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Mapping Ideal American Cities
The idea that the creation of ideal urban forms could help perfect society is an old one. It finds expression in Judeo-Christian and Islamic notions of holy cities; in the layout of Chinese and Native American royal cities capitals (including the great city of Cahokia, along the Mississippi River in southern Illinois, near St. Louis, and the great Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan); and in the pursuit of geometric perfection in Classical and Renaissance urban architectural and planning. Indeed, the ideal city lies at the heart of much, if not all, modern urban planning, as the Plan of Chicago itself illustrates.
The creation of an ideal society, of course, was one—though certainly not the only—motivation of American colonists. They often viewed European cities as overcrowded, unhealthy, and unsightly, burdened by their own history and organic growth. The New World offered colonists with plentiful opportunities to implement their ideas about urban form. The publication of urban maps and views took on a new significance as blueprints for more commodious, orderly, productive, and ideal communities. This urban idealism had many faces. William Penn’s Philadelphia combined the Quaker taste for simplicity with an admiration of agrarian society. Pierre Charles L’Enfant’s Washington drew on contemporary European admiration for geometry and sight lines to mold the ideal capital city. The Mormon prophet Joseph Smith envisioned an earthly Zion that placed the worship of God and church administration at the center of an orderly, self-contained, and cooperative community. The towns of the Great Plains planned to support settlement along American railroads in the nineteenth century were less utopian in outlook, but no less idealistic in their expectation that a simple layout suited to commerce and agricultural processing would produce phenomenal growth.
Since the sixteenth century Europeans had developed the habit of mapping out their cities whenever they wanted to make improvements or additions, such as new residential areas, plazas, parks, monuments, public buildings, streets, and fortifications. By the late seventeenth century, when Thomas Holmes’ and William Penn’s plan of Philadelphia was published, urban maps and views were widely known throughout Europe. They served as aides to civilian officials, military officers, and travelers; they were displayed in public places, private homes, and palaces as expressions of civic pride; and they were gathered together in great atlases and as book illustrations for the interest of armchair travelers. The public taste for urban views expressed not only the expansive European interest in the wider world, but also the idea that cities were (or should be) expressions of a society’s power, wealth, and piety. In early America, the publication of urban maps and views took on a new significance as blueprints for more commodious, orderly, productive, even ideal communities.
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