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[Urban Planning] UPenn-Designing Cities 1: The past, present, and future of cities

Updated: Oct 11, 2020

While I wanted to feel what an actual university lecture would feel like, I came across this very helpful course on Coursera. It’s named “designing cities,” and is delivered by UPenn. After I read the introductory remarks, I immediately recognized that this was what I was looking for.

Week 1 was mainly a chronological summary of the development of cities. 

The lecture divided urban development into before, during, and after the industrial revolution. Unsurprisingly, the industrial revolution seemed to take importance on urban development as Jesus did on Christianity. 

Prior to the industrial revolution, cities were defined by four traits: walls, gridded structures, a public space, and a central axis. Klagenfelt of Austria, Rome, and the Monpazier of France were prominent examples of this characteristic. Impressively, this general rule holds true for different cultures as well. Xi-an, a city that was the prototype of all ancient Chinese cities, was built on a central axis that penetrates the central palace, 5*6 kilometer wall, 11 gates, and a gridded plan. 

Then, the industrial revolution began to facilitate trade and build various transportation, allowing a major change in the concept of time and distance. These alterations led to the expansion of cities and the intensification of city centers. Often this intensification of development led to social unrest, heavy traffic, and environmental problems. 

Nowadays, cities seem hugely different from the monotonous, overpopulated squalor of the industrial revolution. Ironically, it was the worldwide depression and world war two that caused such changes. Due to these factors, the evolution of cities were kept stagnant, creating an illusion of a stable urban pattern. Then, a central business district began to emerge. These single urban centers were often located in the central cities and had fashionable roads that connected them to the wealthiest suburbs. However, in the shades of the prosperous business districts were slums and industrial areas resided by the poor. Then, car ownership changed this all as people could reach farther and farther. Countryside regions began to develop as a result, and “edge cities”–new cities in the countryside–emerged. But when edge cities gathered too much population, they began to become dysfunctional, leading to the revival of old cities. 

In the future, work to connect new, edge cities with old cities will be finished. In fact, this effort is even underway, as this connection has already formed several “multi-city regions.” These multi-city regions already began to consolidate and is projected to be the living space of more than 125 million Americans (70 percent of the population) in the near future. 

But my prediction is quite the contrary. High-speed on-land transportation is rapidly developing, and such technology is becoming increasingly cheaper. Looking at car ownership, one can easily figure out that physical mobility of individuals have grown immensly compared to the past. Now, one does not have to live near one’s workplace, as commuting there has become such an easier choice. Such developments in transportation also allowed a development in logistics, where one can receive products that they have ordered via the internet in several days, or even less than a day in some parts of the world. Even more, the shared economy allows individuals, even in rural areas, to enjoy services that would otherwise have been unavailable. Previously, people moved to urban areas due to a lack of infrastructure and services. Shared economy and one-person services allow such conveniences to take place even in areas where big businesses do not come in. All of these hints that individuals no longer need to physically move to large cities. Then, it might be that population movements become relatively stagnated in the future. 

A question I had regarding the lecture was that I was unsure if this “intensification of development” was an actual concept. Firstly, it is unsure whether the problems manifested in major cities is an “intensification of development” or merely an outcome of bad city planning. A sudden shift in lifestyle due to the industrialization of cities did exacerbate various problems; yet, if they could be prevented by better city panning or adjustments, isn’t that a matter of bad city planning rather than an intensification of development?

But even if this intensification of development was inevitable and unpreventable, I am not sure why the intensification of development had to persist. If some cities become too densely overpopulated or unbearably concentrated, intuitive thinking tells us that it would lose visitors, residents, or investors. The rich would choose to live away from such slums, and industries would follow, leading to an overall redistribution. 

Update 1)

I could possibly think of two answers to my question:

1) The balancing-out process that I described could happen, but only when there was a reasonable difference between business centers and other districts. The urban development that took place in the industrial revolution period was so rapid and centralized that the gap between London and other cities was immense. Considering that a large population of London were those came for jobs or economic opportunities, London would be the only choice for them regardless of living conditions. 

2) Even if residents were to spread out, this process was slow or the impacts would have been nominal due to lack of transportation. Without the widespread use of automobiles or mass transit, the population movement wouldn’t have been great enough to cause a substantial change on urban growth. 


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