Making Up Ground, Urban Design Movements of the Past Century

Posted on April 21, 2017

Last week we covered a brief history of urban design in the human experience and ended with the American examples of Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. These cities were modeled on the grid system and long sight lines characteristic of European renaissance and enlightenment design. Fast forward to the mid-19th century, I want to begin our discussion on the history of urban design movements in the United States by focusing on the 1857 design competition for Central Park in New York City. Credited with being the first landscaped public park in America, Central Park as an idea emerged from New Yorkers travelling to Paris’ Bois de Boulogne and London’s Hyde Park and desiring an equal public space to call their own. A public park would offer New Yorkers a tranquil setting to retire from bustling city life as well as an open space that would be an ideal respite from poor living conditions and the sickness and disease that accompanied.

In 1853 the state government authorized the City of New York to acquire more than 700 acres of land in the center of Manhattan. The geography of the site included swamps, rock outcroppings, and bluffs. To occupy this site it was required to displace approximately 1,600 poor residents, which included German immigrants, Irish pig farmers, and the Village of Seneca, an African-American settlement. In 1857 the Central Park Commission held the design contest and selected the “Greensward Plan,” submitted by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux.


Planning and urban design went through a major transition at the turn of the 20th century. The industrialized cities of the late 19th century had grown at a tremendous rate exacerbating the evils of urban life such as pollution, crime, and squalor. The laissez-faire style of government management of the economy was starting to give way to a new progressivism that advocated intervention on the part of the poor and disadvantaged. Around 1900, urban planning models were created to mitigate the negative consequences of the industrial revolution by providing citizens with healthier environments. To this end an urban design movement was created that would try to address these problems. It was called the Garden City Movement.

Garden City Movement

The Garden City Movement was initiated in 1898 by urban design theorist Ebenezer Howard. This movement received inspiration from earlier planned communities built by industrial philanthropists, such as George Pullman’s eponymous Pullman, Chicago. Garden cities were intended to be planned, self-contained communities surrounded by parks, containing proportionate and separate areas of residences, industry, and agriculture. The garden city would be self-sufficient and when it reached full population, another garden city would be developed nearby. Howard envisaged a cluster of several garden cities as satellites of a central city of 50,000 people, linked by road and rail. The first garden city was created at Letchworth, Hertfordshire, England. Howard published his book Garden Cities of To-morrow in 1898, commonly regarded as one of the most important books in the history of urban planning.

The City Beautiful Movement 

The beginnings of the City Beautiful Movement can be found in generally the middle and upper-middle class, whose concern was with the potential violence of those left in the cities, and sought to reform.  They wanted to solve the city problems by introducing moral and civic virtue into the urban population. The premise of the movement was the idea that beauty could be an effective social control device. Advocates of the philosophy believed that such beautification could promote harmony and increase the quality of life, while critics complained that the movement was overly concerned with aesthetics at the expense of social reform.

The footholds of this movement can be found in the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago.  The Director of Construction Daniel Burnham (who would later become one of history’s best known urban planners, as shown in his redesign of Chicago, 1909) brought in the American architect Louis Sullivan, who designed the Transportation building. The idea of a monumental core becomes a basic idea of the city beautiful movement, and typically has radiating axial tree lined boulevards, open spaces, and water elements moving out from its center.


In 1928 the International Congress of Modern Architecture was formed, and was the major think-tank of the Modern Movement (or International Style) in architecture and urbanism.  During the fourth congress, held in 1933, they created the “Athens Charter”, a document that adopted a functional conception of modern architecture and urban design. The Charter claimed that the problems faced by cities could be resolved by strict functional segregation, and the distribution of the population into tall apartment blocks at widely spaced intervals. Le Corbusier was one of the founding members, and it is his urban proposals that were the most influential of this period.

The scale of these apartment buildings was fifty meters high, and would accommodate 2,700 inhabitants.  These inhabitants would then have fourteen square meters of space per person (150 square feet).  The buildings would stand five meters off the ground, with the intent that left over space would be given back to nature. The resulting effect would allow for a large park weaving between the buildings.

An example of Modernism in the United States was the Pruitt-Igoe housing project. Originally built in St. Louis, Missouri, it is one of the prime examples of the modern urban movement. Designed in 1951, it consisted of 33 11-story apartment buildings on a 57 acre site, totaling 2,870 apartments, and was completed five years later. The project was commissioned as part of the post-WWII federal housing program, as an attempt to bring people back to the city, but within a few years it quickly fell into disrepair and disuse, heavily vandalized by its own residents.

The buildings remained largely vacant for years, and after several failed attempts to rehabilitate the area the St. Louis Housing Authority began demolition of the complex in 1972. Critics have cited the failure of Pruitt-Igoe as an example of how planned urban communities could fail. At the close of the 20th century, Le Corbusier’s idea of modern urban design was implemented throughout the world, with some designs that succeeded and some that failed, but whatever the case Le Corbusier’s design ideas radically changed the urban form as we know it today.

New Towns Movement

Ebenezer Howard’s urban planning concepts previously highlighted in the garden city movement were only adopted on a large scale after World War II. The damage brought on by the war provoked significant public interest in what post-war Britain would be like. Post-war rebuilding initiatives saw new plans drafted for London, which, for the first time, addressed the issue of de-centralization. Firstly, the County of London Plan 1943 recognized that displacement of population and employment was necessary if the city was to be rebuilt at a desirable density. Moreover, the Greater London Plan of 1944 went further by suggesting that over one million people would need to be displaced into a mixture of satellite suburbs, existing rural towns, and new towns.

In similar fashion, new towns were built in the United States from the mid-20th century onward to accommodate a growth in population. The United States was undergoing tremendous growth and baby boom and so it was this environment that fueled the creation of suburban garden cities and new towns. This construction effort was also combined with extensive federal government grants for improved and increased transportation and road construction and urban renewal projects.

New Urbanism Movement

By the late 1960s and early 1970s, many planners felt that modernism’s clean lines and lack of human scale drained vitality from the community, blaming them for high crime rates and social problems. Modernist planning fell into decline in the 1970s when the construction of cheap, uniform tower blocks ended. Since then many have been demolished and replaced by other housing types. During this period, New Urbanism was promoted as the return to the neo-traditional town.  New Urbanism’s principles, articulated in the Charter of the New Urbanism, were developed to offer alternatives to the sprawling, single-use, low-density patterns characteristic of the new towns movement.

New Urbanism is an approach for successfully reducing environmental impacts by altering the built environment to create and preserve smart cities that support sustainable transport. Residents in compact urban neighborhoods drive fewer miles and have significantly lower environmental impacts across a range of measures compared with those living in sprawling suburbs. New Urbanism is seen as anti-suburban of the present and looks more towards a dense, small, romantic, manageable village of the past.

As we note the multiple urban design movements of the past century, it is important to recognize the justification and utility of these movements during their period of use. Each movement was in some way a solution to a problem in the urban form. In this way we can see what choices were made to overcome those problems and analyze their effectiveness.

We can agree that creating suburbs and new towns following WWII successfully decentralized major urban centers but it also created a myriad of other problems that were then to be addressed by the following urban design movement.

With this thinking in mind, what types of problems in the urban form do you see today? What possible design solutions do you think could be implemented to solve them?

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