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Urban History Articles – Cities Around the World from the Past

Urban History Articles - Cities Around the World from the Past

Take a journey through the history of urban planning as you discover vibrant societies, and explore centuries of cultural legacies.

The History of Major Cities from Ancient Times to the Present

10 of Detroit’s Most Senseless Building Demolitions, Mapped

“Because so much of Detroit’s architectural heritage has already been destroyed, it’s important to remember the lessons learned by the most avoidable and even pointless losses.” Historic cities in the world.

Paul Sewick, Curbed Detroit, 2017

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Story of cities #36: how Copenhagen rejected 1960s modernist ‘utopia’

While concrete was being poured across Europe’s cities, Denmark’s capital found itself at a crossroads: would it follow the car-centric vision of grand boulevards and streets in the sky – or keep its citizen-focused design?

Athlyn Cathcart-Keays and Tim Warin, The Guardian 2016

Lost cities #5: how the magnificent city of Merv was razed – and never recovered

Once the world’s biggest city, the Silk Road metropolis of Merv in modern Turkmenistan was destroyed by Genghis Khan’s son and the Mongols in AD1221 with an estimated 700,000 deaths. It never fully recovered.

Kanishk Tharoor, The Guardian 2016

14 of the oldest continuously inhabited cities

The world’s oldest cities boast beautiful architecture and amazing stories, yet remarkably few ancient cities stand today.

Bryan Nelson, Mother Nature Network 2018

Lost cities #1: Babylon – how war almost erased “mankind’s greatest heritage site”

In the first of a 10-part series, Justin Marozzi tells the story of this once-mighty city in Iraq is a microcosm of human history. Besieged by wars and weather, “restored” by Saddam Hussein, what has become of mystical Babylon?

Justin Marozzi, The Guardian, 2016

300 Years of New Orleans Architecture – Podcast

“In today’s episode, we explore New Orleans through the lens of architecture and time. Leading our expedition is Katrina Horning, founder of New Orleans Architecture Tours (nolatours.com). We’ll explore Faubourg Marigny and the French Quarter, then head uptown to the Garden District and beyond.”

Katrina Horning, Beyond Bourbon St., 2018.

Lost cities #6: how Thonis-Heracleion resurfaced after 1,000 years under water

Ancient Egypt’s gateway to the Mediterranean – submerged and buried under layers of sand – is an eerie reminder of how vulnerable cities are to nature’s forces

Jack Shenker, The Guardian 2016.

Story of cities #29: Los Angeles and the ‘great American streetcar scandal’

When LA was stripped of its beloved streetcar in the 1960s, the city was quickly thrust into a traffic-clogged world of private cars and diesel buses. But with the involvement of automobile and oil companies, was this the work of a conspiracy?

Colin Marshall, The Guardian 2016

Alexandria Egypt – Pharos (Lighthouse) of Alexandria

“The Lighthouse of Alexandria was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World built on the island of Pharos. It was constructed early in the Ptolemaic period, in the 3rd century BC (between 285 and 247 BC).”

Alexandria,The Pearl of the Mediterranean

Barcelona’s unloved planner invents science of ‘urbanisation’

Constricted by its medieval walls, Barcelona was suffocating – until unknown engineer Ildefons Cerda came up with a radical expansion plan. Rival architects disparaged him, yet his scientific approach changed how we think about cities.

Marta Bausells, The Guardian, 2016

Before-and-after maps show how freeways transformed America’s cities

“Between the 1950s and the 1980s, cities across the country undertook massive freeway construction projects. In many cases they decided to run the freeways straight through downtown, bulldozing thousands of homes and businesses in the process.”

Timothy B. Lee, Vox, 2016

Never built New York: the city that might have been – in pictures

From an elevated 19th-century pneumatic railway to a skyscraper cathedral and a Native American alternative to the Statue of Liberty, Never Built New York chronicles ambitious plans for the city which never saw the light of day.

Nick Van Mead, The Guardian 2017

Story of cities #39: Shenzhen – from rural village to the world’s largest megalopolis

When Leo Houng arrived in Shenzhen in 1974, it was an unremarkable Chinese settlement that ‘smelled of countryside’. Since then, he has witnessed the city rise up at a bewildering rate – with little regard for the families caught in its path.

Ilaria Maria Sala, The Guardian 2016

Benin City, the mighty medieval capital now lost without trace

With its mathematical layout and earthworks longer than the Great Wall of China, Benin City was one of the best planned cities in the world when London was a place of ‘thievery and murder’. So why is nothing left?

Mawuna Koutonin, The Guardian, 2016

Cybercity, Mauritius – a vision of Africa’s ‘smart’ future?

Ebene Cybercity was built 15 years ago to create a modern working environment for Mauritians and bring a hi-tech hub to this island nation. So does it offer a roadmap for Africa – or a warning of problems ahead?

Christopher F Schuetze, The Guardian, 2016

Delhi’s modernist dream proves a far-fetched fantasy

The planners of independent India’s new capital failed spectacularly in their attempt to create a poverty-free modernist utopia. Their legacy is a sprawling city awash with slums and hampered by bureaucracy.

David Adler, The Guardian, 2016

The story of cities, part 1: how Alexandria laid foundations for the modern world

In the first in a 50-part series charting the history of the planet’s urbanisation, Jack Shenker explores the ancient metropolis of Alexandria, which set a powerful precedent for future cities all over the world.

Jack Shenker, The Guardian 2016

Story of cities #2: Rome wasn’t planned in a day … in fact it wasn’t planned at all

The grid system which the Roman republic exported all over Europe was never employed in the capital itself. The city has always lacked a coherent plan – save for the monumental temple that once towered over it.

Adrian Mourby, The Guardian 2016


The federal government developed Greendale in 1936 as part of the Resettlement Administration’s (RA) Greenbelt Towns Program. Some historians, such as Paul Conkin, consider the greenbelt communities built under this program to be one of the most innovative New Deal initiatives.

Sherry Ahrentzen, Encyclopedia of Milwaukee

How Alexandria laid foundations for the modern world

Jack Shenker explores the ancient metropolis of Alexandria, which set a powerful precedent for future cities all over the world.

Jack Shenker, The Guardian, 2016

The Hidden History of Los Angeles

A podcast which explores the lesser known aspects of Los Angeles history.

Hidden History LA Continuing Podcast

The story of cities #15: the rise and ruin of Rio de Janeiro’s first favela

Since it was first built by war veterans in 1897, Morro da Providência has become a complex symbol of poverty, violence and sentimentality, fetishised in popular culture. But where do Rio’s favelas fit into Brazil’s vision for the Olympic Games?

Bruce Douglas, The Guardian 2016

How cities took over the world: a history of globalisation spanning 4,000 years

From bronze-age Iraq’s market-driven cities to the riches of Antwerp to the tech revolution in India, Greg Clark identifies the many waves of urban globalisation in an extract from his new book, Global Cities.

Greg Clark, The Guardian 2016

How London might have looked: five masterplans after the great fire of 1666

From Wren’s wide boulevards to Newcourt’s uniform grids, a new exhibition reveals the alternative plans to rebuild London after it was destroyed by the great fire, and asks: what could it have looked like now?

Adam Forrest, The Guardian 2016

How London was built: from Tower Bridge to the South Bank – in pictures

These photographs showing the construction of landmark London buildings and infrastructure projects are taken from Collage: The London Picture Archive, a new website home to more than a quarter of a million images of the UK capital spanning the last 550 years. The site also hosts The London Picture Map, an interactive record of lost buildings and places.

The Guardian 2016

Unbuilt Los Angeles: the city that might have been – in pictures

From the offshore Santa Monica freeway to a mini Las Vegas with pyramids and the Parthenon, Greg Goldin and Sam Lubell look at the LA that never happened.

Sam Lubell and Greg Goldin, The Guardian 2017

How the dirty Old Town became enlightened Edinburgh

Scotland’s capital was in a desperate state, plagued by social problems and limited space. Then a young, unqualified architect came up with a plan for Edinburgh New Town – and it heralded the greatest period in the city’s history.

Tom Campbell, The Guardian, 2016

London’s Great Stink heralds a wonder of the industrial world

By the mid-1800s, the River Thames had been used as a dumping ground for human excrement for centuries. At last, fear of its ‘evil odour’ led to one of the greatest advancements in urban planning: Joseph Bazalgette’s sewage system.

Emily Mann, The Guardian, 2016

Lost cities #9: racism and ruins – the plundering of Great Zimbabwe

In the 19th century, European visitors to this abandoned medieval city refused to believe that indigenous Africans could have built such an extensive network of monuments. Such ignorance was disastrous for the remains of Great Zimbabwe.

Mawuna Koutonin, The Guardian 2016

What Did Chicago Look Like Before the Great Fire?

This 1868 pocket map of Chicago shows the city in full-blown expansion, a mere 3 years before the infamous blaze.

Esri, Natasha Geiling, Smithsonian, 2013

Muziris: did black pepper cause the demise of India’s ancient port?

In the first century BC it was one of India’s most important trading ports, whose exports – especially black pepper – kept even mighty Rome in debt. But have archaeologists really found the site of Muziris, and why did it drop off the map?

Srinath Perur, The Guardian, 2016

Philadelphia grid marks birth of America’s urban dream

William Penn’s city was planned as a utopian ideal; a grid of broad streets to promote green urban living for settlers to this 17th-century colony. While Penn grew disillusioned, his design lives on in Philadelphia, and around the world.

Emily Mann, The Guardian, 2016

What Did San Francisco Look Like in the Mid-1800s?

A look at a sailing chart of San Francisco and its bay, made in 1859 by the fledgling US Coast Survey.

Esri, Natasha Geiling, Smithsonian, 2013

When Real Estate Plotters Planned Out Denver

Bankers and speculators in the Colorado capital used this 1879 map to explore the Mile High City’s real estate potential.

Esri, Natasha Geiling, Smithsonian, 2013

Shannon – a tiny Irish town inspires China’s economic boom

Created in 1959 to lure foreign investors with tax breaks, the Shannon Free Zone proved revolutionary across the world. But in today’s world of looser trade and tax havens, Ireland’s innovators face an uphill battle to stay relevant.

Matt Kennard and Claire Provost, The Guardian, 2016

The Birth of Baghdad was a landmark for world civilisation

“The foundation of al-Mansur’s ‘Round City’ in 762 was a glorious milestone in the history of urban design. It developed into the cultural centre of the world”. Historic cities in the world.

Justin Marozzi, The Guardian, 2016

The History of the National Mall, from the White House to the National Museum of African American History and Culture

“The original idea for the Mall — a grand, tree-lined avenue flanked by imposing buildings — goes back to the very origins of the capital city, Pierre L’Enfant’s plan conceived for George Washington. But in Washington, plans rarely go as planned, so the Mall has been a work in progress for more than 200 years.”

Aaron Steckelberg, Philip Kennicott, Bonnie Berkowitz and Denise Lu, Washington Post, 2016

The reclaimed stream bringing life to the heart of Seoul

When the Cheonggyecheon Stream replaced a traffic-filled stretch of elevated freeway with public space, water and vegetation it looked like a modern urbanist’s dream. The reality is more complicated, finds Colin Marshall.

Colin Marshall, The Guardian, 2016

Return of the city-state

Nation-states came late to history, and there’s plenty of evidence to suggest they won’t make it to the end of the century.

Jamie Bartlett, Aeon 2017

Revealed: Cambodia’s vast medieval cities hidden beneath the jungle

Exclusive: Laser technology reveals cities concealed under the earth which would have made up the world’s largest empire in 12th century.

Lara Dunston, The Guardian 2016

The rise and fall of great world cities: 5,700 years of urbanisation- mapped

Recent research provides a better understanding of urban populations throughout history, digitising almost 6,000 years of data for the first time.

Kanishk Tharoor, The Guardian, 2016

Saudi Arabia’s silent desert city

Madain Saleh isn’t as well-known as Petra, but the Nabateans’ second-largest city played a crucial role in their mysterious empire.

Marjory Woodfield, BBC Travel 2017

Skyscraper city: how New York was built – in pictures

The Big Apple’s early 20th-century building boom transformed the city with skyscrapers, subways and an awful lot of cement – as documented in these photographs from the New York Public Library’s archives.

The Guardian 2016

Story of cities #6: how silver turned Potosí into ‘the first city of capitalism’

The discovery of a mountain of silver (and a new way to extract it) transformed this remote Incan hamlet into the economic centre of Spain’s empire – larger than London, Milan or Seville. But then the silver ran out …

Patrick Greenfield, The Guardian 2016

Story of cities #8: St Petersburg – is the ‘city built on bones’ starting to crumble?

Built on a swamp at the cost of thousands of lives, Peter the Great’s ‘antidote to Moscow’ has survived uprisings, sieges and floods to become Europe’s third largest city. But is history now catching up with St Petersburg?

Alec Luhn, The Guardian 2016

Story of cities #9: Kingston, Jamaica – a city born of ‘wickedness’ and disaster

When the devastating earthquake of 1692 ripped through Port Royal, aka the ‘richest and wickedest city in the world’, a very different Caribbean capital rose up in its place. But could Kingston’s rigid grid plan impose order after the chaos?

Emily Mann, The Guardian 2016

Story of cities #11: the reclamation of Mumbai – from the sea, and its people?

Transforming Bombay’s seven islets into land fit for a city was a daunting challenge. Its success created one of the world’s megacities – but today Mumbai faces the twin challenges of extreme population density and severe flood risk.

Srinath Perur, The Guardian 2016

Story of cities #12: Haussmann rips up Paris – and divides France to this day

Georges-Eugène Haussmann is feted internationally for transforming the French capital with an audacious programme of urban planning. Yet 125 years after his death, his legacy at home remains much more controversial. Why?

Kim Willsher, The Guardian 2016

Story of cities #27: Singapore – the most meticulously planned city in the world

Lee Kuan Yew’s vice-like grip on power helped create a byword for cleanliness, efficiency and safety. What lies beneath this ‘Disneyland with the death penalty’? History of urban planning.

Colin Marshall, The Guardian 2016

Story of cities #31: Skopje plans for the future by fixating on its ancient past

Macedonia’s capital was rebuilt after the 1963 earthquake with a cutting-edge modernist vision. Now, critics say the hollow Doric columns and clumsy statues of ‘antiquitisation’ are transforming the city into a mini-Las Vegas.

Owen Hatherley, The Guardian 2016

Story of cities #28: how postwar Warsaw was rebuilt using 18th century paintings

When Warsaw’s Old Town was destroyed by Hitler’s troops in the second world war, the nation mobilised to rebuild the city with the rubble of its own destruction – and the work of Italian painter Bernardo Bellotto.

Daryl Mersom, The Guardian 2016

Vancouver dumps its freeway plan for a more beautiful future

In the 1960s, Vancouver’s historic downtown was at risk of being razed for modern road projects – only for an extraordinary protest movement to turn the tide, helping transform it into one of North America’s most ‘liveable’ cities.

Tyler Stiem, The Guardian, 2016

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