Making Up Ground, History and Urban Design in Early American Cities

Posted on April 13, 2017

Making Up Ground is a series written by Harrison Wicks which focuses on urban design history, theory, and implementation in American cities over the past century.

As we begin the journey to understand urban design and the American experience, we must acknowledge all that exists today is in part due to what came before. That is to say urban design in American cities does not stand alone, but is connected to the urban form that has evolved across time, location, and perspective. Thousands of years of urban dwelling has led humanity through urban forms both rudimentary and majestic and so I believe it is important to identify these shifts in trends.

Early Cities (10,000 – 3,500 BC)

Planning in early villages was a result of distributing power among social institutions (council of elders, lineages, etc.). A village was small, with homes situated together for sociability and defense, and the surrounding land was farmed. One of the most common shapes for the village was a circle.

Greek Cities

There are generally two types of Greek Cities, the metropolis and the colonial city. The idea for these two types of cities was that movement toward colonial cities occurred when the metropolis became too crowded. Depending on geographical location, cities were built on a structured, pre-planned grid. Cities had a central area, known as an acropolis, which was located on an elevation and acted as a natural fortification. Hippodamus was the first known city planner to introduce an orderly gridiron plan for building colonial Greek towns.

Roman Legion Towns

These towns were fortifications that were built as the Roman Empire expanded its borders. Typically built in a rectangle or square, the town utilized a grid system with two cross streets running east and west and two cross streets running north and south. At or near the street intersection was the forum while smaller secondary streets completed the grid structure and formed blocks.

Medieval Cities

A large number of medieval cities grew out of the surviving physical organization of an existing town. The population was diminishing and so the urban structure began to break down and change. Medieval cities are characterized by haphazard development with large structures competing for space with little setback from small twisting roads that do not use a grid system.


This period is known for the use of three main foundations for design: primary straight streets, gridiron-based districts, and enclosed urban spaces. One of the key tools that influenced the urban design of the Renaissance was the introduction of perspective. This allowed streets to resemble a stage set, with buildings designed to enhance sight lines and make them longer while diffusing the clustered view of previous medieval streets.

Colonial North America

Following the Renaissance, the Age of Enlightenment was a time when North America was settled by groups of immigrants from Western Europe. The location and structure of the settlements varied depending on the background of the founding communities. In all cases, the settlers brought with them knowledge of European urban design.


Philadelphia was designed on a rectilinear street grid in 1682; one of the first cities in North America to use a grid system.  At the urging of city founder William Penn, surveyor Thomas Holme designed a system of wide streets intersecting at right angles between the Schuylkill River to the west and Delaware River to the east, including five squares of dedicated parkland. Penn advertised this orderly design as a safeguard against overcrowding, fire, and disease.

Washington, D.C. was planned by French-American architect Pierre Charles L’Enfant in 1791. Under the L’Enfant plan, the original District of Columbia was developed using a grid plan that is interrupted by diagonal avenues, most famously Pennsylvania Avenue. These avenues are characteristic of the baroque urban period during the Renaissance that encouraged long sight lines and continuous facades.

As we can see from the two examples above, urban design concepts and trends from Europe made their way to North America with the early immigrants. And from those design ideas we can see a straight line of development and evolution going all the way back to early cities. Making this connection is necessary to tell the story of urban design in American cities but it is not the complete story. Urban design is equal parts historical precedent and a prevailing essence of the current time. Urban design movements that have come and gone over the years highlight this inclination to change well and will be covered in future series posts.

Urban design is about making connections between people and places, movement and urban form, nature and the built fabric.

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