A short history of the city

Le Corbusier is responsible for many modern principles of Urban Planning. Image by The University of Florida.

You probably know that urban planning has been around for a long time, but did you know that many of our urban planning principles date back to Ancient Greece? Nearly every major city across the world can attribute their design, function, and beauty to generations of visionary urban planners. Architects, writers, and philosophers have worked to develop cities that function as thriving hubs of commerce while providing ample parks and greens space, woven together with the necessary infrastructure to support the population.  From “the earliest city planner,” Hippodamus of Miletus, through Le Corbusier, the inventor of “City Beautiful,” urban planners have shaped the environment of where we work, live and play.

The wide boulevards of Paris, the adapted grid system of Washington DC,  the majesty of the government buildings in London, and the green gardens dotting rooftops today in Manhattan can all be attributed to these pioneers of urban planning.  As cultural and societal needs have changed, the theories and practices of urban design have been adapted.  Today, the focus is on creating sustainable cities and metropolitan areas that foster a healthy living and working environment for all. Over the course of thousands of years, the urban planners highlighted below have learned from one another while adapting to growing urban populations and environmental concerns.

The first city planner – Hippodamus of Miletus

Hippodamus of Miletus, ancient Greek architect, mathematician, philosopher, and meteorologist, is credited with being the “Father” of urban planning. After centuries of war, destruction, and occupation of his homeland, the need to rebuild cities and surrounding areas was immense.  His vision was based on the division of cities into areas for public, private and sacred use. Today, with larger populations and transport needs, planners strive for mixed-use areas, rather than harsh divisions.

Miletus is responsible for devising the city planning grid system.  The broad boulevards intersecting at right angles and city centers of today can be directly attributed to his vision and structure implemented in the rebuilding of Ancient Greek cities.

Jaipur – The first planned city in India

English scientist, architect and mathematician, Sir Christopher Wren, is credited with designing many landmarks throughout London.  After the Great Fire of London in 1666, Wren designed 51 new churches, including the great architectural achievement, St. Paul’s Cathedral.  At the same time, a continent away, Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh II was designing the new capital of Jaipur India, the first planned city of India.  Singh’s vision for Jaipur was realized in the development of a modern commercial hub based on ancient Vedic architectural principles and practices. These principles support cosmic harmony through the orientations of buildings, dimensions, and other city planning essentials.

Skyscrapers and “City Beautiful” – From D.C. to Chandigarh

The adapted grid system of Washington DC was designed by President George Washington’s go-to city planner, Pierre Charles L’Enfant. A century later, Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. brought landscape architecture to the forefront of city planning and worked to develop the National Park Service.

Sir Ebenezer Howard developed Garden City practices in London England that incorporated residential properties, parks, shops, and other commercial buildings surrounded by agricultural land as described in his 1902 book “Garden Cities of Tomorrow.”  In Paris France, Baron Georges-Eugene Haussmann was widening Parisian streets to reduce congestion, while updating the city’s sewer and water systems and creating bountiful new parks.  Appointed by Napoleon III to modernize Paris, Baron Georges-Eugene Haussmann created the layout and design of Paris’ outlying districts while highlighting monuments including the Arc de Triomphe.

Charles-Edouard Jeanneret, also known as Le Corbusier, was a prominent architect, urban planner, and painter responsible for designing Chandigarh, India to include his “City Beautiful” layout.  His principles were based on adding green space and gardens, even in a city environment of raised multi-level structures.  Le Corbusier was instrumental in the rethinking and design of modernist architectural principles that incorporated battling the issues of inadequate urban housing for Chandigarh and beyond, influencing urban residential design and city planning the world over.

New challenges in the 21st century

From the pioneers of urban planning, we can learn how best to design cities for today, and for the future. We can admire their vision but also qualify where they fell short. Of course, 1000, 500 or even 200 years ago, these brilliant minds could not have projected the changes the world would face with the advent of automobiles, planes, trains and other technologies.

While these visionary urban planners developed cities that worked for their time, space and culture, today’s urban planners struggle with creating cities for expanding populations that will stand the test of time.

Just as Hippodamus’s focus was on the division of space, today mix-use planning is today’s standard for flexibility, efficiency and function.  Where L’Enfant’s adapted grid was designed for a population with carriages not automobiles or semi-trucks, we can still draw inspiration from his dream to create ordered, livable cities.

Following the leads of these planners, today’s generation is tasked with the development of sustainable communities.  Advanced infrastructure developments for water management, power usage, traffic mitigation, green building design, and management of harmful greenhouse gases, are just some of the dynamics of today’s metropolitan areas. As the populations of our cities continue to increase, the need for livable communities will continue to increase as well.


Want to learn more about the pioneers of Urban Planning? A neat infographic by the University of Florida is full of information.

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