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5 Urbanists who changed our cities forever.

Updated: Jan 25, 2022

Our cities are our greatest achievements. They are our collective memories. They hold the proof of human civilisation's growth & advancements. They also hold our darkest secrets and the ills of our society.

''One can say that the city itself is the collective memory of its people, and like memory it is associated with objects and places. The city is the locus of the collective memory'' -Aldo Rossi

In last 100 years, our cities have gone through changes that have impacted every aspect of our lives. 'Ever growing cities' are now not some prophesy but an everyday reality. Cities like Mumbai and Hongkong have gone pass the the limit of no return or renewal. Let us revisit 5 figures of last 100 years who still remains most influential in our urban discourse and how we plan our cities.

1. Georges Haussmann

He may have just worked on the Urban renewal of Paris but his approach was so radical that there is a term called 'Haussmannization' used even today to discribe a brutal approach to city planning involving large scale demolition.

Georges-Eugène Haussmann, commonly known as Baron Haussmann, was a French official who was chosen by Emperor Napoleon III to carry out a massive urban renewal programme of new boulevards, parks and public works in Paris commonly referred to as Haussmann's renovation of Paris. Today, the beauty of Paris is a result of his ironfist approach where at the centre of his vison was the beautification of Paris as a city and not the people who were adversely impacted by his plan.

The Avenue de l'Opéra, one of the new boulevards created by Napoleon III and Haussmann. The new buildings on the boulevards were required to be all of the same height and same basic façade design, and all faced with cream-coloured stone, giving the city center its distinctive harmony.
''For his role in changing the Paris cityscape, Haussmann would acquire the nickname "the demolisher." He plowed over the ancient, winding streets of the city (the same narrow streets that had proved so useful to revolutionaries). In their place, he created broad straight boulevards that were impervious to the barricade—and, equally important, they could better accommodate the free movement of troops.

The avenues also allowed for the easy flow of commerce and so were a boon for business. Napoleon III had dreamed of a new imperial city whose very streets spoke of the glory of the French empire. Haussmann delivered.

As with nearly every urban renovation, a percentage of the population was displaced. Haussmann forced citizens from their homes as these buildings were torn down to make way for the clean lines of the new city. The wealthy were quickly accommodated. The new boulevards were lined with fashionable apartment houses. It was, as usual, the poor that really suffered.''

Parts from an Essay by Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker

An overview of Paris, centring on the Étoile area that Haussmann redesigned. Photograph: DigitalGlobe/Rex

How do we remember him? It's a curious question even today because the suffering that was brought to the people in order to make the city beautiful led to immense growth of Paris in subsequent years. His vison paved way for a city that is now beautiful and has ample of open spaces for the people.

What Haussmann did will always be a topic for debate in our urban discourse. Even today, in the name of 'Greater Good' cities around the world are going through stages of demolition. In this process even today people are adversely impacted.

2 . Ebenezer Howard

He is someone whose ideas changed the way cities are built forever. He may be known to have just given a theory of a utopian city called 'Garden City' but his theory was so alluring that the rich and influentials even today strive to create their own private neighbourhood based on his principles.

Sir Ebenezer Howard was an English urban planner and founder of the garden city movement, known for his publication To-Morrow: A Peaceful Path to Real Reform (1898), the description of a utopian city in which people live harmoniously together with nature. His concept was to have a city where one is surrounded by nature and open spaces. The idea does sound excellent, but in the long run it was proven to be extremely unsustainable.

The original Garden City concept by Ebenezer Howard, 1902

Letchworth Garden City & Welwyn Garden City near London were created on his philosophy of a ' Garden City' The issue with his philosophy was that it envisaged a city with a very low density.

Historically, a city had always been a place of high density & multi cultural population, That was something which gave character to the city!

Principally his ideology did not inspire many cities as a whole around the world, but it surely fuelled the concept of Suburbia. Suburban life was inspired by the garden city concept where one could live away from the hustling cities surrounded by nature. Houses had their own lawns and backyards. This led to a process of ever expanding cities with cancerous urban sprawl, which eventually proved unsustainable in every possible sense.

3 . Robert Moses

He is the nemesis of Jane Jacobs. The villain in her story. Someone who was immensely powerful that he single handedly influenced the development of all American cities!

Robert Moses was an American public official who worked mainly in the New York metropolitan area. He was an advocate of a city planning which focused more on highways and not on public transportation.

Robert Moses stands in front of the Manhattan skyline in 1956

He was considered a visionary during his times who could build great projects.

He was an infrastructure builder! He was responsible for large scales projects and highways. His great vision had city's infrastructure at the centre while the community was totally missing. Success of his projects in New York inspired planners and city managers all over the United States. Today, he may be remembered as someone who was ruthless enough for Jane Jacobs to speak up for the community.

An artist’s sketch from 1959 of the proposed Lower Manhattan Expressway, a 10-lane highway through SoHo and Little Italy that required the demolition of 416 buildings

He was self righteous and believed in his vison of city building . He totally disregarded the alternate point of view from the likes of Jane Jacobs. He even disregarded Jane’s book as Junk !

'' In 1961, Bennett Cerf, one of the founders of the publishing firm Random House, sent a copy of a new book by Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of American Cities, to the legendary city planner Robert Moses. Moses’s reply was curt:

''Dear Bennett, I am returning the book you sent me. Aside from the fact that it is intemperate and inaccurate, it is also libellous. I call your attention, for example, to page 131. Sell this junk to someone else.''

-Robert Moses

This was no ordinary demurral over a book’s merits. It was a salvo in a struggle between a man who had amassed vast bureaucratic powers and remade New York with expressways, parks and housing towers, and the woman who assembled neighbours and public opinion to stop him when he set his sights on the evisceration of a swath of lower Manhattan. ''

- Anthony Paletta, the-guardian Moses played with the idea of eternal development. The idea that city belongs to wide roadways and speeding cars and mega blocks. It was such an era that the United States criminalised pedestrians for walking on the roads freely!

4 . Jane Jacobs

She was neither a planner nor a designer. She was just a concerned citizen !

Jane Jacobs was a journalist who was vocal about Robert Moses's vision that the only salvation of cities was the large-scale destruction of their existing features (the dense city fabric of walkable, well knitted communities ) in order to create new infrastructure that the city needed.

Jane Jacobs at a press conference in Greenwich Village in 1961

On the other hand Jane was of the opinion that the future of the city must rest upon the preservation of its inherent features which were streets, community and density.

Jane was a keen observer of the urban life. She understood the value of streets and neighbourhood. She was aware that a well knitted community was socially very sustainable and safe . He explained it with a term called ‘Eyes on street‘

She asked and encouraged people to look out of their windows at the street, to be aware about their community, to be aware about what binds them together.

She was one of the voices who advocated the importance of a safe street in a community’s life.

It was the Washington Square Park project project by Moses which became the first point of conflict between two ideologies, Moses against Jane Jacobs. It was a 10 acre of green space which was anchoring the community but Moses wanted a 4 lane road through it's centre !

Jane who was living in the neighbourhood since 1930s clearly understood the value of the green space to the people.

As she was working for the prominent publication Architectural Forum, She rapidly took on the roles of both strategist and media and community liaison with the park’s committee which was organised to oppose the 4 lane highway from the centre. This was how Jane became an active voice of the community.

It is very discouraging to do our best to make the city more habitable and then to learn that the city is thinking up schemes to make it uninhabitable.” - Jane Jacobs wrote against the proposed expressway

Her most remarkable work was her book, 'The Death and Life of Great American Cities' Published in 1961. Even today it is one of the most essential readings in an Her writings influenced future generations of urbanists who brought back the focus on people in the planning process.

“There is a quality even meaner than outright ugliness or disorder, and this meaner quality is the dishonest mask of pretended order, achieved by ignoring or suppressing the real order that is struggling to exist and to be served.”

Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities

5 . Le Corbusier

He has to be there ! Perhaps the most influential designer of last 200 years !

He was someone whose ideologies shaped cities, shaped our buildings and also shaped our Design curriculums!

Charles-Édouard Jeanneret, known as Le Corbusier, was a Swiss-French architect, designer, painter, urban planner, writer, and one of the pioneers of what is now regarded as modern architecture.

A lot can be talked about him as a Modernist architect, but more than his architecture, his concept of urban planning which left a far reaching impact on our cities and the way we plan them.

Even today, planners and city managers indirectly uses concepts propagated by him and his team of fellow modernists. He was one of the most able voices of 20th century.

At the peak of Modernism, CIAM (Congrès International d'Architecture Moderne) under the leadership of Le Corbusier theorised the Modern city planning policies and implemented them across the globe.

The Athens Charter was a 1933 document about urban planning published by the Swiss architect Le Corbusier. This book became a reference book for planners around the world .

His planning of Chandigarh, a city in North India influenced generations of planners and designers of all the newly independent countries in Asia and Africa.

His idea that the land can be treated as 'Tabula Rasa' led to iconic building process which eventually proved to be lifeless and unsustainable.

Plan of Chandigarh, India

His theory of City as a Machine led to the ‘sector theory’ in which the city was divided into different land use zones.

This separated Homes from offices and schools from parks.

This, inevitably led to the excessive use of vehicles for urban transportation. His concepts have proven to be disastrous not just for the city and environment but also for people's social and cultural lives.

The city as a Machine

Our cities are forever a work in progress. As jane Jacobs puts it,

“Being human is itself difficult, and therefore all kinds of settlements (except dream cities) have problems. Big cities have difficulties in abundance, because they have people in abundance.”

- Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities

The early industrial world posed challenges which were different than what we are facing today.

Europian Wars (1914-18) and World War (1939-45) came with massive challenge of rebuilding cities all across Europe and parts of Asia.

Designers and Planners of these eras tried their best with their own convictions to cater to the need of their times.

In hindsight we may analyse their concepts and their theories to evaluate how relevant they are for today's times and challenges. We may also revisit them at regular intervals to understand what went wrong and how to cater to the challenges of our times !

If Le Corbusier had known about the climate change and the rapid reduction in world’s energy sources, would he come up with something like Athens Charter ? What he propagated was the solution of his times. The Joke is on our generation if we are using his principles to plan and manage our cities in 2022!

Tell us your views in comments. A Healthy discourse is the only way out of the gravest of all the challenges.

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Kanchana Sahu
Kanchana Sahu

Very Insightful. It is interesting how individuals driven by conviction and ideology can have a long lasting impact on our world

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