Kinds of Urban Forms
Cities are loud. They are crowded. Parking is expensive. So, why do so many love them? Regardless of your personal feelings, urban centers have been of tremendous importance throughout world history. Urban spaces are products of pure human innovation, reflecting the unique human ability to transform landscapes to increase our chances of survival, happiness, and comfort. But what matters isn’t just that we embark on this transformation; it’s how we carry it out. The physical patterns, layouts, and structures that make up an urban center are collectively called the urban form. As the most basic canvas upon which settled human societies are built, urban forms are critical to both our daily lives right now and our interpretations of past cultures.
Before we delve into our brief history of urban forms, let’s talk a little more about the term. Urban forms are ever changing, adapting with every new building, park, sidewalk, road, or gate that’s erected. As urban forms develop and change, we can identify two major variations. An organic urban form is one that develops without centralized planning. Nobody tells people where to put houses, or which way the city gate should face. In contrast, a planned urban form is designed and coordinated. The ways that urban centers grow, whether in organic or planned ways, can tell us a lot about the attitudes, beliefs, lifestyles, and influences of people who live there.
Origins of Urban Form
Our story begins up to 12,000 years ago during a period called the Neolithic Revolution. This period saw the earliest experiments with agriculture. Agriculture allowed people to stay in one place throughout the year and build permanent structures.
As people settled down, they developed the first urban societies. We assume that most of these arose organically, but it did not take people long to develop planned urban centers. The first true cities developed in the Middle East between 4500 and 3500 BCE and were very carefully organized. Many cities were enclosed within walls, with formal entrances and defined places for markets, temples, and royal homes.
Advanced City Planning
As cities grew larger and larger, many tried even harder to plan out the shapes, forms, and compositions of their urban spaces. Ancient Greece and China both developed the practice of dividing cities into uniform blocks or municipal units. This was often used to try to control the behaviors of citizens. Some parts of town could only be used for specific economic, religious, or leisure activities. Often, neighborhoods were built only for people of certain levels of education, wealth, or power. By doing this, the city became a more controlled space.
The ancient Greeks and Romans both put so much effort into their city planning that certain urban forms almost became synonymous with their civilizations. The Romans in particular established routine urban forms. This was very important to them. Whenever they expanded their empire and tried to bring Roman society into a new area, they did so first and foremost by building a Roman-style city.
Medieval Urban Forms
After the fall of Rome, European societies of the medieval period gave up on formal urban planning. New cities had more organic forms, with people building and adding to the cities as needed. This gave many cities a jumbled but natural feel as space was used in practical ways.
By the rise of the Renaissance in the 15th century, patterned urban forms once again became popular. Cities of the time were growing, and architects attempted to find ways to bring order to the organic forms of previous centuries. Many European cities today are defined by a mixture of patterned and organic spaces that overlap and connect again and again. Of course, as this was happening in Europe, colonists to other places took these ideas with them. Both patterned and organic urban forms found their ways into the colonies of the Americas.
After the Industrial Revolution
The next major period of growth for cities came with the Industrial Revolution of both the 18th and 19th centuries. The introduction of industrial technologies added a new element to traditional urban forms: factories. Factories separated people into classes of owners and workers, and helped keep these two groups separated.
From the 19th through 20th centuries, urban forms reflected many changing social patterns, particularly in the United States. At some periods, people flocked to the cities. At other times, the majority retreated to the suburbs, developing a new form of urban space there. Around the world, our urban centers continue to change along with our lifestyles and ideas, and for as long as we can tolerate the city, it will keep on moving with us.
Urban spaces are important parts of human societies and histories. As purely constructed places, the physical shapes and components of urban centers can tell us a lot about people. Collectively, we call the physical patterns, layouts, and structures of an urban center its urban form. Sometimes urban spaces are organic, formed without centralized planning and developing as needs dictate. Organic urban forms appeared in the first settled communities, after the fall of Rome, as well as at several points in between. However, many cities are also planned. Planned urban forms were very important to the ancient Greeks and Romans, as well as to the people of the Renaissance and Industrial Revolution. Throughout history and across the world, our cities have been pretty important. Even if the parking is expensive.
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