‘By far the greatest and most admirable form of wisdom is that needed to plan and beautify cities and human communities,’ opined the renowned Greek philosopher Socrates more than sesquimillennia years ago on the planning of towns. 

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An Ancient 2000-Year-Old Roman City in Algeria with Modern Grid Designs_©Delhiplanet.com

The definition of urban planning has evolved over the years under the evolving needs and technologies. And the one that serves our understanding the best at present is that urban planning deals with the design and organization of urban space and activities. It involves goal setting, data collection and interpretation, forecasting, architecture, analytical thinking, and public consultation in both the growth of open space (greenfields sites) and the revitalization of existing areas of the region. 

In 1987, the United Nations-sponsored World Commission on Environment and Development in Our Common Future advocated sustainability as an important factor of urban planning and referred to it as the means to development that would meet the current needs of society without jeopardising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. The lines emphasising a plan of action that would help make the future a better place for the coming generations are backed briefly by the standing examples of our ancestors’ architectural innovations. Their feats have impacted the architecture that we experience in this day and age. 

The origin of urban planning is intertwined with the history of cities, as planning is apparent at some of the oldest known urban locations. One of those many historical boons is grounded in Roman architecture. Ancient Rome has a paramount influence on subsequent society. Even though the Roman Empire existed thousands of years ago, we can still find evidence of it in our sculpture, architecture, science, literature, language, and law. 

The ancient Romans have made a mark on our culture, from bridges and stadiums to books and the vocabulary we hear every day. Wonder which innovations influenced the urban planning that characterises our cities today? Let us have a look. 

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Campitelli Ruins in Rome_©Aishwarya Chhajed 

1. Grids and Circulation

Roman architecture was influential not only because of its magnificent structures and grand designs but also because of the notion of infrastructure, which enabled the empire to work. The Romans were the first to construct a massive and complex road network connecting cities to the capital. All had to be well-organized and well-ordered for the Romans. Streets were laid out in neat, straight lines in a grid-iron pattern in a hierarchy of primary and secondary. 

You may have already heard the saying, “All roads lead to Rome.” They did, in fact, at one point. Add on the construction of bridges and aqueducts, and much of contemporary life would be impossible to imagine without the ideas of Roman architects. If a city has roads and bridges, it was intimidated by Roman architecture in the strictest sense.

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Cobbled roads at the ruins of Pompeii_©Aishwarya Chhajed 

2. Forums

The forum(a wide-open plaza surrounded by important buildings) was the civic, social, and economic centre of the city, and was traditionally the focus of Roman cities. Major temples, significant shrines, the basilica (a law court) and other official meeting places for the town council, such as a curia building, were situated in the city’s forum. Quite often the city’s markets sprang up around the bustling forum. 

The porticos, colonnades, arches, and fountains that beautified a Roman megapolis and welcomed tired travellers to town enclosed the forum, filling the streets, framing gateways, and allowing crossing: the porticos, colonnades, arches, and fountains and welcomed weary travellers to town. These forums evolved and present themselves in today’s urban planning as nodes and public squares.

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Painting depicting the Forum in ancient Rome_© https://pin.it/1RDTfrY 
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Forum of Pompeii_©Lonely Planet

3. Services

What makes a city on the urban scale more liveable in the present day and age? It is the easy availability of services of which water supply and drainage make the lead. Astonishingly enough, even the Romans had convenient access to such services. The Roman engineers were highly skilled and understood physics as they were able to erect aqueducts and better methods to aid water transport for drinking, public baths and sewerage systems. 

The Aqua Appia, Rome’s first aqueduct(completed in 312 BC), was 16.4 kilometres long and delivered 75,537 cubic metres of water every day, with a net drop of ten metres. They even used water as a source of energy to fuel mines and mills. 

Resembling the modern sewers, the Romans had a complicated system of sewers paved in stones. Waste from the latrines was flushed into the main drainage system through a central canal, and then into a nearby river or drain. Water tanks, utility drains, and abundant sources of water are found in almost every home. Only public lavatories, which were constructed around the town and linked to underground sewers, served as toilets. 

Also, many structures were discovered to possess hypocaust under-floor central heating, a feat that has not yet formed an integral service system in many cities. The Roman water supply and waste management system led the way for these services to become one of the core necessities of an efficient city. 

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The roman aqueduct in Kavala_©Alya12_Flickr.com

4. Residential Planning and Housing Typologies

Each block in the grid-iron pattern measured 70 Roman feet(21M X 21M) and contained one to four houses. Romans had a wide range of housing divided as per the income groups much like we do today. The privileged could own a city house (Domus) as well as a country farmhouse (villa), while the less fortunate resided in Insulae, which were multi-story apartment buildings. 

The primary businesses were located in the town’s centre, while the citizen’s residences and apartments were located on the outskirts. This planning scheme is exercised to date and effect for a large number of cities.

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Roman Villa_© asIVLur.jpeg (510×392) (imgur.com)

5. Amenities

Infrastructure for entertainment was given considerable importance and varied greatly to suit all tastes in Rome, necessitating the erection of many types of structures in the city’s layout. Trips to the gymnasium became part of a balanced Roman lifestyle. Grand gymnasium-bath complexes had running paths, small scale spas and saunas, parks, and libraries constituted the healthcare, sanitation, educational, and other facilities. 

These facilities were planned closer to the forum before the then residential zone. Other significant amenities such as theatres, amphitheatres, and circuses were also deemed crucial.

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Bath House_©Pinterest
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Colosseum_©Aishwarya Chhajed 

Throughout the Roman Empire, hundreds of towns were built, expanded, and redeveloped, and many of them are still cities today. The Roman town-building tradition has piqued scholarly attention for decades, as the standing remains of Roman towns are one of the most formidable reminders of their urban-focused civilization. While other methods are synonymous with urban planning, it entails carving the basic structure of a potential town into the landscape and setting parameters for its physical growth. 

Many facets of the modern era can be traced back to the ancient Romans. It’s no wonder that a once-thriving empire was able to have such an influence on the planet and have such a lasting legacy. Furthermore, the urban planning that we form a part of this present is no exception to the norm.


  1. Ambler, J. (n.d.). Roman architecture (article) | Ancient Rome. [online] Khan Academy. Available at: https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/ancient-art-civilizations/roman/x7e914f5b:beginner-guides-to-roman-architecture/a/roman-architecture [Accessed 20 Apr. 2021].
  2. Breeders, B. (n.d.). How Roman architecture influenced modern architecture. [online] architecturecompetitions.com. Available at: https://architecturecompetitions.com/how-roman-architecture-influenced-modern-architecture/ [Accessed 20 Apr. 2021].
  3. Ricketts, C. (2018). 8 Innovations of Roman Architecture. [online] History Hit. Available at: https://www.historyhit.com/innovations-of-roman-architecture/ [Accessed 20 Apr. 2021].
  4. Wikipedia Contributors (2015). History of urban planning. [online] Wikipedia. Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_urban_planning [Accessed 20 Apr. 2021].

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