Urban planning – a must have for future cities


Most modern cities depend on quality urban planning to direct their growth and development, and to best cope with the challenges they face. Lack of urban planning usually leads to wild, unplanned sprawl which creates a host of problems, ranging from lack of infrastructure to high vulnerability to any kind of disruption. Good urban planning can help cities become greener, more resilient, more efficient, healthier, and a nicer place to live with rich cultural offerings and stronger community core.

Urban planning is not a new concept. There is historical evidence that urban designers had a hand in planning out the layouts of cities in ancient Mesopotamia, Indus Valley, Minoa and Egypt, as far back as three thousand years BC.

The Greeks began organising their cities using an orthogonal layout, with paved streets meeting at right angles. The Romans adopted this approach, while expanding the planning considerations to take into account key goals of Roman society at the time – military defence and public convenience. In a way these were the first examples of planning for both resilience and the benefit of the public.

The art and science of urban planning were mostly abandoned and lost in Europe during the dark ages, with cities growing organically and chaotically around older city centres designed and established by the Roman Empire. The practice of planning city expansions beforehand only returned during the renaissance, starting somewhere around the 15th century.

At the turn of the 20th century, as increasing industrialisation led to nearly explosive growth of cities, the laissez-faire unregulated approach to urban planning was recognised as responsible for creating inhumane living conditions for the working poor who migrated into the cities en masse in search for growing industrial jobs.

Most of the 20th century urban planning thus focused on mitigating the consequences of the industrial age, primarily by attempting to provide the working class with healthier environments, in an approach dominated by central planning.

Cities lacking in urban planning during the 20th century and early 21st century suffer a variety of problems, according to the United Nations’ World Cities Report 2022. Settlements with inadequate or nonexistent planning are prone to developing sprawls, inefficient use of available land, poor connectivity and lack of adequate municipal services.

Good urban planning is now recognised as one of the three pillars of sustainable cities – there can be no optimistic scenarios of urban futures without it. However, cities looking to the future will have to review and adapt their urban planning practices to address the shortfalls identified in the urban planning in the past decades. Many of the problems were exacerbated and highlighted by the coronavirus pandemic, which helped planners to recognise the problems inherent in the current practices.

Existing approaches, the UN report warns, enable vulnerable groups to be disproportionally affected by pandemics, as modern urban planning has made only moderate strides towards equitable distribution of resources. The pandemic has also highlighted the lack of versatility and flexibility of indoor urban spaces.

Though contemporary, top-down urban planning approaches have prevented unplanned, chaotic city growth and development of urban sprawls, they have achieved only limited success in reducing urban inequality and achieving social inclusion. The UN warns that this trend may well continue without appropriate intervention.

Cities such as Nuremberg have started gearing up their urban planning towards reducing urban inequality. The German city has launched draft plans aiming to ease the pressure on the housing market, which threatens gentrification and reduces the resilience of cities. 

Experts stress the need to focus on compact development, managed density and prevention of overcrowding, and urge cities to adopt best practices and policy tools, such as sustainable neighbourhood planning.

Other recommendations listed as best practices include the 15-minute city concept – an urban planning strategy that aims to make all key services available to a city’s residents within a travel window of just 15 minutes, relying on walking, cycling and micro-mobility solutions. Such strategies have already been championed in Paris by Mayor Anne Hidalgo, as well as other cities such as Cagliari.

The UN report also invites cities to develop sustainable urban mobility plans as part of best urban planning practices. Cities such as Milan, Rome, Turin, Bologna and many others in Europe have already adopted electric car sharing as part of their sustainable mobility plans, while other cities are developing micromobility hubs – infrastructure to help commuters using sustainable public transport options close the final distance to their workplaces or homes.

An increasing number of cities are also making an effort to include their residents, as well as independent experts, in their urban planning process, aiming to reduce the drawbacks of the top-down approach. Seville, for example, has sent out a call to its residents, businesses and experts to participate in the city’s urban planning efforts.

Future cities cannot be allowed to grow organically, unplanned and unmanaged, but the top-down planning trends have also proven to have limited utility in addressing a variety of cities’ problems. Some of its shortfalls can be attributed to lack of hard data, experience, expert guidelines and unawareness of best practices, while others come from ignoring the needs and desires of the communities living in the cities.

Sharing the best practices, keeping sustainable growth, manageable density and sustainable transportation practices in mind, involving the communities in urban planning that affects them, and aiming to increase resilience and reduce inequality in cities might just be the recipe for sustainable cities of the future.