Issues in Interdisciplinarity 2018-19/Imperialism in Urban Planning

Introduction to Imperialism and Urban Planning edit

In 2007, the the world’s urban population surpassed 50% and has since been increasing steadily (1). Many cities facing this influx of people lack the infrastructure, housing, and governance necessary to safely accommodate their populations (2). Historically urban planning has often been utilised by political authorities to consolidate their Power, particularly during colonial and post-colonial periods, where an inherent power relationship is evident (3). Dominant urban planning theories around those times were largely based on European models, which still have profound consequences for present-day cities and the overall development of their economies, societies and politics (4). It is therefore crucial to study the imperialistic nature inside the field of urban planning in order to decolonise relevant fields more thoroughly.

Origins of Imperialism in Urban Planning edit

While archaeologists largely agree that The world's first city was settled ca. 4500 BCE (5), the oldest known urban planner was Hippodamus, credited with first writing about zoning and the Gridiron plan which would become widespread throughout the world (6). However, even before this remnants of cities showing examples of grid-like design have been found dating back to 2500 BCE, such as Mohenjo-daro in the Indus Valley (7).

Greek ideas of city planning were spread through their colonisation of the Mediterranean and were further built upon by the Romans where imperialism shaped their urban planning in many ways, from the numerous viae built to support troop movements and strengthen the empire, to the absence of walls in new cities due to the widespread Pax Romana (8).

European Colonisation edit

As European powers colonised the globe, they used urban planning and architecture to extend imperial rule, building tall churches and lavish buildings to demonstrate the power of the invading state. In Latin America, Spanish colonisers redesigned hundreds of preexisting Native American settlements turning them into Spanish cities with a central Plaza surrounded by a huge Church, administration building and the homes of the wealthy elite (9).

Rio de Janeiro edit

The “January River” was first encountered by Europeans in January 1502 and Rio itself was founded 1565. The region had prior been inhabited by the Tupi, Puri, Botocudo and Maxakali peoples. When gold and diamonds were found nearby in the late-1600s, Rio became Brazil’s primary port. In 1763 the colonial administration was moved to Rio and in 1808 it became the capital of the Portuguese Empire as the Portuguese royal family fled Napoleon’s invasion. While the developed centre of city housed the Church and some nobles, poor and indigenous settlements were known to sprawl out over the neighbouring hillsides (9).

Addis Ababa edit

Though Ethiopia is often considered to never have been colonised, it was occupied by Italy running up to and during the 2nd world war. At the end of the 1930s planners attempted to move Addis Ababa's centre away from the palace in the city’s then centre (10). Though upon coming to power, Emperor Haile Selassie attempted to shift the urban centre north but ended up following Italian planning principles and moved the urban centre back to where the Italians had initially planned (10).

Johannesburg edit

Colonial powers didn’t just take over preexisting cities but also built cities in areas of interest such as near mineral reserves and on sea fronts. Johannesburg was originally formed next to the Witwatersrand Gold reef to further South Africa’s extractive mining economy (9). While the city developed in a fairly unplanned fashion, the "Whites'" continual appropriation and division of land priorly owned by African and other coloured peoples, prevented these people from participating in the economic markets and helped colonial powers to oppress them (11).

The Modern City edit

Such imperialism can be seen to have extended beyond the reach of traditional militaristic imperialism, and was seen not only to affect the subjects of the empire but the very core of the empire itself, such as the Haussmann's renovation of Paris where large swathes of Paris were demolished to build new wide boulevards. This set the precedent for the modern city in the 19th and 20th century with many following this example.

Cairo edit

Cairo’s initial settlements stem back to the Persian fort of the Heliopolite Nome. The oldest structure in the city today is the Roman fortress of Babylon since which the city has been ruled by different Muslim caliphates and the Ottoman Empire (12). While Napoleonic French forces only held the city for 3 years, in the mid-1800s Isma'il Pasha redesigned Downtown Cairo to look like Paris (12) as at the time, it was believed that modernity was synonymous with European-ness (13).

Colonial Japan and Seoul edit

Japan has a unique role in strengthening the artificial link between modernity and progress in urban planning. After the Iwakura Mission, the Meiji government initiated a series of plans to modernise Tokyo, such as the Ginza Bricktown project. With consultancy from European urban planners, the government implemented elements considered as modern, including 'the Western architecture, sidewalks, sewers, roadside trees, and paved streets of the modern cityscape' (14, p.511). The Japanese colonial government later imposed a similar modernisation on Seoul partly to demonstrate their power and legitimise their hegemony over Korea by contrasting a Japanese modern city and a Korean primitive one (14).

Lasting Effects of Imperialism in Urban Planning edit

Urban Planning edit

Rapid urbanisation often puts massive pressure on infrastructure, particularly in the less developed and less “cared for” parts of the city. The favela in cities such as Rio dated back to the original disorderly hillside settlements. While the city centre was supported and developed by colonial powers as the centre for economic growth, migration into the outskirts of the cities caused favelas to grow uncontrollably (9). In the 20th century Latin America saw a faster rate of urbanisation than anywhere else on the planet further deepening spatial segregation (9).

Social/Economic edit

While large-scale capitalist urban industrial development often blurs boundaries between social classes, this effect can be hampered in some cities by spatial segregation dating from colonial rule. Across South Africa, apartheid and the focusing of development in traditionally “White” areas of cities has largely prevented “coloured” peoples from accessing tertiary sector employment (9). In Rio, favela residents have limited political representation affecting their infrastructure and economic development, thus inducing cycles of poverty (11).

Problematic Concept of Modernity edit

The idea of modernity has largely developed since the 17th century, and its core philosophy is about breaking from the past and traditional European culture. This 'emergence of certain historically specific social formations' (15, p.14) is closely tied to another concept: progress. Such a connection is particularly problematic when coming to fields like urban planning, because it celebrates only specific ways of development while disregarding others. During the process of modernisation, varying degree of cultural destruction therefore becomes inevitable (16).

In Academics edit

In the mid-20th Century notable sociologists Michel Foucault and Henri Lefebvre looked into the ways in which cities and space impact the individual. This has lead to more focussed research into the symbolic and nuanced psychological effects of colonial city planning and architecture, and efforts to decolonize cities.

References edit

  1. United Nations Population Division. Urban population (% of total). The World Bank Data. Available from: [Accessed 1st December 2018].
  2. Özden K, Enwere C. Urbanization and its Political Challenges in Developing Countries. Eurasian Journal of Business and Economics. 2012;5(10): 99-120. Available from: [Accessed 29th November 2018].
  3. Foucault M, Crampton J W ed., Elden S, ed. Space, Knowledge and Power: Foucault and Geography. Aldershot:Ashgate; 2007.
  4. Baruah N G, Henderson J V, Peng C. Colonial legacies: Shaping African Cities. London: London School of Economics;2017. Available from:
  5. Mark J J. The Ancient City. The Ancient History Encyclopedia. Available from: [Accessed 9th December 2018].
  6. Owens E J. The City in the Greek and Roman World. Rutledge:New York; 1992.
  7. McIntosh J. The Ancient Indus Valley: New Perspectives. ABC-CLIO; 2008. Available from: [Accessed 9th December 2018].
  8. Cilliers, L.; Retief, F.P. City planning in Graeco-Roman times with emphasis on health facilities. Akroterion; 2006. Available from: [Accessed 9th December 2018].
  9. Socolow S M, Johnson L L. Urbanization in Colonial Latin America. Journal of Urban History. 2018;8(1):27-59. Available from:
  10. Rifkind D, Silva C N ed. Urban Planning in Sub-Saharan Africa. New York: Routledge; 2015. p. 145-164.
  11. Davies R J. The spatial formation of the South African City. GeoJournal. 1981;2(2):59-72. Available from:
  12. Raymond A, Wood W ed. Cairo. Cambridge: Harvard University Press; 2000. p. 328.
  13. Elsheshtawy Y. Revolutionary Cairo and Urban Modernity: Lessons from the Sixties. 15th International Planning History Society Conference. Sao Paulo. 2012. Available from: [Accessed 28th November 2018].
  14. Tristan R G. Paving Power: Western Urban Planning and Imperial Space from the Streets of Meiji Tokyo to Colonial Seoul. Journal of Urban History. 2016;Vol.42(3):506–556. Available from:
  15. Robinson J. Ordinary Cities: Between Modernity and Development. New York: Routledge; 2006. Available from:
  16. Mignolo D W. Colonially: The Darker Side of Western Modernity. Durham: Duke University Press; 2011. Available from: