANNING

CITY PLANNING. Communities in the United States have planned their development since the early European settlements. City planning has been a profession since the early twentieth century. Its development has been marked by an ongoing contrast or tension between “open-ended” plans intended to encourage and accommodate growth and the less common “closed” plans for towns serving specific limited populations, such as religious utopias, company towns, and exclusive suburbs.

Colonial Squares

The first towns on the Atlantic coast, such as Jamestown, Boston, and New Amsterdam, grew by accretion, rather than systematic design. Yet conscious town planning appeared as early as 1638 with New Haven, Connecticut. Nine large squares were arranged in rows of three, with the central square serving as the town common or green. This tree-shaded community park, preserved as part of the Yale University campus, became a distinctive feature of many colonial New England town plans.

In contrast to the open green of New England towns, the architectural square characterized the courthouse towns of Virginia, which had a smaller green square closely surrounded by private residences, shops, courthouse, and often churches. Versions of these Chesapeake and New England plans reappeared in the nineteenth century as the courthouse square or town square in new communities west of the Appalachians.

William Penn’s and Thomas Holme’s plan for Philadelphia, laid out in 1682, was a systematic application of the gridiron pattern, with regular blocks and straight streets crossing at right angles. Four public greens, in addition to a central square to serve as a civic center, sought to make Philadelphia a “green country town.” Extended from the Delaware to the Schuylkill River, the plan also gave the new settlement room for future growth.

Spanish settlements on the northern frontier of Mexico were guided by the Laws of the Indies (1573), a royal proclamation that prescribed the layout of new towns. The essential elements were a central square within a grid and public institutions situated around the square. The influence of Spanish rectilinear planning could be seen in frontier towns such as Santa Fe, San Antonio, and Los Angeles. Similar planning principles were apparent in the layout of the eighteenth-century French colonial city of New Orleans.

Baroque Influences

New capital cities in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries began to show the influence of European baroque plans, such as Christopher Wren’s plan for rebuilding London after the fire of 1666. Such plans incorporated axes, radials, diagonals, and squares. The plan for Annapolis, Maryland, prepared by Francis Nicholson in 1694, was the first to incorporate diagonal avenues and circles. Williamsburg, Virginia’s, major axis, cross axis, and squares reflected many renaissance European plans for cities and parks, designed for displaying palaces and public buildings. Savannah’s plan, prepared by James Oglethorpe in 1733, was similar to Philadelphia’s gridiron pattern, but with a more liberal introduction of residential squares.

The climax of such plans was Pierre L’Enfant’s design for the new federal city of Washington in 1791. Working on a grand scale, L’Enfant identified high points for the presidential residence and houses of Congress, and inter-laced the landscape with broad diagonal boulevards and circles. Derided as “city of magnificent distances,” Washington took a century to grow into its framework.

Gridded for Growth: The Nineteenth Century

Philadelphia and New York set the standard for nineteenth-century planning. New York’s maze of early streets was first extended by several gridded subdivisions and then, in 1811, by the decision to plat the entire island of Manhattan with a rectilinear set of north-south avenues and east-west streets. The plan converted every piece of ground into an instantly identifiable piece of real estate. Philadelphia’s grid, also capable of repeated expansion, set the tone for many Middle Western cities, which even copied its custom of naming streets after trees.

Rectilinear town plans west of the Appalachians had the same function as the national land survey system. Grids gave every lot and parcel a set of coordinates and made it possible to trade real estate at a distance. Town promoters staked out grids at promising locations in the Ohio, Mississippi, and Missouri river valleys, in the Gulf States, and along the Great Lakes; they then waited for residents to pour in. Rival promoters often laid out competing grids that abutted but did not coincide, leaving sets of odd-angled corners in downtown Milwaukee, Denver, Seattle, and other cities.

Midcontinent railways with federal land grants made town planning into an integral part of railroad building. The Illinois Central Railroad in the 1850s developed a standard plan and laid out dozens of towns along its route. Later railroads did the same across the broad prairies of Minnesota, the Dakotas, and points west.

Closed Communities

The standard gridded town was designed to be open to all potential residents and investors. Other communities, however, were planned for specified populations. Over the course of the nineteenth century, dozens of secular and religious utopias dotted the American landscape. They were usually located in rural and frontier districts and sometimes were self-consciously designed to promote equality or isolation. By far the most successful were the Mormon settlements of Utah. Building and then abandoning the city of Nauvoo, Illinois, because of fierce local opposition, the Mormons moved to Utah in 1847. Salt Lake City and smaller Mormon towns built throughout the territory in the 1850s and 1860s adapted the rectilinear plan to the scale of the Wasatch mountains to the west and laid out large blocks with large lots for in-town agriculture, reflecting Mormon beliefs in self-sufficiency.

The nineteenth century also brought new factory towns. The best tried to offer a good physical environment for their workers, while still reproducing the social hierarchy of industrial capitalism. Lowell, Massachusetts, was a notable early example, a town developed in the 1820s and 1830s to utilize waterpower for a new textile industry. Factory buildings were flanked by dormitories for unmarried female workers and then by single family housing for other workers and managers.

The entire town of Pullman, Illinois, was planned and constructed for Pullman Company employees in the 1880s. It attracted favorable attention for its carefully planned layout of public buildings, parks, and substantial homes whose different sizes reflected the status of managers and workers. A bitter strike in 1894 demonstrated the difficulties of combining the roles of employer and landlord, while trying to preserve a sense of community. The collapse of the Pullman experiment discouraged further efforts to build fully owned company towns. Instead, corporations that needed to house large numbers of workers in the early twentieth century laid out new communities and then sold the land to private owners and builders, as in Gary, Indiana; Kingsport, Tennessee; and Longview, Washington.

Suburban Planning

Cities grew both upward and outward in the second half of the nineteenth century. Tall buildings, products of steel construction and the elevator, turned the old low-rise downtown into central business districts with concentrations of office buildings, department stores, theaters, and banks. Improvements in urban mass transit fed workers and customers to the new downtowns and allowed rapid

fringe expansion along the main transportation routes. The new neighborhoods ranged from tracts of small “workingmen’s cottages” and cheap row housing to elegantly landscaped “dormitory” suburbs for the upper crust.

The most common form of development was the “streetcar suburbs.” These were usually subdivisions laid out as extensions of the city grid. The developer sold lots to individual owners or small builders. These neighborhoods were often protected by restrictive covenants in deeds that set minimum house values, prohibited commercial activities, and excluded African Americans or Asians. The U.S. Supreme Court declared such covenants unenforceable in Shelley v. Kramer (1948).

Romantic suburbs drew on the developing tradition of park planning associated with Frederick Law Olmsted, designer of Central Park (Manhattan), Prospect Park (Brooklyn, New York), Mount Royal Park (Montreal), and many others. Olmsted saw parks as a way to incorporate access to nature within the large city and therefore preferred large landscaped preserves to small playgrounds. Parks functioned as “the lungs of the city” and gave the urban population access to nature.

The development that established the model for the suburbs was Riverside, outside Chicago. Designed by Olmsted in 1869, it offered large lots, curving streets, park space, and a commercial core around a commuter rail station. The exclusive residential development or suburb, with tasteful provision of retail facilities, schools, and churches, flourished in the late nineteenth century (for example, Chestnut Hill and the “Main Line” suburbs of Philadelphia) and the early twentieth century (for example, Shaker Heights near Cleveland, Mariemont near Cincinnati, and the Country Club District of Kansas City).

In the early twentieth century, Britain’s Ebenezer Howard had a substantial influence on suburban planning. Howard’s ideas for a self-contained “garden city” as an alternative to overcrowded London inspired Forest Hills Gardens, built in New York City in 1913 by the Russell Sage Foundation as a demonstration community, and several federally sponsored communities for defense workers during World War I in cities such as Camden, New Jersey, and Newport News, Virginia.

In 1927, Henry Wright and Clarence Stein planned America’s first garden city, Radburn, New Jersey, the “Town for the Motor Age.” The plan utilized superblocks, a large residential planning unit free from vehicular encroachment, providing uninterrupted pedestrian access from every building to a large recreation area within the center and pedestrian underpasses at major arteries. During the depression of the 1930s the Resettlement Administration applied the planning principles of Radburn to the design of three new “greenbelt” towns—Greenhills near Cincinnati, Greendale near Milwaukee, and Greenbelt, Maryland, near Washington, D.C.

 

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