City Planning

City planning encompasses the policies and processes that influence the development of towns, cities, and regions. While planning occurred in early cities, it was not until the early twentieth century that city (urban) planning emerged as a distinct discipline. In response to the rapid growth of cities that accompanied industrialization, early urban sociologists sought to address the social issues that emerged. Early planning initiatives were related to the conservation movement and sought to address the physical and social ills that had arisen in the industrial cities. By the late twentieth century, most city governments housed a planning board or agency.

Social structures and processes shape the spatial form of the city. Because city planning can shape the spatial form of cities, it also has an impact on the social life of cities. A number of dimensions of this reciprocal relationship between planning and the social environment are of interest to sociologists. These include: the relationship between the physical nature of the city and social relations in the city; the influence of cultural and social divisions on the planning process; the effect of planning on the distribution of groups and resources in cities; and the role of planning in creating and maintaining social divisions.

Addressing the impact of the physical nature of the city on social relations was the goal of the early planning movement. Plans for utopian communities, such as Robert Owen’s New Harmony, sought solutions to the social problems of the industrial cities. In his seminal book Garden Cities of Tomorrow (1902), Ebenezer Howard’s self contained, decentralized garden cities with their surrounding greenbelts were the antithesis to the industrial towns of the time. More recently, the focus has been on creating green space in existing cities.

The desire for aesthetically appealing cities fueled the popularity of the City Beautiful Movement. This trend emerged following the Chicago Columbian World Expedition of 1893 with its neoclassically designed White City. The City Beautiful Movement, which had a strong influence on the design of public buildings and spaces in the United States, however overlooked the issue of housing and did little to improve the immediate environs for poorer city residents.

This disconnect reflects the extent to which different cultural and social groups may influence the planning process. While groups with more resources may favor large scale planning, residents with fewer resources may desire better housing or city services. In a market economy, individuals with more resources will pay more for better housing and services. Developers will offer better housing, shopping, and other amenities if they are able to make a profit. The strength of a city’s culture or sense of place will affect the impact of capital on development and planning.

The potential for conflicting interests between social groups in the planning process can be illustrated by looking at the social consequences of using gentrification as a redevelopment tool. Gentrification can be an important element of urban redevelopment plans by helping communities maintain coherent identities and architectural integrity. Yet gentrification may also lead to the displacement of existing communities. Minorities and less affluent residents may be displaced by rising rents and property values.

The causes and consequences of city planning fall under two sociological perspectives: the ecological perspective, which overlaps significantly with neoclassical economic theory, describes the effects of planning and development in terms of housing supply and the preferences of specific groups.

Development within cities is shaped by the combination of social, political, and economic factors that are unique to that city. Sociologists are also concerned with the effect of planning on the distribution of groups and resources in cities. The perspective most often associated with this is human ecology (Chicago School), which emphasizes the spatial distribution of groups within cities and draws heavily from neoclassical economics. On the other hand, the political economy perspective sees development as a process shaped primarily by political and economic forces. As an applied political economy perspective, the Los Angeles School of urban sociology uses the fragmented social and spatial landscape of Los Angeles to illustrate the characteristics of the new postmodern city (see Dear 2002).

Both of these perspectives are useful for understanding the consequences of urban planning and development processes. But to fully understand these consequences, one must consider the interplay between the physical and social environment of the city. As plans are enacted and development occurs, changes in the physical environment will affect the social environment as well.

The impacts of urban planning on the social environment evolve over time. Two key issues in urban redevelopment debates, neighborhood succession and involuntary dislocation, follow from the ecological and political economy perspectives. The changing ecology of communities leads to neighborhood succession, while changes in the political economy of an area may result in the dislocation of residents.

Planning often plays a role in creating and maintaining social divisions. Planning deter mines the land use and transportation patterns that shape the community life of cities. There is a distinct spatial dimension here. Social divisions manifest themselves in space as segregation, the physical separation of members of one racial, ethnic, social, or economic group from members of another group.

In the United States, local governments control zoning which can restrict access to and the use of land; however, individuals and market forces shape the development of new land. The type and density of housing in a neighborhood will predispose it to specific social groups. Neighborhoods organize life chances in the same sense as do the more familiar dimensions of class and caste.

Also of interest to sociologists are cross national and historical comparisons of urban policies and planning strategies. Such studies examine changes over time in planning and planning outcomes. Often these offer examples of different types of governmental interactions. For example, in the United States much more emphasis is placed on private development. On the other hand, government control over land and use of public transportation are greater in European cities.

Current emphasis in sociological research and theory on urban planning builds on these themes in a number of ways. These include solutions to housing inequality, urban sprawl, and the impact of the created environment on social relations. Each of these topics incorporates an explicit awareness of the spatial dimension, reflecting a common theme of the relationship between the planned and social environments.

Housing costs and neighborhood status are closely related. At the same time, many city residents with lower incomes have a difficult time finding affordable housing. A number of factors come into play: market factors, institutional factors, and individual preferences.

Market factors such as accessibility, rents, and ‘‘best use’’ determine urban land use and structure. When the concern is maintaining property values, institutional mechanisms such as zoning and homeowners’ associations seek to maintain homogeneity within neighborhoods.

To address the issues of density and urban sprawl, there is a focus on planning strategies to contain sprawl. Planning strategies for minimizing sprawl include smart growth policies, growth boundaries, and New Urbanist communities. Smart growth policies seek to shape city growth in a manner that limits sprawl. As an example of smart growth policies, growth boundaries set limits to development, often specifying conservation buffers to protect open land.

A second strategy for addressing sprawl was pioneered by the architects Andres Duany and Elizabeth Peter Zyberk. Their ‘‘New Urban ism’’ principles were grounded in the belief that the spatial design of a neighborhood can influence the development of community: com munities built using the principles of the New Urbanism that communities should be walk able and include both residential and commercial elements. New Urbanist communities are more like small towns than suburban developments. The limitation of this planning style is that it assumes that physical features of neighborhoods that are associated with traditional neighborhoods, such as front porches, will increase street level activity and interaction among residents.

A number of recent studies have examined the relationship between the social and the created environment, focusing specifically on the diversity of the created environment. In the absence of a historical culture or sense of place, planning offers a market oriented model of community. Analysis of the social consequences of development and redevelopment processes can illustrate the limitations of such created environments.

The planning process shapes the city, but the city’s physical, political, and economic environments shape the planning process. As sociologists study the urban environment they often focus on the social and historical components, and the spatial components are often overlooked. The nature of the give and take relationship between the social environment of the city and the urban planning process means that there are abundant opportunities to study the impact of planning processes and policies on the social environment of our cities.

Modern computing technology and the increased interest in using mapping techniques to complement other social science methods have made it much easier for urban scholars to study the consequences of planning decisions at both the neighborhood and city levels. Understanding urban processes at multiple levels is important with the awareness that social processes at the individual level cannot be accurately inferred from aggregate data and individual level processes (ecological fallacy). While qualitative approaches often unpack the meaning and social significance of places, quantitative studies are used to better understand the social context in which planning decisions are made as well as their social implications.

To understand the developmental patterns within a city, it is useful to examine its historical patterns of land use and the degree to which these patterns have changed. The social environment is both time and context dependent. Thus, an approach to urban development that includes both socially and spatially conscious methods is most appropriate. Current efforts in sociology include the integration of spatial perspectives into theory and methodology into the discipline.

Perhaps the biggest limitation of planning is that the planning process is so often divorced from the social environments that it will affect. Groups with little economic or political power are often overlooked in the planning process. While change is an important part of the urban environment, we need to consider more innovative approaches to maintaining community and social environment while preserving the physical environment. As we learn more about the relationship between maintaining communities and restoring communities, urban sociologists and planners should seek to balance the social, political, and economic dimensions of cities.


  1. Dear, M. (2002) Los Angeles and the Chicago School: Invitation to a Debate. City and Community 1(1): 5-32.
  2. Fainstein, S. S. (2000) New Directions in Planning Theory. Urban Affairs Review 35(4): 451-78.
  3. Jacobs, J. (1961) The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Vintage, New York.

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