Introduction to City Design

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This book-length site, which consists of 34 chapters and about 325 pages, is intended as an aid to anyone interested in the design of cities, whether layman, student, or working professional. Through the use of illustrative cases, I have attempted to dissect city design, element by element.


I believe that much has been lost in the realm of city design, a feeling that had overcome Camillo Sitte more than a century ago. The situation became much worse during the 20th Century. It is for this reason that I have used only old images on this site. Except for a very few places that have not changed materially during the past century, I believe that virtually no modern urban area can claim to be as well designed as the best examples from a century ago. In fact, most ordinary scenes from 1900 are better than virtually all urban settings created since then.

It will come as no surprise to readers of Carfree Cities that I ascribe most of this deterioration to the decision to accommodate the automobile in the city. In fact, the influence of the automobile predates its actual appearance. By 1850 or so, urban designers were laying out streets that were much wider than had previously been the norm. This probably relates to the rapid growth of most cities during the 19th Century (supported by the railroad), and the large increase in the volume of horse-drawn local freight delivery that was required to support the larger populations.

I think a convincing case can be made that the complex (but not chaotic) order and form of the medieval city better meets fundamental human needs than the simple grid pattern that started to become common in the 18th Century (and had been popular with the Roman Empire). Applying grid is simply slavish devotion to a highly simplified mathematical form. Medieval cities developed gradually, in response to needs with which the local population was intimately familiar. With a heirarchical, rather than Cartesian, street arrangement, streets can lead naturally to the center of any given area. In the past, this was usually the central square, where the market, the city hall, and the cathedral were all usually to be found.

The large increase in the velocity of urbanization that came at the start of the industrial revolution probably made it impossible to continue urban development in the manner that had usually been observed until then, which was simply to look at what had been done and decide what to do next. At this point, paper plans began to replace field decisions, with devastating consequences.

Fortunately, recent work by Christopher Alexander (A New Theory of Urban Design) and others should allow us to recapture urban design basded on direct responses to the local environment, rather than the application of an abstract and simplistic grid form that can never be responsive to either the local environment or to individual neighborhoods. Alexander's approach, based mainly on the use of maquettes (and readily extensible to 3-D virtual reality walk-throughs), should allow us to recapture a great deal that has been lost. Because a great deal of effort is necessary to conduct design at the intricate level that this approach demands, it will be necessary to involve citizens in the design of their own urban spaces. Alexander has shown that, with a minimum of guidance from experienced professionals, ordinary people can design spaces that work well for them. I believe that the end of top-down urban planning has arrived, and good riddance. The results have been dreadful.

I need to say that this site is about urban design, not about urban planning. Urban design is a subset of urban planning, concerned with the direct arrangement of the physical space. Urban planning must consider other important issues, including demographics, ecology, water supply, sewage treatment, transport, energy supply, and so forth. Urban design deals with what we can see; urban planning is effort undertaken to assure that the entire city actually functions once built.

Some Background

This work is, of course, based on the works of others, in particular Camillo Sitte and Christopher Alexander.

This draft will not be updated. The material has become the basis for Part 3 of the forthcoming Carfree Design Handbook and has undergone massive revision during the course of its adaptation to book form.

While the chapters have been organized on the basis of the various elements that go into city design, I have taken the opportunity to discuss issues that are nicely illustrated by the photograph on a page but not directly relevant to the topic at hand. This seemed a logical approach that spared the reader a hundred pages.

When first viewing a page, please pay attention to your immediate reaction to the scene. Then try to understand what it is that evokes the feeling. Many of these things are very subtle, and in most cases there are many forces at play. It is only by studying examples of what works and what does not the we can learn how to develop prime urban spaces. (This is a skill that we are going to have to recover - it seems nearly lost today, but was once common, as we shall see.)

How to Use This Site

Web sites shouldn't need instructions, but this one breaks some rules and requires a brief explanation.

Images are cached - you will get the best performance if you wait until the thumbnail image has finished loading before clicking through to the next page.

System Requirements

The minimums for reasonable results are:
  • 800 x 600 screen resolution
  • 56 kb/sec connection speed

Internet Explorer works best. If you hide the location bar (F11 toggles on and off), then the key sequence:

    Tab, Enter
takes you to the next page without using the mouse (except for a few pages with in-line links, which require an extra Tab).

Go to the Thumbnail Index to view thumbnail images for each chapter. From the thumbnail pages, individual images can be retrieved simply by clicking on the thumbnail. Use your browser's Back button to return to the thumbnail page. Those with a need to view all 325 thumbnails at once should send mail.

About the Images

All of the images are taken from old postcards, the bulk of them from the period 1897 to about 1920, with a few cards from the 1920s and 1930s. I do not believe that any of the photographs were taken in the post-war era. All images have been rendered in false color, to eliminate the distraction that would have arisen from the variety of original colors. Purists will object, but I think it was necessary. I do not believe that any of these images is protected by copyright, but I cannot guarantee this. I used only postcards that carried no copyright notice. I believe that at the time these images were published, a copyright notice and filing were required to secure protection. I place my scan interpretations of these images in the public domain, but anyone making further use of the scans assumes responsibility for any underlying copyright.

I hope you will find this a beautiful, interesting, and useful resource.

Acknowledgments would like to thank those who have contributed to making and improving this site.

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Text copyright ©2001 J.Crawford