Urban Planning Essay

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Urban planning is generally an interactive process that produces land use plans that provide guidance to the implementation of urban development. The process includes the following: (1) the conceptualization of a place that is under development pressure, (2) the consideration of whether the alternative types of growth patterns are feasible, (3) the specification of a set of systems related to development, and (4) the recommendation of a set of standards intended to result in a functional and/or aesthetically pleasing urban pattern. The planning process often involves a large time frame, sometimes decades. The space under consideration may range from an undeveloped parcel of land up to an entire metropolitan area covering thousands of square miles.

While it is difficult to define and quantify precise numbers, in the early 21st century it can be stated that the majority of earth’s residents are urban, not rural. Urban residents live in central cities and their related suburbs. Their construction is the result of many levels of planning, including the individual or family who plans to build a house on a residential lot using a blueprint. Urban planning refers to a larger scale, which considers the overall spatial pattern of urban areas, and the anticipation of how a population of individuals will socially interact.

There are a number of elements involved in urban planning, which are sometimes but not always coordinated. For example, transportation urban planning seeks to add roads to accommodate more traffic or improve traffic flow. Alternatively, a light rail line might be designed so that rail cars can attract riders, which can reduce the level of road traffic. Subdivision planners will take a parcel of land and design the location of houses, buildings, and roads. Public service planners might forecast the need for and the location of new schools, firehouses, and police stations. Overall, a land use plan might be devised where different types of permitted land uses are identified as a set of zones on a map.

While planning of new cities has been occurring for thousands of years, contemporary urban planning was influenced by several individuals. First, Ebenezer Howard (1850-1928) promoted his idea of “Garden Cities,” which were designed to reduce the negative social and environmental impacts of emerging industrial cities in places like England and the northeastern United States. Garden cities sought to combine the city with the country at a density lower than the observed cities at that time, but higher than the rural areas engaged in primary resource production such as agriculture. While no development matches the garden city blueprint, thousands of places worldwide have garden city design elements and essentially suburban population densities.

A few decades later, Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959) promoted his idea of a “Broadacre City.” This plan incorporated the decentralization processes inherent in emerging transportation and communications technologies, and proposed a decentralized urban form where each residential lot was about an acre in size. Commercial land uses occur in small clusters, and the system is tied together with a large network of highways and arterial roads. While no development matches the broadacre city blueprint, thousands of places around the world have broadacre city design elements and essentially exurban population densities.

Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs

The interaction between transportation and urban development played out notably in a series of disputes between Robert Moses (1888-1981), a New York City planner who promoted large-scale highway construction and high-rise public housing projects, and Jane Jacobs (1916-2006), a writer and observer of urban processes. Jacobs observed that high-density, irregular urban neighborhoods with a high level of pedestrian activity and interaction were diverse and innovative places. She critiqued the sterility of large public works projects, which encouraged urban exodus into sprawling suburbs and fragmented exurbs. Jacobs was on the winning side of preventing highway construction in Manhattan in the early 1960s. Some of Jacobs’s ideas have found their way into new urbanism, with its elements of mixed land use and pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods.

Current and future urban planning may be focused on three areas: Core central cities through selected redevelopment or gentrification of decayed neighborhoods, sprawling suburbs through the rezoning of developments to have mixed uses with closer proximity of work and residence, and fragmented exurbs through the clustering of lots and the retention of common area open space. Examples of all three development types can be found in numerous locations around the earth, and viewed from space using satellite photography.


  1. Peter Calthorpe and William Fulton, The Regional City: Planning for the End of Sprawl (Island Press, 2001);
  2. Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities (Random House, 1961);
  3. David Rusk, Inside Game, Outside Game: Winning Strategies for Saving Urban America (Brookings Institution Press, 1999);
  4. Stephen V. Ward, ed., The Garden City: Past, Present and Future (E & FN Spon, 1992);
  5. Frank Lloyd Wright, “Broadacre City: A New Community Plan,” in Legates, ed., The City Reader (Routledge, 1996).

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