A Brief History of Urban Planning • Daily Journal of Commerce

Cities are great, but why is planning them so important? A brief look at history tells us why.

Cities (well, villages initially) emerged 7,000 to 10,000 years ago in Mesopotamia and elsewhere from the need to exchange goods and allow people to interact frequently due to the emergence of agriculture (as opposed to hunting and gathering). This same imperative for commerce and communication is why cities have become the engine of most human progress to date; it will continue to drive the evolution of civilization worldwide into the future. It is by creating this ability to interact that will come the innovative solutions to the problems we face today.

But why can’t it happen on its own? Good question; there are clearly many examples of large urban places that have not been ‘planned’. However, even before there was a profession of urban planning, in recent centuries humans have increasingly recognized the difficulty of creating healthy, efficient, prosperous and, yes, beautiful urban places without much foresight. .

Crowded street in Philadelphia in the 1800s. Photo courtesy of the National Archives

This realization, and the ensuing efforts, have produced many of the large spaces of European cities and others around the world that we admire so much. In this country, the planning profession was essentially born in Chicago within the framework of the Beautiful City Movementmost fully expressed in Chicago World’s Fair of 1893. By the late 1800s, leaders in many growing urban areas realized something had to change. Their cities were places of wealth and energy – but also extremely inefficient and unhealthy places to live and work, not to mention recreation. While the fair gave an interesting glimpse of what a city of the future could become, it only lasted a few months. But it sowed the seed for those who wanted to create a better future for their urban places.

A crowded Chicago street in the 1800s. Photo courtesy of the Chicago Historical Society

1893 Chicago World’s Fair. Photo courtesy of Boston Public Library