You are here

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.



Avery, Ron. A Concise History of Philadelphia. Philadelphia: Otis Books, 1999.

Bronner, Edwin B. William Penn's "Holy Experiment": The Founding of Pennsylvania 1681-1701. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1962.

Buisseret, David, ed. Envisioning the City: Six Studies in Urban Cartography. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.

Corcoran, Irma B.V.M. Thomas Holme, 1624-1695: Surveyor General of Pennsylvania. Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1992.

DeRogatis, Amy. Moral Geography: Maps, Missionaries, and the American Frontier. New York: Columbia University Press, 2002.

Dunn, Richard S. and Mary Maples Dunn, eds. The World of William Penn. Philadelphia: University of Philadelphia Press, 1986.

Eaton, Ruth. Ideal Cities: Utopianism and the (Un)built Environment. New York: Thames & Hudson, 2002.

Francaviglia, Richard. The mapmakers of New Zion : a cartographic history of Mormonism. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2015.

Hudson, John C. Plains Country Towns. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985.

Jennings, J.L. Sibley, Jr. “Artistry as Design.” Quarterly Journal of the Library of Congress 36, no. 3 (Summer 1979): 225-278.

Kesten, Seymour R. Utopian Episodes: Daily Life in Experimental Colonies Dedicated to Changing the World. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1993.

Klinefelter, Walter. “Surveyor General Thomas Holme’s ‘Map of the Improved Part of the Province of Pennsylvania,’” Winterthur Portfolio6 (1970): pp. 41-74.

Kostof, Spiro. The City Shaped: Urban Patterns and Meanings through History. Boston: Bullfinch, 1993.

Lewis, Pierce F. “The Northeast and the Making of American Geographical Habits.” In The Making of the American Landscape, edited by Michael Conzen, 80-103. London: Unwin Hyman Ltd, 1990.

Malone, Dumas, ed. “William Penn.” In Dictionary of American Biography. New York: Charles Scribner’s Son, 1935.

Mandelker, Ira L. Religion, Society, and Utopia in Nineteenth-Century America. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1984.

Miller, Iris. Washington in Maps, 1606-2000. New York: Rizzoli, 2002.

Nash, Gary B. First City: Philadelphia and the Forging of Historical Memory. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002.

Pitzer, Donald E., Ed. America’s Communal Utopias. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997.

Peterson, Allen J. Tower City History. Tower City, ND: Centennial Book Committee, 1979.

Reps, John W. Cities of the American West: A History of Frontier Planning. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1979.

Reps, John W. The Forgotten Frontier: Urban Planning in the American West before 1890. Columbia and London: University of Missouri Press, 1981.

Reps, John. The Making of Urban America: A History of City Planning in the United States. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992.

Reps, John W. Views and Viewmakers of Urban America: Lithographs of Towns and Cities in the United States and Canada, Notes on the Artists and Publishers, and a Union Catalog of Their Work, 1825-1925. Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 1984. Peterson, Allen J. Tower City History. Tower City, ND: Centennial Book Committee, 1979.

Rosenau, Helen. The Ideal City in Its Architectural Evolution. Boston: Boston Book & Art Shop, 1959.

Soderlund, Jean R., ed. William Penn and the Founding of Pennsylvania, 1600-1684: A Documentary History. Philadelphia: University of Philadelphia Press, 1983.

Sreenivasan, Jyotsna. Utopias in American History. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2008.

Stephenson, Richard W. “The Delineation of the Grand Plan.” Quarterly Journal of the Library of Congress 36, no. 3 (Summer 1979): 207-224.

Stephenson, Richard W. “From L’Enfant to the Senate Park Commission: Mapping the Nation’s Capital from 1791 to 1902.”. The Occasional Papers, Series no. 6. Washington: Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress, 2014.

Weigley, Russell F., ed. Philadelphia: A 300-Year History. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1982.



Ellicott, Andrew. “Plan of the city of Washington in the territory of Columbia [map].” (1792). 42 x 50 cm. “Library of Congress Geography and Map Division Library of Congress.”

Ellicott, Andrew. “Territory of Columbia [map].” (1793). 56 x 56 cm. “Library of Congress Geography and Map Division Library of Congress.”

Forrest, Tuomi J. “William Penn Plans the City.”

Glover, E. S. “Birds-eye view of Salt Lake City [map].” (1875). 55 x 83 cm. “Library of Congress Geography and Map Division.”

Holme, Thomas. A Mapp of Ye Improved Part of Pensilvania in America [map].  (1687). “The Lower Merion Historical Society.”

Holme, Thomas. “Map of the Improved Part of the Province of Pennsilvania in America [map].” (circa 1705?). 80 x 141 cm. “Library of Congress Geography and Map Division.”

Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis. “Historic New Harmony, Indiana.

Jackson, Richard H. “City Planning.”

Penn, William and Thomas Holme. “Dutch edition of the first plan for Philadelphia [map]. (1684). “Free Library of Philadelphia.”


Reps, John. “Urban Planning, 1794-1918: An International Anthology of Articles, Conference Papers, and Reports.” http://urbanplanning.

Williams, Frederick G. “Plat of the City of Zion.”