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Today’s cities didn’t just appear out of thin air; the needs of modern people with modern technology couldn’t be met by following the same design principles that informed the development of cities throughout most of human history. This necessitated the creation of a new field called urban planning, and ever since the 19th century this has informed the layout and infrastructure of every major population center across the world. It’s a mixture of art and science, and of psychology and economics. It continues to be an essential part of the modern world, and its importance will only increase during the 21st century.
Beautiful People or Beautiful Cities?
With the advent of running water and electricity it became important to design infrastructure that provided a sound mix of safety and convenience. Waste needed to be removed from cities without contaminating the drinking water, and houses needed to be placed in a way that didn’t put them downwind of coal plants and other major sources of pollution. It’s for this reason that aesthetics took a backseat to more practical concerns, but it remained on the minds of architects simply because people don’t care to inhabit ugly cities.
When the need for planning became apparent in the late 1800s Harvard opened a school dedicated to landscaping and architecture. This resulted in a swathe of brilliant professionals who were eager to tackle the problems presented by a newly mechanized world. They were the ones who had to figure out how to make space for cars and people when personal automobiles were brought to the market. They were the ones who came up with stopgap measures when the horse manure crisis hit in 1894. It’s because of them and because of Harvard that urban planning is a field, and the things they did over a hundred years ago still inform city planning today.
The Garden City Movement
Sir Ebenezer Howard had a vision for cities surrounded by parks and residential areas located on 6,000 acre plots of land. He considered it a path toward progress that would elevate the whole of mankind to a better existence free from the levels of poverty and sickness that had physically and financially crippled so many families in the past. Two cities were built based on this concept, and it was widely used in England following World War II.
Modernism and Sustainability
In the 1920s most cities were designed around efficacy and efficiency at the cost of everything else. This resulted in the creation of massive skyscrapers and featureless square buildings that stood in place of the colorful architecture that existed prior to that era. Critics felt that modernism removed all the character from cities and that it played a hand in destroying communities and raising the crime rate, but it’s impossible to say how much of a correlation there actually was.
Today the major push is toward sustainable infrastructure. That includes structuring cities so that it’s easy to walk from place to place or find public transit, and restructuring the power grid so that cities are no longer powered by pollutants like coal. These efforts appear to be quite promising, and in many ways the sustainable city is a refinement of Ebenezer Howard’s garden cities. It remains to be seen what the ultimate outcome will be.
Heidi Novak writes for urban planning blogs. If you’re interested in pursuing a job in this field, check out urban planning degrees offered at schools such as University of Florida and New York University.
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