Principles and practices of urban planning: Part 1 colonial planning

Colonial plans made significant contributions to urban planning and design.

“Principles and Practice of Urban Planning” is the “Big Green Book” that almost every planner has seen, used and read in planning school. Many planning professionals probably have a copy on their bookshelf. I have a fourth edition copy published in 1968. The book may be 49 years-old, but a significant amount of the content is still very relevant. This book provides historical and foundational knowledge regarding planning, zoning and urban design concepts that can still be found in master plans, zoning codes, and planning documents today. The information in this book helps us to understand the history and evolution of urban planning and design.

Many of the principals and practices have evolved over time and may not be practiced anymore, but the information in this book provides a comprehensive historical overview regarding how people who planned and designed cities were thinking. Part one of the book, titled “The Context of Urban Planning,” provides information on how urban planning was initiated and has since evolved.  The book also provides an overview of the development of Williamsburg, Pennsylvania and the influence the city’s design has had on other American cities.  The Philadelphia Plan case study states:

“The major features of the Philadelphia plan were: (1) a girdiron street system, (2) a system of open spaces, and (3) uniform spacing and setbacks for the buildings. The plan created for Philadelphia in 1682 is important for its influence on other American cities. The gird-iron is a major type of street system and continues to dominate the American townscape. Philadelphia was widely copied as towns sprang up in the west. 

“Williamsburg was by no means an isolated example of urban planning in the colonies. It was not even the first attempt to lay out a major city. Seventeen years prior to the time, Francis Nicolson, the governor of Virginia, undertook the planning of his capital. Although William Penn was unable to accompany the first’s settlers in 1681, he gave explicit instructions to his representatives about selecting the site and drawing the city plan. After the site between the Delaware and Schuykill rivers had been selected, the surveyor general began to layout the town. Penn himself arrived in October 1682, and contributed to the final plan. Colonial plans made significant contributions to urban design. Examples include the reservation of open space, the differentiation of major and minor streets, and the emphasis on foci of community life.”

Both larger and smaller towns, city planning and design in the east, and in the west used the gridiron design as people moved to claim land and design towns and communities.

Savannah, Georgia also used the gridiron plan that incorporated open space. The gridiron design was used to control what they felt was formless sprawl. Savannah design their gridiron layout using a unit of development called a ward, which consisted of 40 house lots. The book states:

“James Oglethrope’s plan for Savannah, Georgia was a gridiron-with-open-space plan, which was considered the most successful example of town planning in colonial America because Savannah’s growth was guided until 1856 by its basic plan of 1733. The unit for development was a ward of 40 house lots. Each ward bounded major streets 75 feet wide, and contained an interior square. One side of the square was reserved for public uses, such as churches or places of assembly. The wards were what contemporary planners would call neighborhood units. They “provided not only an unusually attractive, convenient, and intimate environment but also served as a practical device for allowing urban expansion without formless sprawl.” The plantation system kept the South largely rural, and Savannah never rivaled Philadelphia or New York as a base for westward migration. This seems to be reason why the plan had little impact elsewhere.”

These are two examples of colonial planning described in the “Principles and Practices of Urban Planning” book. There are many more historical examples of how cities were developed in both rural and urban American. In conclusion, the book states that “town planning was widely practiced in the colonies from the “Laws of the Indies,” the Spanish city planning legislation of 1573, until the Revolution. By 1800, there was widespread interest in planning and extensive planning experience to draw upon”.         

Those in Michigan State University Extension that focus on land use provide various training programs on planning and zoning, which are available to be presented in your county. Contact your local land use coordinator for more information.

Related articles in this series:

Can urban and rural communities be successful without collaboration? - History of planning Part 2

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