Traditional vs. Modern Urbanism: Part 1

Human social organization is intrinsically tied to urbanism. With cities playing such a vital role in so many people’s lives, the way we order and design our living spaces has a nearly immeasurable impact on the people who take up residence there. While the technologies at the disposal of urban planners have changed drastically over time, many innovative and creative solutions were implemented in order to deal with the general problems that all cities face.

Traditional urban planning had many different forms, but a few general principles were shared by most, if not all, civilizations. This series will look to contrast these principles with more modern practices and techniques. By doing so, I hope to demonstrate the benefits and superiority of traditional urban design compared to modern approaches.

For starters, I would highlight the contrasting methods between traditional and modern approaches to city blocks. The traditional urban design had to take into account the limited mobility of people during this time. In order to make up for this, city blocks were designed to be short in length to allow for more easy access to different establishments and buildings. Walking past a traditional city block would not be a long affair. To compensate for this lack of width, traditional buildings tended to increase their depth. Through these principles, people were able to access a wide range of buildings and businesses in a shorter distance, while balancing the space requirements needed for these establishments.

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Modern city blocks, on the other hand, differ greatly from this form of urban planning. In large part due to the increased mobility humans have access to, city blocks have grown larger over time, making alternative transportation methods to walking such as cars, buses, and trains necessary, or at least highly encouraged. As a result, modern urban centers have to accommodate train stations, bus stops, parking lots and garages, and roads/highways. All of this necessary infrastructure increases the scope of the modern city further, making pure pedestrian commuting more difficult by shifting the focus of city designs away from pedestrians and more towards the previously mentioned modes of transportation.

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Another major concept of traditional urban planning was the taking into account of the natural landscape and terrain, and finding ways to work it into the urban design. Due to the high costs of terraforming, and the lack of a need for it, traditional cities and towns integrated slopes, curves, and hills into their fold, adding a unique and particular character to each town.

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Thanks to the reduction in terraforming costs, modern cities are able to now reshape the terrain into the particular vision of the city planner in question. This leads to cities that are flatter, wider (urban sprawl), and break their natural framework, which takes its toll on the city’s character. There has also been a recent phenomenon affecting cities around the world where their design and architecture converge on a few established post-modernist forms. By using the terraforming capabilities that many nations now have at their disposal, it is easier than ever to build clone cities across the world.

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One of the major achievements of traditional urbanism, which modern urban planning fails to emulate, is the sense of community that arises from traditional design. The close-knit buildings, short city blocks, and unique character all serve to promote community interaction and contribute towards a sense of belonging amongst the members of the town or city. Modern cities, on the other hand, lack all of these characteristics to varying degrees. Their reliance on mass transit and automotive transportation, accompanied by the urban sprawl and increases in distance to points of potential interest for city dwellers helps to break down the cohesion of communities while failing to promote the creation and preservation of new ones. In part two of this series, I will focus on the architectural styles and construction materials employed in both styles, and the subsequent implications.

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