The fifth-century-b.c. Greek architect Hippodamos of Miletus has long been known as the “father of city planning.” Although the claim has been challenged by some historians, his contribution (at least in the West) was the notion of ordered city planning, as opposed to the uncontrolled growth of earlier times. For example, fifth-century-b.c. Athens, the dominant Hellenic city, was an undisciplined accretion of houses lining crooked narrow streets and lanes whose routes were determined by the topography around the great Acropolis. Hippodamos has been credited with the introduction of the orthogonal plan—a “gridiron” with streets at right angles dividing the city into the kinds of blocks we are familiar with. His ideal plan was zoned by land use, with blocks reserved for public buildings and open spaces, integrated with the houses to provide a cohesive social, environment.
However, some elements of the Hippodamean city can be found in earlier Greek settlements. For example, the colony of Smyrna, near what is now the Aegean coast of Turkey, was rebuilt in the seventh century b.c. with parallel north-south streets. Therefore, it may have been that Hippodamos simply formalized generally held conventions in his theoretical writings and applied them in the cities he designed.
In Politics, Aristotle remarks upon the Miletian’s long hair and eccentric dress and notes his wide interest in natural philosophy. It was unusual for an architect to discourse upon the best form of government, but that did not prevent Hippodamos from doing so. His theories of physical planning were linked to social planning; clearly he saw the planner’s role not only in terms of functional and esthetic design but also in human organization of religious, civic, and commercial activities. Adopting what today would be called a determinist approach, Hippodamos divided his optimum population of 10,000 into three: artisans, farmers (every Greek city had its agricultural hinterland), and military. Then he divided the city into three parts: one for worshiping the gods, one to support the soldiers, and the third private, the property of the common people. He went further, categorizing laws into three sorts: insult, injury, and homicide. The political scientist Daniel J. Mahoney has commented, “Hippodamos characteristically divided everything—the population, laws, and land—into threes because he wrongly thought that human nature was amenable to mathematical manipulation.” Yet Hippodamos is not remembered for his utopian social views, but for the physical form of his cities. Several have been attributed to him, including his birthplace, Miletus.
The prosperous fortified Aegean port stood on a peninsula at the mouth of the Meander River. Established by the Mycenaeans in the middle of the second millennium b.c., it grew to be one of the largest cities in Anatolia, a commercial center with a population said to have reached 100,000. In 499 b.c. with sister Ionian cities, Miletus rebelled against its Persian occupiers. They responded by razing it. Liberated after the Persians’ defeat at the naval battle of Mycale (479 b.c.), the Miletians rebuilt their city according to Hippodamos’s orthogonal plan: a repeated pattern of identical blocks with wide main streets crossed by minor thoroughfares. The commercial and religious buildings occupied multiple blocks, and all was enclosed by a defensive wall.
Refounded on the site of an ancient city in the mid-fifth century b.c., the smaller port of Priene, north of Miletus, was set out on a Hippodamean grid. Its plan comprised 84 rectangular 120-by-160-foot (37-by-49-meter) blocks, covering 93 acres (37 hectares) and descending toward the sea from the base of a 1,000-foot (306-meter) cliff on Mount Mycale. The north-south streets were steep, even needing to be stepped in places; the east-west streets, approximately following the contours, were easier to negotiate. Provision was made for city growth within the encircling walls. In the event, the population remained at 3,000 and more than half the enclosed area was never developed. Reserves for public spaces were part of Hippodamos’s plan, and the agora stood upon a central terrace.
Around 450 b.c., Hippodamos was commissioned by Perikles to redesign parts of Piraeus, the port of Athens. It stood less than 6 miles (9.6 kilometers) southwest of the city on a peninsula surrounded by the Saronic Gulf. He rebuilt the original fortified Themistoclean port, by then about thirty years old, with a well-defined grid of broad streets defining long rectangular blocks. His plan gave better access to the three harbors, dedicated respectively to grain vessels, general cargo ships, and the navy. The parallel Long Walls, about 600 feet (183 meters) apart, were completed in 431 b.c. to protect the supply line between Athens and its port during the Peloponnesian War with Sparta.
There are several other attributions. Hippodamos almost certainly had a hand in the foundation of the colony of Thurii in southern Italy around 444 b.c. Very regular orthogonal extensions to the city of Olynthos, in what is now Macedonia, were laid out soon after 432 b.c. But it may be that Olynthos and the much later city of Rhodes (408 b.c.) on the Aegean island of the same name were laid out by others who implemented the Hippodamean form. That easily surveyed orthogonal form continued to be influential and was perhaps modified by the Romans in any number of their colonial towns. It was revived in the fifteenth century as one of the theoretical bases of Renaissance urban design. Much later, the planners of cities in the New World employed the grid: Savannah, Philadelphia, Chicago, and New York City are all evidence of that. So is San Francisco, where its imposition on a hilly site, even if it provides locations for exciting movie car chases, underlines its suitability for little but the flattest terrain.