Ancient Town Planning

THE inception and growth of cities is happening at a rapid pace in the modern world. Urban planning and design is constantly adopting contemporary design strategies to provide solutions to ever changing requirements and fulfill human needs.

By Revati Rajwade

Prior to dismissing the earlier schemes as archaic it is essential to study some of the most pragmatic and systematic town planning principles of ancient cities. Even then, these cities were planned with a futuristic vision after considering several factors like security, ease of circulation and proper disposal of waste. Let us look into the intricacies of urban planning of a few ancient cities where their modern counterparts still offer glimpses of the past.

Ancient Rome’s town planning played a pivotal role in shaping modern Rome. The entire ancient scheme showed a holistic approach which covered the entire spectrum from choosing a strategic location for establishment of the city to managing its services.

Rome was established near the Tiber river and Alban hills around 753 BC. This site offered many benefits as the river was a natural border. It flowed through the city offering water, transport, and sewage disposal and the hills gave a safe defensive position.

The Ancient Romans used a specific scheme for city planning that centered around military defense and civil convenience. The basic city plan consisted of a central forum with city services, surrounded by a compact grid of streets bordered by a wall for defense. The wall was also used to mark the city limits and was covered by a fortified gate at the front of the city.

The Roman city was a rectangle broken up into roughly four equal and rectangular parts by two main streets which crossed at right angles at its centre. All the other streets ran parallel or at right angles to these two streets, and this resulted in a definite ‘chess-board’ pattern of rectangular house-blocks called insulae- the Roman equivalent of a modern city block.

During that time these blocks accommodated many people. They were often several floors in height. Each of these apartments had their own terrace. These buildings were fairly simplistic in nature, without indoor plumbing and with little insulation from the weather.

As a result, the inhabitants of insulas would have to venture to public wells for a steady water supply. Sometimes the house blocks were square or oblong in shape but fairly uniform in size. The streets themselves were moderate in width – the main thoroughfares were little wider than the rest and the public buildings within the walls were merged in the general mass of houses. Each main road held a gateway with watchtowers. The roads and bridges eased communication around the large empire.

The chief structure, the Forum, was an enclosed court, decorated with statues and colonnades but devoid of dominant facades. The Forum was a central meeting place located in the heart of the city where citizens and politicians would gather to discuss pertinent issues, business deals and generally congregate. As time went by, and the Roman Empire grew in splendour and size and more emphasis was placed on the Forum. More Forums were constructed under different emperors. As these additional Forums were built, business districts and markets would spring up in the immediate area, thus creating multiple centres of commerce in the city.

In one of the earliest examples of internal spatial structures of cities, ancient Rome can be represented by the sector model in the early years. This indicates that residential patterns were clearly based on affluence. The city’s poor were concentrated to the east of the original forum in an area known as the subura. The affluent of Rome lived in multi-roomed houses called domus.

Despite the fact the vast majority of the city wasn’t wealthy enough to live in domus, they made up a disproportionately high percentage of the city landscape. However, during the height of its power, the sector model became redundant and intermingling of housing sectors was adopted.

Apart from housing, Ancient Romans also knew the essentiality of systematic services. Hence, aqueducts were built to provide fresh supply of water to Rome and sewers were laid beneath their streets for efficient sewage disposal. The first sewer was built in 500 BC and thereafter better sewers were built throughout the city.

Hospitals were built to ensure proper treatment for the sick and schools for imparting education. Along with the utilitarian structures, importance was given to constructing structures like the Colosseum and Amphitheatres which housed entertainment programmes.

Over the course of the period, ancient Romans believed that public buildings should be made to impress and used purely as a public function. A prime example of one of these type buildings is the Pantheon which has been deemed an architectural revolution. Places of worship such as the Temples and Basilicas played important roles in empire unification so much that it is often said religion and politics allied the entire Roman world. These temples and Basilicas were located in the central part of the city.


The collapse of Roman civilisation saw the demise of Roman urban planning. However, traces of the Ancient Roman city planning style can be observed in modern Rome and it has also influenced many towns across Europe.

Another example of an ancient city’s town-planning is the Italian city Aosta, not far from the foot of Mont Blanc. Aosta is amongst the less famous cities and was founded by Augustus in 25 B.C. on an empty spot. However, what makes it an important piece of study is the fact that it was built to provide homes for time-expired soldiers and to serve as a fortress in an Alpine valley.

Its first inhabitants were 3,000 men discharged from the service and their wives and children. Its population may have numbered at the outset some 17,000 people. The city formed a rectangle of 620 yards by 780 yards and covered an area of about 100 acres. The walls formed sharp right angles at the corners. Within the walls was an amphitheatre, a theatre, public baths, a structure covering nearly 2 acres and interpreted as a granary and private houses.



Beneath the chief streets the presence of sewers contributed to an efficient drainage system. The whole city was divided by a regular network of streets into rectangular blocks just as observed in Rome. It can be seen that the grid pattern of town planning was the most widely adopted scheme for ancient urban planning.

In totality there were sixteen blocks, nearly identical in shape and covering an area of around 5½ acres. Four gates provided entrance into this walled city. A curious observation shows that the two longer sides which face northwest and southeast are far from the centre and closer to the southwestern end of the city. In an era where symmetry and orthogonal plans and designs were in vogue for all practical purposes, the location of the gates remain a mystery.

A completely different thought process of zoning can be observed in Chinese city planning but in spite of the radically different cultural influence certain common aspects can be observed. Ancient Chinese urban planning was the application of the traditional principles of Chinese architecture to urban design. Amongst all cities, Chang’an was the most magnificent capital in Chinese history. Now known as Xi’an, it lies in the central part of China.

Initially built by Emperor Wen of the Sui Dynasty, the capital reflected incredible grandeur. The city followed the rules of heaven and earth as in Chinese culture. To accommodate larger population, the Chang’an was built unprecedentedly large in scale, with a size of 84 sq km.
It was one of the biggest cities at that time, seven times larger in size than the capital of Byzantine Empire of the same period. The site was selected after a conscientious investigation of the geographical features. The area chosen lay near a mountain range with topographical conditions which encouraged the flow of rivers in complete splendor.

According to records the number of lanes and streets in Daxing City were designed on special purpose. The south to the imperial palace had four lanes, symbolising four seasons. There were nine lanes in the south and north which referred to the ritual from Rites of Zhou, the 13 lanes at both sides of the Imperial palace stood for the 12 months of a year plus an intercalary month.


It is said that it was a rule to add symbolic meanings to the planning of a city. There were separate commercial zones called the east market and west market. It was a place where a dazzling array of commodities was displayed for sale and numerous businessmen gathered. It was the economic activity center of Chang’an and the industrial and commercial trade centre of the country.

The residential area comprised lanes, which were separate units of Chang’an, similar to today’s residential community. They were orderly arrayed and planned in unification. The dwelling houses for the affluent class or members of the royal family were located close to the imperial palace. An arterial street divided this royal city into east and west halves and all the buildings were distributed in symmetry with the street as the axis.

Ancient cities indeed taught us a lot in terms of town planning and distinct areas for residence, commerce and services.

Revati is an Architect and Interior Designer by profession and a writer by passion. She can be reached at: