William Penn’s plan for his colonial capital at Philadelphia reflected both his affection for the genteel English agrarian society from which he came and his desire, rooted in his Quaker faith, to build a harmonious and tolerant colony in Pennsylvania. Though born in London, Penn (1644-1718), grew to maturity in rural Essex, England. Converted to Quakerism while managing his father’s Irish estates, he soon became one of the leading publicists of the young sect. By the late 1670s he was one of several prominent Quakers involved in the establishment of American colonies as refuges from official religious persecution. In 1681 King Charles II granted Penn more than 45,000 squares of land along the Delaware River in payment of a debt the king had owed Penn’s late father, Admiral Sir William Penn. Penn named the colony Pennsylvania in honor of his father.
The new colony embraced existing colonial settlements along the Delaware by Swedes, Finns, and Dutch, and encouraged settlement by a variety of independent and dissenting religious communities. Penn insisted on religious tolerance in Pennsylvania. Penn’s charter gave him proprietary control of some of the finest agricultural land along the Atlantic coast of North America, and his general plan for the colony, A Mapp of ye Improved Part of Pensilvania in America, Divided into Countyes Townships and Lotts (1687) envisioned a landscape of large agricultural holdings modeled on the English country estates like those Penn himself had inherited from his father. Penn’s plan for Philadelphia, refined in 1682 and prepared for print in 1683 by the colony’s surveyor-general, Thomas Holmes, expressed both Penn’s tolerance and his agrarian sensibilities. Most city lots would be large, a half or full acre each, the choicest overlooking the Delaware and Schuykill Rivers, reserved for the “First Purchasers” of large rural tracts of Pennsylvania for the situation of their townhouses. Houses were to be set back from the streets and spaced widely apart amidst substantial gardens. Penn called for streets up to 100 feet wide, for the main axes Broad and High (Market) Streets. The expansive plan, two miles from river to river, and one mile north to south, could amply accommodate early growth. Streets were either numbered or honored tree species instead of royalty or famous persons, respecting the democratic ideals of the colony. Modest squares spaced throughout Philadelphia would provide public spaces for recreational and civic activities. Smaller lots along the major thoroughfares were intended for tradesmen and commercial activities. The central square, to be the site of major public buildings, was nevertheless modest by contemporary standards, reflecting Quaker distaste for ostentatious public displays. Unlike most colonial American cities of the seventeenth century, Philadelphia was also to be unfortified and ungarrisoned, reflecting Penn’s pacific attitudes towards both other colonies and the principal native inhabitants of the region, the Lenni-Lanape (Delaware). Instead of walls, a suburban greenbelt populated by gentlemen farmers would mantle Philadelphia. And lacking walls, the city was free to grow unchecked into the surrounding countryside.
Despite rapid growth in the first decades after its establishment, the young city struggled to fill out its capacious plan. Early settlement focused on the Delaware River, which served as a harbor and the focal point of commercial life. The large lots were subdivided to accommodate the growing population, undermining Penn’s plans for spacious development, while most the rest of the planned city remained largely undeveloped. The basic outline of Penn’s grid remained intact, but it was subdivided and corrupted by the whims of and necessities of localized real estate development. Many parts of the central and western portions of the original plan did not fully develop until the mid-nineteenth century. The envisioned central civic square, for example, did not really develop as such until the city hall was built in 1871. Meanwhile development along the Delaware reached beyond the original bounds of the city into the suburban “liberties” to the north and south. Penn used his powers as the colony’s proprietor to control growth, but many of the large landholders who helped to found the city and colony sought greater control of their property—an early example of the conflict between governing power and private property rights that would be echoed throughout the history of American urban planning.
If imperfectly realized in Philadelphia itself, Penn’s vision of an ideal American city nevertheless exerted a powerful influence on the development of cities and towns across Pennsylvania, the Midwest, and parts of the South. Thanks largely to the example of Philadelphia, a regular grid of streets (often numbered or named after trees), subdivided into spacious lots, with houses set back at a distance from the street, and a central square serving as the focal point of civic activity became major elements of the ideal American town, both in fact and in the national imagination.
Thomas Holme, “A Portraiture of the City of Philadelphia in the Province of Pennsylvania in America,” from A Letter from William Penn, proprietary and governour of Pennsylvania in America, to the committee of the Free society of traders of that province, residing in London by William Penn (London: A. Sowle, 1683). The Newberry Library: VAULT Ayer 150.5 P4 P4 1683.