Turning Points in Urban Development of Cities

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This essay tries a new approach to describing the historic urban development of cities by looking at key turning points in their development.

In this moment we are discussing ways to initiate a turnaround in mobility patterns, in energy provision and in urban development in general. It is considered that these turnarounds will significantely change the shape and look of cities worldwide in future.

It may therefore be interesting to identify key turning points in the historic urban development of different cities in Europe and later on in other parts of the world and analize specific circumstances, actors and their intentions. These turnarounds will in most cases have manifested themselves in the urban fabric of those cities which we can still see today – when carefully ‚reading‘ their shape.

Physical Development of Cities

There have been various ways describing the development of cities. The Mapping of the physical development of urban areas has quite some history starting in the United States in the 30ies with studies like The Structure and Growth of Residential Neighborhoods in American Cities by Homer Hoyt of 1939 in which the author analyzes the Form of City Growth in various American Cities.

Chicago 1857 – 1936, Source: Internet Archive



A very new example of comparing the physical expansion of different cities in a uniform manner is The Age of Megacities project by ESRI the leading producer of Geographic Information Systems (ArcGIS). So far the ESRI StoryMaps Team has mapped the expansion of most of the major cities in the world from 1900 to present days in 5 intervals, e.g. for Paris:

  Paris 1900 – 1928 – 1955 – 1979      © https://www.arcgis.com

For individual cities mapping their physical expansion can be found in different formats from various sources, e.g. for Barcelona, Beijing,London, New York, Paris, Rome and Tokyo.

20 years ago we produced a series of maps showing Munich’s expansion over the last centuries:

    1300                                    1650                                    1858                                   2000


You find more information on the physical expansion of cities on this site.

These studies yield very useful data and information on the physical development of cities – most of them in a schematic form, using unified timespans – and show phases of acceleration and stagnation and allow comparison of different city shapes. They are however not very helpful to show distinct phases of urban development, unless further explanation is added. I will come back to these studies further down.

Urban Typology in History

Lewis Mumford’s book The City in History: Its Origins, Its Transformations, and Its Prospects, of 1968 is still the most thorough and informative source of information on the major stages of urban development in the US and in Europe. He describes the development of cites from earliest group habitats to medieval towns to the modern centers of commerce by exploring the respective factors which shape the urban form. It is however interesting that Mumford does not exemplify his descriptions with maps of respective cities except for Amsterdam’s record of organic planning.

Ben Wilson in his book METROPOLIS – A History of the City, Humankind’s Greatest Invention of 2020 takes us on a grand tour of thousands of years and more than two dozen cities examining their rise and fall. Wilson sees the city as an organism that shapes the creatures living inside. He is „more interested in the connective tissue of cities that binds the organism together“. Taking individual cities as representatives of specific urban typology regarding city shape and city live he describes groups and networks of metropolises shaping the different historical epochs. Being a classical historian Wilson abstains from using maps in his narrative.

Timelines of Urban Development

Another approach tries to describe urban development and town planning in a timeline starting from ancient urban centers to cities of modern times. A concise example is the Global History of Urban Design (Zeitstrahl-Geschichte-des-Städtebaus) by Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule Zürich.

Wikipedia suggests that the history of the city runs parallel to the history of urban planning as planning is in evidence at some of the earliest known urban sites. Both Wikipedia sites are therefore helpful in tracing the history of towns and cities across the globe.

The City of Munich as a Start

In the menu on the left you find the cities we have worked on so far. The cities are sorted in alphabetical order but we recommend to start with Munich because it is there that we developed the concept for this essay.

From Munich to the Rest of the World

Starting from Munich to embrace the whole world seemed to be quite a challenge. So we engaged Chat GTP to give us some guidance: we asked what are the (key) turning points in urban development of cities worldwide? and got this answer:

„The urban development of cities worldwide has been shaped by a number of key turning points throughout history. These turning points have played a significant role in shaping the way cities are designed, planned, and inhabited today.

One of the earliest turning points in the urban development of cities was the rise of the ancient cities of Mesopotamia, such as Ur and Uruk. These cities were built around centralized systems of government and religious institutions, and were characterized by the use of large, monumental architecture and a grid-like street plan. The development of these ancient cities laid the foundation for many of the urban design principles used in cities today.

Another key turning point in the urban development of cities was the Industrial Revolution. The Industrial Revolution brought about a shift from agrarian societies to industrial societies, and led to the growth of large, sprawling cities. The rise of the factory system led to the creation of new types of neighborhoods and housing, such as the tenement and the worker’s cottage. The development of new transportation systems, such as the railway and the streetcar, also played a major role in shaping the urban landscape of cities during this time.

The 20th century saw a number of important turning points in the urban development of cities. One of the most significant was the rise of the skyscraper, which allowed cities to expand vertically, rather than horizontally. The skyscraper also led to the development of the modern office building, which greatly increased the density of office space in cities. The rise of the automobile also had a significant impact on the urban development of cities, as it led to the development of new types of transportation infrastructure and the creation of new suburbs.

The post-World War II era also saw a number of important turning points in the urban development of cities. One of the most significant was the rise of the modernist movement, which advocated for the creation of functional, rational cities. This movement led to the development of large-scale housing projects and the creation of new types of public spaces, such as the pedestrian mall. The rise of the environmental movement also played a major role in shaping the urban development of cities, as it led to the creation of new types of green spaces and the development of new sustainable design principles.“ [highlighted passages by GG]

With this ‚guidance‘ we started to adress neighboring cities of which we knew that their development had been shaped by significant turning points – see menu on the left. The list of cities will be complemented in due time.