Like a sizable majority of its philosophical belief systems and its educational principles, much of the urban planning in the United States is essentially rooted in the kind of design principles that were first developed by the Ancient Greeks between the years 500 and 300 BCE. Indeed, much of what we think of when it comes to “urban planning” as a field was actually first conceived of by a single Ancient Greek polymath called Hippodamus of Miletus.
Living at the height of the classical Greek “Golden Age” during the fourth century BCE, Hippodamus was primarily concerned with the practicalities of daily life in relatively small city-states. These urban centers were essentially vulnerable to powerful enemies at all times. To most people living in Ancient Greece during the fourth century BCE, for example, warfare at home was something of a regular occurrence. (As a child, Hippodamus himself would have personally been aware of the invasion of Greece by the Persian Empire and likely would have seen many of his male relatives go off to fight in battle.)
Indeed, the invention of the catapult during the lifetime of Hippodamus meant that invaders from rival civilizations like Persia could now decimate urban populations without sending their troops within a city’s borders. Ironically, Aristotle is said to have criticized Hippodamus’ championing of straight roads and orderly streets in his urban planning work due to Aristotle’s belief that the chaotic outlays of older cities would act as natural bulwarks against invaders.
While he was viewed with some degree of disdain by philosophers like Plato and Aristotle, Hippodamus was an instrumental figure in the development of what is now known as Classical Ancient Greek society. His urban planning abilities ushered in a golden age of Greek civic development and would inspire many generations of architects and civil engineers.
Without question, part of Hippodamus’ greatest achievements in urban planning are rooted in the philosophical ideas that were permeating throughout Ancient Greece during his lifetime. The Ancient Greeks were fascinated by geometric beauty in all of its forms: Mathematical concepts of order influenced everything in Ancient Greece from the way in which the visual arts were depicted (in the form of statues and bas-reliefs) to the way in which architectural designs were implemented.
In this environment, proportion was seen as equivalent to beauty, and beauty was seen as being equivalent to moral goodness. It was a sentiment echoed over 2000 years later by the English poet John Keats: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty.” To wit, Hippodamus believed that a beautifully-organized city would reflect the moral goodness of a well-cultivated citizenry.
That viewpoint has never quite dissipated, even in contemporary Western culture. Walk down any major avenue in Manhattan in New York City, and you’re likely to spot the influence of Hippodamus’ well-ordered and geometrically-aligned street planning.
Although he is not a household name like Socrates or Aristotle, Hippodamus deserves our respect for his pioneering work in urban development. Wherever we live, our community probably owes a debt to his foresight and talent.