Planning the Ideal City

This week students at OISE Cambridge are preparing a presentation on the Ideal School or training centre.

Yesterday I posted about Summerhill, the quasi-anarchist school founded by A.S. Neill in 1921. Today I would like to discuss briefly another utopian project which is both like and radically unlike Summerhill  – the Ideal City of the Renaissance.


In the fifteenth century in Italy men took it into their heads to plan cities that would embody ideals of civic and political life, visions of regular and symmetrical city design. The cities would be spacious and ordered (unlike the real medieval cities in which they lived), they would be an apt size for political life, they would reflect the social hierarchies of the citizens (large houses for the rich, small for the artisans) and they would be beautiful.


We are alive now to the dangers of over-planning – we have in the last century or so planned a great many dead cities of one sort or another – but in the Renaissance, town planning seemed to offer limitless possibilities. ‘A man’, said Leon Battista Alberti, one of the earliest visionaries of Ideal Cities, ‘may do all things if he will’; and that included creating a social space in which, like Summerhill, citizens would be both free from coercion and free to exercise their various civic responsibilities.

In the end the only approximations to ideal cities which were in fact built were designed for their defensive capability – the geometries of the Ideal City were well-suited to protection against artillery and especially the new iron cannonball (introduced into the Italian peninsula by the French in 1494). And well suited, also, to control of the populations which they had been invented to liberate. In this short excerpt from the documentary, The Day the Universe Changed (1985), James Burke describes modern-day Palmanova, built in the sixteenth century after the pattern of the ideal cities, as a city in the form of command-and-control coordinates.

It would seem to be true that while planning is a necessary part of human existence and enterprise – how else do you grow a crop for next season? – it is not the end result that is planned in detail but the conditions under which the end result will, with luck, emerge. And A.S Neill intuitively understood that, in a way that Leon Battista Alberti and his peers could not.


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