“Town planning” defines, among other things, the character and dimensions of streets, sidewalks and medians, the location and frontages of civic parks, squares and courts, the heights and frontages of buildings, the location and nature of civic buildings, the structure of multi-modal transit, the character and location of street furniture, lighting, materials and signage, as well as the expression of gateways, both perceived and actual, to a community. Modernist town planning was ushered in post-WWII and has since proven to be a failed experiment. Traditional town planning - the design philosophy behind Historic Districts - has continued to be practiced, and has recently made a great resurgence in the form of the New Urbanist movement.


Le Corbusier's image for the ideal city....

In the 1920's and 1930's, Modernist architects and city planners were calling for radical changes in cities worldwide. This famous example of urban renewal by Le Corbusier called for major demolition in the center of Paris, replacing the traditional fabric of the city with vast tower-block housing and expansive auto-corridors.

Video length, 2:10.



In the 1920's and 1930's, Traditional architects, artists and other lay-people were rediscovering the charm and ordered complexity of the traditional towns and cities and began to make moves to protect those places from the radical changes that were being proposed by the Modernists.

Left: Cover page of 1918 edition, and Right: Two Kids Dancing by Helen Levitt

Left: Cover page of 1918 edition, and Right: Two Kids Dancing by Helen Levitt

1960's Modernist Town Planning in the UK

Video length, 6:35. 


1960's Modernist Town Planning in New York

This documentary on New York is worth watching in its entirety, particularly episode 7.  This clip introduces city planner Robert Moses, his philosophy and his impact on the city of New York. 

Video length, 18:15.


Effect on Historic Districts

Our Historic Districts still bear the scars from Modernist planning and design decisions in the forms of cross-town expressways, over-sized parking lots, one-way streets, single-method transportation structures, and euclidian zoning ordinances. Becoming less frequent today, still it is not uncommon to hear of the beautiful, well-built buildings that were demolished to make way for community-deadening, block-sized parking lots. Other communities were entirely demolished by crosstown expressways, such as this one in Charleston, SC:

1960's Traditional Town Planning in New York

Click to expand.

Helen Levitt

Helen Levitt

To generate exuberant diversity in a city's streets and districts, four conditions are indispensable:

  • The district, and indeed as many of its internal parts as possible, must serve more than one primary function; preferably more than two. These must ensure the presence of people who go outdoors on different schedules and are in the place for different purposes, but who are able to use many facilities in common.  (Mixed Use)
  • Most blocks must be short; that is, streets and opportunities to turn corners must be frequent.
  • The district must mingle buildings that vary in age and condition, including a good proportion of old ones so that they vary in the economic yield they must produce. This mingling must be fairly close-grained.
  • There must be a sufficiently dense concentration of people for whatever purposes they may be there for. This includes dense concentration in the case of people who are there because of residence.

The necessity for these four conditions is the most important point this book has to make. In combination, these conditions create effective economic tools of use.

- Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities

Video length, 13:40.





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When our towns and cities are uncomfortable to live in, they become viewed as commercial or entertainment districts for their surrounding suburbs. Vast arterial road systems connect zones of home, to zones of retail, to zones of entertainment, to zones of schools. The vast amount of land required for such a system is incapable of being serviced by public transportation, and so nowhere is accessible without each individual arriving by car, requiring even vaster amounts of space allocated for parking. This Modernist model for urbanism is socially isolating, and environmentally and economically unsustainable.


When towns and cities have comfortable densities and mixes of use, a citizen's daily needs can be met in a 10 minute walk. In this way, towns and cities are able to accommodate more people of varying income levels. The automobile becomes not a burden but a tool for occasional use, and the street becomes a gathering place for the citizens rather than a traffic-filled artery to "anywhere but here." This traditional model for towns and cities allows more of the hinterlands to remain as open land, preserved for environmental, agricultural and recreational purposes.

No response to human scale. 

The race of the "starchitect" to the tallest building, and the continued implementation of large-scale sprawling developments are two examples of Modernist town planning today. The rendering above shows a new take on the old theme of towers in a park, but the social, economic and environmental problems remain the same.

Environmental destruction for little gain.

Leon Krier represents the traditional town as the combination of the monumental buildings of a city and the supporting fabric of streets and blocks. Most buildings in a city need to be fabric, or contributing background buildings, that are mixed in use, and help form the network of public space otherwise known as the street.

The contemporary philosophy of Traditional Urbanism is called New Urbanism and in the US is lead by the Congress for the New Urbanism. In 1993 the CNU was founded by, "a group of enthusiastic architects looking to codify the thought behind their previous work in creating long-lasting and better-performing neighborhoods. Working against the conventional, predominant sprawl-oriented dogma of the post-WWII period, the group had worked for years to create buildings, neighborhoods, and regions that provide a high quality of life for all residents, while respecting the natural environment."  

 What is the Congress for the New Urbanism?


For more information please see the Town Planning section of our Recommended Readings page.