Ildefons Cerdà and the Future of Spatial Planning: The Network Urbanism of a City Planning Pioneer

By Neuman, Michael | The Town Planning Review, March 1, 2011 | Go to article overview

Ildefons Cerdà and the Future of Spatial Planning: The Network Urbanism of a City Planning Pioneer


Neuman, Michael, The Town Planning Review


This paper assesses the legacy of Catalan engineer-planner Ildefons Cerdà. It highlights his 1859 plan for Barcelona and his 1867 text The General Theory of Urbanisation. It exposes elements of the theory, methods, and plan of this planning pioneer; and situates them in the context of the times, and in the context of the emergence of the modern urban planning movement. The paper also indicates the importance of the Cerdà plan for planning in Barcelona over the twentieth century. Lastly, it discusses its relevance for the twenty-first century, in which network urbanism and system integration are critical watchwords for planning progress and sustainability.

The construction of cities, if it is not already, will soon become a true science that will require great and profound studies in all the branches of human knowledge, and most especially in the social sciences and in all the admirable advancements of modern civilization. (Ildefons Cerdà, 1859a1)

Cerdà and the origins of modern town planning

The origins of comprehensive city improvements through physical planning in industrial Europe are usually attributed to the works of Georges Haussmann, Prefect of the Seine (administrative district that included Paris) from 1853 to 1870, and Ildefons Cerdà, the Catalan civil engineer who laid out the expansion of Barcelona in 1859. Infrastructure was a primary object of their planning and means of its realisation.

Haussmann was a skilful and wilful administrator whose plan transformed Paris, chiefly by a modern assemblage of wide streets and boulevards connecting key points such as rail stations and markets (Haussmann called them 'nodes of relation'), through demolishing buildings and neighbourhoods to create boulevards and open spaces, sanitary infrastructure, omnibuses, and gas lamp lighting. He also created two large public parks east and west of the city and built numerous community facilities: schools, hospitals, barracks and prisons (Choay, 1969; Benevolo, 1980; Saalman, 1971). Perhaps most significant to the future planning profession was his view of the city. Based on planimetric and topographic surveys of the entire city, he conceived of intervening to create whole circulatory and respiratory systems that, according to Choay, would 'give unity to and to transform into an operative whole' his city (Choay, 1969, p. 16). The social and environmental price that Paris and Parisian society had to pay to obtain this transformation based on creative destruction has been the subject of debate (Jordan, 1995).

For his part, Cerdà was more daring than Haussmann. His surveys were more comprehensive, covering a wide range of conditions beyond the topographic work done by his Parisian contemporary (Cerdà, 1855a, 1855b, 1856). He too based his 1859 Proyecto de Reforma y Ensanche de Barcelona (Plan for Reform and Expansion of Barcelona) on circulatory and stormwater systems, and outdistanced Haussmann by providing for multi-level transportation interchanges that foresaw mechanised urban mass transit including rail. He conducted elaborate social, demographic, housing, economic, public health and environmental surveys of existing conditions upon which he based his planning proposals. He conducted urban design studies for the arrangements of housing and other buildings in blocks that integrated open public space into each block. His plan was an extension of the city outside the city walls, which were just torn down. It was a greenfield plan that projected streets on agricultural land, most of which was of low productivity. It provided for other infrastructures as well: parks and plazas, sidewalks and gardens, hospitals and markets, roads and rails, water supply, sewerage, and storm drainage (Cerdà, 1859b, 1867). Most important for this analytical comparison, his proposals were built upon a coherent and empirically based theory of urbanisation, a term that he coined (Cerdà, 1859b, 1867).

Thus with Cerdà's plan and theory, building on the sanitary idea of Chadwick as well as Haussmann's Plan, modern comprehensive city planning began to take shape, based on rigorous social and environmental surveys, with a decidedly infrastructural vocation.

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