Turning Points in Urban Development of Cities


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.

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

The essay starts with looking at the urban development of the City of Munich – not because Munich is considered the most important city in the world (although some of my fellow citizens may think so) – but because the author has spent some time over the last 50 years in describing and visualizing her development. Some of it is noted on this website: http://www.mucstep.de

While preparing an exhibition on the urban development of Munich since her foundation in 1158 we have identified quite a number of turning points but amongst those one evolved as the most important one distinguishing her from other cities.

This turning point happened around the year 1800 when three very diverse driving forces came together:

  • the construction of a park – the English Garden – from 1789 / 1807,
  • the demolition of the fortifications of the city – from 1795,
  • the establishment of the Kingdom of Bavaria as a result of the Bavarian elector allying with Emperor Napoleon – 1806.

These forces opened the opportunity for the bavarian kings to build a New Royal Munich.

The New Munich

The painter Heinrich Adam brought this very well to the point in his series of pictures by 1839. In the painting The New Munich of 1839 he shows places and buildings caming into being under the reigns of the first two kings Max-Joseph I. and Ludwig I. :

  • the Max-Joseph-Platz (Max-Joseph-Square) among with the Opera, the so-called Königsbau (Royal Building) as the new face of the residence towards the square and a new main post office,
  • Ludwigstraße with University and Ludwigskirche,
  • Königsplatz with Glyptothek and the Pinakothek.

Adam painted The Old Munich in the same manner with the landmarks of the city from the past six centuries:

  • the Schrannenplatz / Marienplatz,
  • the churches of the old town and
  • the medieval city gates.

The transformation of the city of Munich was carried out by the Elector Karl-Theodor and  three bavarian Kings: Max-Joseph I., Ludwig I. and Maximilian II. over a period of very short 60 years. If we compare the city map of 1803 with that of 1865 one can very well see the scope of the transformation:

Munich 1803

Munich 1844/65

The following map highlights the major urbanistic elements of the transformation:

  • the Englisch Garden
  • the Maxvorstadt with Karolinenplatz, Königsplatz and Exhibition Buildings Glyptothek and Pinakotheken
  • Ludwigstraße
  • Maximilianstraße with Maximilianäum

Munich 1844/65 with highlighted urban projects

Munich 1806 – overlay on todays city layout

Munich 1844/65 – overlay on todays city layout

View both maps as animated GIF.

The bavarian rulers as the city lords of Munich accomplished in a belated absolut venture a farreaching transformation of the urban space setting the pace for the further development of the city.

Athough Munich had been badly damaged in airstrikes at the end of World War II all elements of the transformation in the first half of the 19th century can be seen today.

© google maps

More information on Munich’s transformation at the beginning of the 19th century can be found on this page.

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: