To quote the verses of the “master builder” Robert Moses“Those who can, build. Those who can’t, criticize.” 

As a technique, town planning has existed for as long as towns have and bold modern ideas have always influenced the make-up of urban centres. From garden cities to psychogeography, technology has had a vivid effect on how townships appear.

Earliest layouts of towns and cities focused on significant buildings (say monuments) and fortification (say city walls) or deeper into history, natural resources (say rivers). But as urbanization pushed up, townships saw the need for more efficient inclusion of ‘planned’ dwellings. Here’s how we track the progress of urban townships.

Plans from the past

The Nolli Map

The earliest trace of techniques is “The Nolli Map” by Architect Giambattista Nolli in 1748, which established the commonly used practice of drawing entire varsity of the city from a point above them, without a single focal point, a concept used till date. Nolli dared to depict a city in relation with positive and voided masses constituting a theory of flow, availability and accessibility of space in a city. Known as ground figure drawing, this map gave Rome its present-day shape, 250 years ago!

The shaded areas stood for positive spaces which were private spaces, white areas defined voids or public spaces like streets and piazzas, with a special highlight of streets connecting religious places across the city.

The Garden City

With industrialization at full boom, when towns began crowding with industrial bases, factories and processing units Architect Ebenezer Howard proposed the “Garden City” in 1903 as an alternative that housed approximately 32,000 inmates and provided the best of city and country dwelling by using vast open spaces. This is where the concept of ‘outskirts’ and ‘green belt’ emerges from. To deal with urban crowd explosion, this idea sought to place smaller yet intricately planned communities on outskirts of the main city which would be around concentric circles, a centrally located park and a greenbelt. The greenbelt was simply a revolutionary concept at that time.

The Setback Principle

As cities saw the predomination and increase in skyscrapers 1916, specifically the United States, planners vested their interest from layouts of just streets to the volume of buildings and towers as they rose, a concept suggested by Architect Hugg Ferriss. This principle, specifically used for streets 50’-100’ wide came to be known as “The Setback Principle”. Owing to the boisterous pace of growth in skyscrapers, cities had started becoming dull and claustrophobic. This meant the entire city had to be zoned in relation to the height and volume of towers. As suggested by the name, buildings literally had to take a step back from streets to allow sunlight when more floors were to be added – a magnificent strategy of urban town planning to harmonize height and life. 

The Radiant City

Still troubled by pollution and ever-growing population, Architect Le Corbusier enhanced the vision of Howard but rather than building out, he suggested building up. He called the masterstroke “The Radiant City” of 1952 and also designed the modern era urban renewal town projects. That’s when high-density residential projects became a thing, incorporating lifestyle with symmetry. Often described as ‘living machine’, the houses in the city would be organized into a Cartesian grid containing skyscrapers and vast greenlands, something that stood the test of time. La Cité Radieuse in Marseille is a classic manifestation of his theory.

Psycho Geography

It was only when Architect Kevin Lynch thought the ideal township must include the vision of actual people who lived there, the idea of “Psycho Geography” came into light in 1960. It took away the emphasis from top-down planning by designers to bottom-up planning by dwellers. The city should be designed through the eyes of and based on the behaviour of the actual residents. It was observed that cities were not just mere roofs over heads but also a medium of environmental awareness, connection, recreation and playfulness. This marked the beginning of the merger of architecture and art, and since then we see visually delightful forms of architecture.

The Mega region

Next in the league was the convergence of transportation, environment and at whole, economy. This necessitated linking multiple regions rather than just communities, or cities. That’s when Architect Jean Gottamn proposed the “The Mega region”. Until 1961 now cities were considered for planned growth, individually. But now, all these cities had to function as a connected unit on the global front. This required interlinking routes of locomotion and communication. 

The Transect – present

In 2000, much of modern-day urban planning was actually born. Architect Andres Duany graded this rural to urban setup between nature and dense urban zones. “The Transect” explains the division of landscapes into natural, rural, suburban, general urban, urban centre, urban core and special districts. Interestingly, this is also the origin of the sharp gap between urban and suburban zones, better known as ‘the missing middle’. In contrast to the single-family homes and mid-rise housing, the missing middle consisted of duplex, triplex, fourplex, courtyard apartment, bungalow, townhouse and multiplex. Revenue strategic zones were concentrated in the city centre. This form of township isn’t just a trophy idea but also the most efficient method to save on extravagant infrastructure expenses. 

What’s next?

Under the dominance of high-end technology, we wouldn’t be surprised if ‘bytes’ replace ‘bricks’. By the virtue of IoT (internet of things), smart cities is the next stop. Smart cities would function on a basic fundamental of integrating technology and communication where 5G would act as a medium for hybrid intelligence solutions for transportation of data to make a city ‘smart’. The ecosystem would be driven by data and entire operations of a city would be carried out by information from each of its element, including people, vehicles, environmental agents and so on.

The goal remains flawless living because inefficiencies, if any, would be a child’s play to track and beat. Every bit of information you ever require will be available in your hand. We might also never have to drive again, for autonomous vehicles will be the biggest turner, coordinating with other vehicles and surroundings, all by itself. Real-time data collection might make zero-emission and clean energy a real thing, where energy would be collected, monitored and transmitted based on requirement. Smart infrastructure also promises to detect and prevent airborne and waterborne illnesses in public spaces.

Another perspective: The Broadacre City

In 1932, Architect Frank Lloyd Wright envisaged a utopia where each family in the suburbia would live on an acre of their own. He upgraded the rural geometry and harmonized the density of the entire country, thereby introducing to the world “Broadacre city”. Although initially dismissed and not actually realized, his ideas are now thought to be an architect’s best ever move. But is the world really ready for Wright’s utopia? 

Wright visualized a modern city, low density minus the urban fabric. The city was carefully gridded with ‘minimum houses’, space for recreation and 1 or 2 skyscrapers, much like any present-day suburb. To quote critics, what he actually created was but an ‘anti-city’. The city he conceptualized was to release people from overcrowded, success-ideal, non-democratic setups, made possible with mobilization, communication and scientific discovery. His idea of accommodating traffic and population was seen in his railroads model – lower deck for slow traffic, upper lane for speedy, and in between a spontaneous monorail. He reasoned that electronic connectivity would make office downtowns debatable.

Essential services would be put into structures of utility, than boastful. Work at home for any profession would cut down human wear and tear, and professions would run on a personalized, small scale, everything ‘little’-factories, farms and schools. Standard mass production would make luxuries into cheap commodities feasible for all, and that’s how the standard of living would rise. He ultimately claimed domestic architecture style or what he called ‘Usonian’.But could it become a reality today? Could Usonian homes with minimalistic spaces, where each family lives with complete connectivity, physically and electronically and a small professional practise of its own to earn and total harmony really exist?


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