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Big Data Cities Before Planning

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Cities Before Planning

Yuqi Zhang

University of Waterloo


        Cities existed thousands of years before formal planning came out. By reviewing the history, evidence of informal city planning will be found and it is valuable for today’s city planning. This essay is going to answer three questions: How cities developed before formal planning, what were the problems because of the absence of formal planning and what can we learn from city planning history by looking at cities from antiquity to Industrial Revolution Period.

Development of Large Urban Settlements before Formal Planning

        People took a long time to explore ways of organizing and developing their cities before formal planning from ancient time to Industrial Revolution in 18th century. By looking at those evolutions of cities chronologically, the evolution of power structure will be found, and ideas and value will be revealed.

Ancient Time

        Water and military were two key sources to control cities in ancient time (Filion, 2018). On one hand, in order to support and manage the irrigation system, government was first appeared and cities were first developed. On the other hand, in order to feed the army who aimed to protect the city, resources were centralized. With these two sources, governments as well as cities developed gradually, which contributed to some form of planning. The Roman Empire was a great example of informal planned cities in ancient time, in which evidence of water system and military could be found. Rome was able to become a big city because it had the capacity to build a clean water system from the mountain nearby and a separated swage system to keep its people healthy (Filion, 2018). What is more, cities of Roman Empire reflected the power of religion by its city layouts. Cities were organized in a grid fashion, with a forum in the middle. Great temples and public buildings were able to be found in cities (Filion, 2018). All these elements were used for rulers to control settlements by religious thoughts (Zhiqiang & Dehua, 2010).

Medieval Period

        Different from ancient cities, cities in Medieval Period were organized on a smaller scale in a more organic way. However, the power of religion was still strong. Huge pyramids, palaces and cathedrals were built by religion to show the power of super nature. Religion was every aspect of life in that period (Filion, 2018).

        The society in Medieval period was hierarchical and feudal. Subtenants holding smaller units of land were in return for service to their masters, who again were in return for service to their king (Norman, 2005). Evidence of the hierarchical world could be found in city organization too. Walls and doors of cities were strictly controlled. Different classes of people live in different environments.

Renaissance City

        There were huge progress on science and philosophy during Renaissance Period. On one hand, people discovered the universe and this changed their views to the world. Great inventions were created. Scientific means were applied to manage economics and society. On the other hand, philosophy challenged the legitimacy of royal rule and made the whole society be treated as a social contract. Democracy came out first. These would definitely affect the way of city developing.

        Cities in that period emphasized the vista and perspective, which became more sophisticated comparing to that of Medieval Period (Filion, 2018). Also, grand avenues, squares, large palaces and symmetrical buildings could be found in Renaissance cities (Filion, 2018). These conveyed a message of consolidation of king power. Kingdoms could control cities rather than religion. Those improvements achieved at that time contributed to the security of territory and increased surplus of production.

Industrial Revolution

        City planning in Industrial Revolution was motivated by people’s intention to improve their cities and their living conditions. It became a part of reform agenda of governments in industrial era which led to the formal planning later on (Filion, 2018).

        In 18th century, some great inventions such as paddlewheels and steam engines were invented, allowing people to work more efficiently. High-efficiency fuel, coal, was used in industry. Land was enclosed by fences and peasants were no longer allowed to use. All these three factors mentioned above, together with British Empire’s function as huge market in Europe, led to the Industrial Revolution (Filion, 2018). Great population began to transfer from rural areas to cities where industry located and where production happened, which led to a rapid urbanization. However, problems came with urbanization too. People lived and worked in a really bad condition; the environment was destroyed by human behaviors; diseases were spread all over the cities. By realizing these problems, people began to seek solutions, which formed the formal planning later on. Standards of housing were made in order to guarantee enough sunshine, green space and good ventilation condition.


        By looking at the informal city planning history from antiquity to Industrial Revolution, a transfer of power and a change of value can be found. Power changed from religion to kingdom and people tend to pursue science rather than beliefs.  Therefore, the objectives of city planning changed accordingly.

Problems of City without Formal Planning

        Although people always practiced planning their cities before formal planning and they surely made some achievements, there were still a lot of problems because of absence of the formal planning.

Poor Living Conditions

        People often lived under poor conditions. In Bruges, a city in Medieval Period, walls and doors of cities were strictly controlled (Filion 2018). So there was a clear distinction between city and surrounding. In this situation, often poor people lived outside the wall. Therefore it was vulnerable to attack. Also, there was no green space, which made the living conditions even worse. In other medieval cities, houses were laid out tightly. Therefore it was noisy and not private for people to do their everyday activities (Bednarski, 2018).

        The situation turned worse in Industrial Revolution time. Streets were narrow and it was crowded in cities. Houses were laid out side by side too (Filion, 2018). As a result, it could not be guaranteed that each house had fresh air and  adequate windows to let sunshine in.

Bad Sanitation

        In Medieval cities, sanitation was deficient. There were garbage and excrement on the streets (Richard, 1997) and it was extremely smelly. During Industrial Revolution, workers lived not only in dirty and crowded places but with poor sanitation surroundings as well. Rivers around cities, which were sources of cities’ drinking water, were polluted by industrial production and domestic garbage (Darby, 1978). These problems all came from the absence of formal and systematic city planning.



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