What is the value of studying the history of urban development and planning

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Urban development and planning is an effort by public authority to guide the improvement of land. The interests of economic efficiency and common welfare have to be taken into consideration.

It could be said that planning has taken place for thousands of years, since the movement from temporary to permanent settlements, when buildings began to be related to territory.

Catal Hiiyiik 7000bc (in central Turkey) was one of the first large settlements (with a population of several thousand residents) to develop during the Neolithic revolution. The settlement was isolated, with no network of trade centres to trade with, no organisational structure to cope with increased numbers, limited societal development and a subsistence economy.

The emergence of urban civilisation saw an advance in technology. Uruk 3400 – 3100bc, one of the major cities of Mesopotamia, with a population of 10 000 saw the evolution of the wheel, for transport and pottery production; bronze smelting; writing to record transactions and the production of sun dried and baked bricks. Uruk, when excavated in the 1930s was found to have been enclosed by a wall, had a religious precinct and a port. Rectilinear forms could be found within Uruk and a series of courtyard homes made up the residential areas. These features show how the city of Uruk was thought out and ‘planned’.

In 1000bc Dorian Greeks invaded Greece and developed a series of city-states – Athens, Sparta and Corinth. These were quite modest affairs, which were arranged originally for defence, with walls and an acropolis. By 1500bc the city-states became increasingly sophisticated. Many changes occurred, including the use of the acropolis, from a defensive place to a religious precinct. A meeting place was created – the Agora, and other buildings soon followed, including the Bouleuterion, a council house for meetings; the Prytaneion, the town hall and the Stoa, a protective colonnade. The Greeks developed the Grid Iron Plan for towns and cities where the straight streets cross each other at right angles. Ancient Greece was used as a model for how European cities were planned.

Classical Rome saw the development of urban engineering. The use of the arch was a key feature in Roman architecture, which shows technological development. The Romans also developed water and sewerage systems, which were revolutionary for their day. The ‘cloaca maxima’ is a major sewer that is still used today. The city of Rome was not planned in its entirety and the grid plan was not used. Great engineering feats such as the coliseum, the aqueducts and the lavish facilities for sport and recreation show the wealth and resources of the city.

The history of planning has been studied in great depth since the Second World War. The study of planning has been dominated not by historians, but by planners, geographers and other urban scientists. These non-historians have written general surveys of planning history. They want to:

‘Reinforce the identity of the planning profession by establishing its historical pedigree.’ 1.

Study groups such as the Planning History Group (founded in 1974) help to stimulate and coordinate research, and raise standards. Studying the history of planning allows today’s planners to utilise other people’s knowledge. An example of this being the Romans who copied the styles of the Greeks. They adapted the features that they liked and interpreted them into their designs. The Greeks had the Agora, a meeting place, originally just a flat area at the foot of the acropolis. The Romans developed the idea of the Agora into the Forum, a much grander meeting place, which was an enclosed space.

Ideas can also be adapted to suit current trends and modern developments. The change in market towns is an example of this. Market towns once consisted of long thin plots of land – ‘burgage plots’, which had narrow fronts that faced the wide street of the town. The plots had workshops on the fronts, which opened onto the street. Gradually over time the plots of land became larger. Today farmer’s fields are extremely large in comparison. This is because of the move away from a subsistence economy to a profit making economy. The land therefore needs to be as productive as possible, so large fields give a higher yield than smaller fields. The development of machinery has also affected the field size. Large fields can be accessed by large machinery such as combine harvesters and tractors.

Studying the history of urban development and planning gives planners an insight into the past, which in turn can be interpreted and applied to present day.

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