The epidemics behind urban planning: The foundations

Hobrecht Plan

By Prof Ares Kalandides

In 1862 in Berlin, the building engineer James Hobrecht undertook the design of a ‘development plan for Berlin’s surroundings,’ today known simply as the ‘Hobrecht Plan’. Hobrecht was part of a broader Berlin movement, which, starting in the mid-nineteenth century and following several epidemics of cholera, believed in the role of central planning in sustaining and improving public health. Politicians such as medical doctor Rudolf Virchow (1821–1902) considered contemporary sewerage, like that already seen in parts of England, to be indispensable for the improvement of public health in the capital. Whereas Hobrecht is mostly remembered for the 1862 Berlin development plan, undoubtedly one of his major contributions is the modernization of the sewerage system.

The ‘Hobrecht Plan’ provided the outline for the development of a big part of Berlin and it is still visible today in large areas of the inner city. It was the first complete street plan for an expansion of the built-up area inside the municipal borders, with the main goal to provide a street pattern for predominantly agricultural areas around the existing city that were to be designated for construction, providing housing for Berlin’s exploding population.

Hobrecht’s intention was not to interfere with the existing social order, but rather respect it and work with it. This is apparent in his planning principle of social and functional mix, which was already controversial at his time: poorer and wealthier social groups were to live together in one building complex, while dwelling and work were to be integrated in the same city block. There is a social vision behind this concept, based on the liberal bourgeois tradition of the time, whereby the lower classes learn from the upper ones through imitation, while the more affluent ones will be charitable toward the poorer ones through contact.

The plan did not modify the city but added an abstract system of repeatable patterns of squares, streets, and city blocks around the existing core. The prevailing street plan was radial, with roads spreading in all directions from several focal points. Such points were mostly squares, equally distributed across the urban area, producing several subcenters instead of one single core one. As it is a plan for the extension of the city, it is consequently a completely different type of urban intervention than the one undertaken by Baron Haussmann in Paris.

Haussmann's intervention in Paris
(The boulevards, streets and parks designed by Haussmann during the Second Empire. By Dimitri Destugues – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Between 1853 and 1870 Haussmann, responsible for public works in Paris, cut wide, straight, avenues through the labyrinthic pattern of the small streets of the city, that had hitherto largely kept its medieval character. Although the declared purpose of the planning was mostly economic and aesthetic, behind it were primarily military (eliminating narrow streets where rebellions could not be controlled) and health considerations, opening up space to allow in more light and air. Haussmann knocked down 12,000 buildings, in neighbourhoods (which by today’s standards could be considered slums), and opened up parks on the English model across both city centre and periphery. Just like Hobrecht in Berlin, Haussmann created new systems of drainage, thereby removing the sources of foul odours, believed at that time to be the main causes of epidemics.

John Snow's cholera map
(Broad St. Cholera Map by John Snow – Published by C.F. Cheffins, Lith, Southhampton Buildings, London, England, 1854 in Snow, John. On the Mode of Communication of Cholera, 2nd Ed, John Churchill, New Burlington Street, London, England, 1855.)

It was only a few years earlier, in 1846 in London, that the medical doctor John Snow had mapped a cholera epidemic in Soho, managing to trace back its origin to a single pump on Broad St.. Based on the mapping, he was able to formulate his hypothesis that the source of cholera was germ-contaminated water rather than ‘miasmata’, particles of foul air, which was the most prevalent theory about the spread of epidemics at the time. Snow’s discovery changed our understanding of public health and influenced the role of urban planning, by considering the urban conditions that are favourable for the transmission of an infection.

Friedrich Engel's The conditions of the working classes
(Friedrich Engels: Die Lage der arbeitenden Klasse in England. Leipzig 1845.)

It was approximately at the same time, in 1845, that the German philosopher Friedrich Engels published ‘The Condition of the Working Class in England’ a study of the industrial working class in Victorian England, particularly in Manchester, where Engels had lived between 1842-1844. Through personal observations and collected evidence, he argued that the enclosures and the ensuing industrial revolution has made the lives of former land labourers worse. Many of these arguments are based on epidemiological data, e.g. from large industrial cities such as Manchester and Liverpool, where mortality from epidemics was four times that in the surrounding countryside and significantly higher than the national average. A study of the industrial town of Carlisle showed the substantial difference in mortality rates among children before and after the introduction of mills in the late 18th century. Although some of the evidence may have been flawed from today’s perspective. Engels’ account was highly influential among the radical thinkers of the late 19th and early 20th century. Indirectly, it also had a large impact on two movements that appeared more than half a century later: The Garden City movement at the end of the 19th century in the UK and the ‘Neues Bauen’ in post WWI Germany.

Ebenezer Howard's garden cities

(Caption: By Ebenezer Howard (1850-1928) – originally published in “Garden Cities of tomorrow”, Sonnenschein publishing, 1902)

The garden city movement is an approach to urban planning which tries to combine city and country living, by proposing different size, interconnected communities with dedicated zones for residential, industrial, and agricultural use, surrounded by greenbelts. The concept was introduced in the UK in 1898 by Ebenezer Howard, whose main objective was  to counter the appalling living conditions of industrialization and create healthy homes for working people. Letchworth Garden City and Welwyn Garden City, Hertfordshire, UK, were built based on Howard’s ideas and later the movement was extended from urban to regional planning, influencing development of many new communities based on Howard’s ideas. Public health was one, yet not the only consideration of Ebenezer Howard. His vision of the ‘good life’ was one that combined the benefits of the city and the countryside, in a utopian egalitarian society.

You can read Part 2: The Welfare State, here.

One thought on “The epidemics behind urban planning: The foundations

Comments are closed.