Political Influence in Urban Development

Ana Paola Hernandez

Historically, one of mankind’s greatest achievements is the building of cities. The composition of a city has been and will always be an indicator of the status of the state’s development. A city’s composition is determined by a number of decisions made by the people who live in it, but most importantly by those by who hold political power. By analyzing strategic city planning developments, one can recognize architecture’s historical impact on a society’s economic prosperity. The reconstruction of the Italian Renaissance city, brought upon by state and church leaders, gave form to cities of multiple powers, thus giving its citizens a visible understanding of their position within the hierarchy of power and economic status of their city. After the Renaissance established the foundations of urban organization, Russia’s 17th century monarchy adapted those same characteristics as it built its new capital city, Saint Petersburg. After the Great Depression and following both World Wars, social housing began as a reaction to the housing problem, most noticeably in communist lead countries, such as Germany. By increasing the number of people per household and unifying urban and rural districts, city centers were denser; creating standardized living conditions for everyone. Urban planning is used in political policies to organize a city’s development, assuring increased economic productivity.

Renaissance Street Planning
Florence-Italy, 14th-15th Century, Oligarchy Republic

The revival for learning that began in the 14th century and extended through the 17th century marked the transition from the medieval into the modernizing world. Streets in Medieval Europe were detached from one another because communities lacked unifying design and planning methodologies. These caused major buildings and public plazas to float randomly in the urban space and streets extended as separate entities. The unplanned cities created an alienated system where buildings functioned only as individual cells. On the flipside, Renaissance city planners developed the foundations for an urban restoration that provided unity in cities of multiple powers and gave the citizens a visible understanding of their position within each social class.

Florence, many times referred as the “birthplace” of the Renaissance, clearly portrays the Renaissance approach towards city renewal and design. Even though Florence was originally an ancient Roman camp founded on a rigid, regular grid, it had by the 14th century, disintegrated into arbitrary streets.  In the political separation between the Guelphs and the Ghibillines1, Florence was a Guelph city. The split between these two political parties was an important aspect of the internal policy of the Italian City-States. Since church leaders and wealthy mercantile families had associated themselves with the Guelphs, it was these two groups that had substantial influence in Florence development.

The political control secular and religious institutions had, transformed medieval Florence. The church of Santissima Annunziata, built by the monks became the new city center, and with it a new central axis was established that connected Santissima Annunziata with the city’s major cathedral of Florence, designed previously by the architect Brunelleschi in 1420.  Consequently, the spatial relationships between the churches produced new orders in the urban layout. Therefore, the visionary role of the city’s fabric, which attempted to connect its major points of interest, actually revolved around the nodes of the church and palace. The new street, laid out by the Servite monks, who connected the cathedral of Florence with the church of Santissima Annunziata, set in motion a process for orderly extending cities. Cosimo de’Medici, the first ruler of the Medici2 political dynasty commissioned Giorgio Vasari to join the Piazza Signoria with the Arno River with the attempt to reveal the regions importance as a transcontinental trading center. In order to achieve this, Giorgio Vasari built a bureaucratic office structure and its road to the river. These projects led to a citywide redesign of the street system allowing powerful political authorities to maintain their influence, while emphasizing to its citizens the city’s economic role in the whole of Italy. Ordered streets allowed travelling merchants to feel safe, thus incentivizing them to close more deals, strengthening Florence’s economy. However, in the long run, the success of the Medici political policies corrupted the sense of republicanism in Florence, giving Florence and other Italian City-States, today’s more appropriate recognition of Oligarchy3 republics.

Fig 1. 1632 plan of Florence overlaid with the city's major churches and their connecting street.
Fig 1. 1632 plan of Florence overlaid with the city’s major churches and their connecting street.
Fig 2. Piazza Signoria liked to the Arno River.
Fig 2. Piazza Signoria linked to the Arno River.

Russia’s New Capital City
St. Petersburg-Russia, 16th – 17th Century, Monarchy

After Renaissance design ideas had reached their full maturity, the capital city of Russia, Saint Petersburg was built, allowing the city to develop from the achievements of the already established Italian city plans. By the end of the 17th century, Peter the Great was determined to change the Stolbovo Treaty of 1617, which authorized Sweden the use of the Neva River area and therefore isolated Russia from all Baltic trade routes. Driven to improve Russia’s economic misfortune, in 1712, Peter the Great announced he would move the capital city to the banks of the Neva River. The urban plan of the new capital city of Saint Petersburg was to symbolize the city’s economic role in Russia, their sea access. Saint Petersburg’s Admiralty, built to be the center of the city, serves as a harbor where some of the first ships of Russia’s Baltic fleet were built and as an extra defense fort for the recently gained territory of the Neva Delta. The city’s design effectively links architectural elements from both sides of the river, emphasizing the city’s marine economy. Additionally, the city’s main axis connects the Admiralty to the Winter Palace, the official residence of the Russian monarch. The secondary axes extended from the Admiralty to the hinterlands, highlighting the interplay between the terrane and the canal. Thanks to the clear-cut city plan of Saint Petersburg, the working class moved to inhabit this new place, generating income, thus exacerbating growth in the country.

Fig 3.  1850 plan of Saint Petersburg. The city's three main axes are highlighted to show their directionality.
Fig 3. 1850 plan of Saint Petersburg. The city’s three main axes are highlighted to show their directionality.


Changing Berlin’s Blueprint
Berlin-Germany, 18th-20th Century, Socialism

By the 18th century, Germany had also established its capital city, Berlin as a center of enlightenment.  However it was not until the end of the century, with the breakthrough of the Industrial Revolution that Berlin achieved its continental prestige. The Industrial Revolution marked a major turning point in history. In the late 18th century the shift towards new manufacturing processes influenced almost every aspect of people’s daily lives.  For the first time, the living conditions of ordinary people underwent sustainable growth. As the city’s population grew by 30% and Berlin became Germany’s largest industrial city, its leaders perceived the need for urban planning.

In 1862, The Hobrecht Plan was designed to guide Berlin’s new street layout. Unlike the regular Renaissance grid, Berlin’s Hobrecht Plan incorporated regular housing blocks, of roughly the same size, on straight roads that expanded out from the city’s central, radial streets. The plan allowed the city’s core to densify without disregarding the need for green spaces and public squares.  Berlin’s Tiergarten park, Sanssouci gardens and Luisenstaedtischer canal by landscape architect Peter Joseph Lenne influenced the city’s global importance as a transportation and trade hub.

By 1922, Berlin’s expanding electric railway system, the S-Bahn, connected Germany’s capital city with its surrounding metropolises. Now, the world’s second largest land-locked marketplace, Berlin would undoubtedly attract world-known architects such as Walter Gropius and le Corbusier. With the establishment of the Great Berlin Act, political entities were able to bring together those who lived in the countryside with those who lived in the urban city. Attempting to form more equal living conditions, the Great Berlin Act increased Berlin’s land area by 13% allowing political institutions to freely incorporate building codes in the whole of Berlin’s population.

However, after the Great Depression, Germany’s economy was weak and the Nazi party came to power. In 1933, Adolf Hitler became chancellor and by the end of the decade he had new plans for Berlin’s construction. With architect Albert Speer, he imagined Berlin to become “a world city”.  Paralleling his desire for Germany’s prosperity and discipline, all the projects were to be massive in size. Beside the Reichstag, the house of the German Empire, Albert Speer planned to build the People’s Hall, The Volkshalle. The People’s Hall would be able to hold up to 170,000 people under its 490 ft. high copper dome. From the Volkshalle, the Avenue of Victory, 75 ft. wide and 3.5 miles long would link the building to the new railway station. The Avenue of Victory, which directed the arriving public to the city’s rulings institution, Germany’s rule would have a 380 ft. tall arch as a memorial to those lost in the World Wars. Despite Hitler’s political capability to built “Germania”, both Worlds War I and World War II delayed Berlin’s city plans, thus preventing any construction to actually occur.

Fig 4. 1862 Hobrecht Plan
Fig 4. 1862 Hobrecht Plan
Fig 5. Adolf Hitler's ideal Berlin. Massive, monumental and rigid.
Fig 5. Adolf Hitler’s ideal Berlin. Massive, monumental and rigid.
Fig 6. The house of the German empire linked straight to the railway station by the great Avenue of Victory.
Fig 6. The house of the German empire linked straight to the railway station by the great Avenue of Victory.



Politics have since then lead urban design to new developments. In the 20th century, policies had its most direct influence in the avant-garde architectural advances. Teige’s manifesto only recently translated into English has become not only a collectable architecture book, but also the archetype for a revolutionary way of living. In his writings, Teige diminishes influential architects such as Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe by illustrating their contribution of the dwelling problem as simply low budget prototypes of the upper hand aristocracy.

Karel Teige, a prominent figure and avant-garde critic of the emerging architecture of the 1920’s and 1930’s, evolved his ideas of design, housing and urbanism from the communist principles that were present in his native country, the Czech Republic, Germany’s friend. Teige, an active participant of the International Congress of Modern Architecture4 (CIAM), took the organizations aim to develop comfortable, livable and affordable housing systems for the growing working class of the twentieth century, to propose an extreme rethinking of the domestic space. ­­In his book, The Minimum Dwelling, Teige attempts to find the answer to the housing crisis that was permeating through Europe and the rest of the world after the industrial revolution and through the Great Depression.

A country’s economic prosperity is undeniably a goal of the political machine. Regardless of a country’s political system, urban planning has been used to direct people towards the city’s economic growth. As seen in the course of 600 years, European countries, such as Italy, Russia and Germany, have used the blueprint of the city, the plan, to facilitate economic rise, by integrating citizens with the businesses, which drives their economies.


1. The Guelphs and The Ghibillines:
In the 12th century the Guelphs and the Ghibillines, two groups supporting the Pope and the Holy Roman Empire, separated during the clash for power between the Papacy and the Holy Roman Empire. The conflict started in 1075 and ended in 1122, however the division between the Guelphs and the Ghibillines continued in Italy until the 15th century.

2. The Medici Dynasty:
The Medici Dynasty was a political family of wealthy bankers that sustained important power from the 14th to the 16th century in Italy. However, formally they endured as citizens rather then as monarchs.

3. An Oligarchy:
A type of political system in which power lays on a few number of people. These people are usually distinguished by wealth, royalty, family ties or military control.

4. The International Congress of Modern Architecture:
An organization established in 1928 were the most prominent architect of the time meet to discus current landscape, urban and housing and industrial design. The objective was to circulate the principles of the Modern Movement.



Project 1: Fidel Castro’s Cuba


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Habermas, Jurgen. Structural transformation of the public sphere. Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1991.

Karel, Teige. The Minimum Dwelling. Prague: Václav Petr, 1932.


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