Market-based Urban Planning – History

By Jan Tichy In the last post, I was trying […]

By Jan Tichy

In the last post, I was trying to introduce the area of urban planning and problems it brings. These problems are quite self-evident nowadays, and in the recent history we have a good knowledge of. This applies mainly to the second half of the 20th century. You might ask, what was the origin of an urban and land planning. I will focus on it today.

Planning of settlements is even older than the mankind. All species do implement some strategy into their nests. But this is not a biology class. People began to build real organized settlements in the Neolithic era and were very common in the Bronze Age. Throughout these periods, settlements were built clearly to protect people from wild animals. So that is no urban planning either. Some urban planning begins to appear in Mesopotamia or Egypt, but that still is not it. First organized settlements were Greek and Roman orthogonal towns, again, mostly planned to suit military purposes. Medieval era was mainly a total decline in the planning of towns (not just in this, right?). Today, we see medieval spontaneously organized towns as mostly good places to live. From the urbanism point of view, of course, not hygiene etc.

The Renaissance was a completely new era, bridging Middle Ages and modern history. Science erupted and people began to study everything. Philosophy, theology, medicine, natural sciences and much more was now understood by people, at least a bit. The Renaissance also came with something unprecedented. Man itself began to be important. And because people thought it was possible to describe anything by science, they started describing “ideal towns”. What was the output, you can see on Palma Nuova in Italy – not a good settlement at all. Then came the Baroque, in which towns were nothing more than well-organized military fortresses. Not many sustained till today, but see Neuf Brisach in France.

Even through the Classicism, nothing really changed and even in the mid-19th century, cities were mostly planned to suit military purposes, not people. That is Paris for example. The real new approach began in the 19th century, with new industrial and technical era. This is the first time, the planners took a look on what are the needs and desires of people. Yes, nobody until the 19th century even thought about the people. In this era, most of “Utopias” are designed. We can see very advanced approach towards the planning. Underground railways, underground garbage disposal, and streets clear for people and local traffic. Actually, these cities were too much advanced for this era and besides “Utopias”, real cities were mostly grid-planned, with large new residential areas established. This was caused mainly by the industrial boom and so needed urbanization.

Brand new approach to urban areas was brought by the Functionalism. Architects and planners now described what are the functions of cities and tried to organize it. Main functions were residential, industrial and leisure (including services.) In functionalist cities, all areas are single-functional and are separated by transport infrastructure. Functionalist approach spread all over the Europe. This was caused by residential crisis after World War II and enormous need for new housing. And this crisis is also the point where government’s started to plan in an unprecedented scale. It is the reason why functionalist residential areas cover very extensive plots of land, not using it very economically. Brazilians came so far, they built a completely new city – Brasilia. There probably is not a better example of functionalist urbanism, but you can see it’s work in all eastern European residential areas of the 70’s and 80’s.

A new era of socialism brought huge governmental involvement in urban development. And it remains until today. Unfortunately, this is not only eastern European case, this applies to all Europe. And the governmental involvement is so efficient, that we consider it absolutely self-evident. Good government protecting us from bad developers.

I told you a bit about the history of urban planning. As you can see, it is thousands of years old. But such huge influence of central planning we can see now is unprecedented. Why was it possible to do it mostly spontaneously for thousands of years but not for the last 50 years? Do we need central planned urban planning? Do we even need urban planning at all? I will tell you this in my next post. If you are interested, try to think about the relationship between the development of human settlements and the development of political and economic culture, there is much more in common you might even think.


The views expressed on austriancenter.com are not necessarily those of the Austrian Economics Center.

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