What is Urban Form? - Definition & History

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  • 0:03 Kinds of Urban Forms
  • 1:38 Origins of Urban Form
  • 2:22 Advanced City Planning
  • 3:23 Medieval Urban Forms
  • 4:16 After the Industrial…
  • 5:05 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Urban spaces are pretty important parts of human history. In this lesson, we'll talk about the concept of urban form and look at it throughout history.

Kinds of Urban Forms

Cities are loud. They are crowded. Parking is expensive. So, why do so many love them? Regardless of your personal feelings, urban centers have been of tremendous importance throughout world history. Urban spaces are products of pure human innovation, reflecting the unique human ability to transform landscapes to increase our chances of survival, happiness, and comfort. But what matters isn't just that we embark on this transformation; it's how we carry it out. The physical patterns, layouts, and structures that make up an urban center are collectively called the urban form. As the most basic canvas upon which settled human societies are built, urban forms are critical to both our daily lives right now and our interpretations of past cultures.

Before we delve into our brief history of urban forms, let's talk a little more about the term. Urban forms are ever changing, adapting with every new building, park, sidewalk, road, or gate that's erected. As urban forms develop and change, we can identify two major variations. An organic urban form is one that develops without centralized planning. Nobody tells people where to put houses, or which way the city gate should face. In contrast, a planned urban form is designed and coordinated. The ways that urban centers grow, whether in organic or planned ways, can tell us a lot about the attitudes, beliefs, lifestyles, and influences of people who live there.

Origins of Urban Form

Our story begins up to 12,000 years ago during a period called the Neolithic Revolution. This period saw the earliest experiments with agriculture. Agriculture allowed people to stay in one place throughout the year and build permanent structures.

As people settled down, they developed the first urban societies. We assume that most of these arose organically, but it did not take people long to develop planned urban centers. The first true cities developed in the Middle East between 4500 and 3500 BCE and were very carefully organized. Many cities were enclosed within walls, with formal entrances and defined places for markets, temples, and royal homes.

Advanced City Planning

As cities grew larger and larger, many tried even harder to plan out the shapes, forms, and compositions of their urban spaces. Ancient Greece and China both developed the practice of dividing cities into uniform blocks or municipal units. This was often used to try to control the behaviors of citizens. Some parts of town could only be used for specific economic, religious, or leisure activities. Often, neighborhoods were built only for people of certain levels of education, wealth, or power. By doing this, the city became a more controlled space.

The ancient Greeks and Romans both put so much effort into their city planning that certain urban forms almost became synonymous with their civilizations. The Romans in particular established routine urban forms. This was very important to them. Whenever they expanded their empire and tried to bring Roman society into a new area, they did so first and foremost by building a Roman-style city.

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