A Brief History of Urbanism in North America: 1800s

The 1800s brought an influx of new residents to North American cities. Here are a few of the urban innovations that were created to help deal with the rapidly increasing population:

1851 Central Park New York

Between 1821 and 1855, New York City nearly quadrupled in population. As the city expanded, people sought out the few existing open spaces, mainly cemeteries, to get away from the noise and chaotic life in the city. The need for a great public park was identified in the 1840s by prominent New Yorkers such as Evening Post editor William Cullen Bryant and the first American landscape architect, Andrew Jackson Downing.


In 1853 the New York legislature designated a 700-acre area in Manhattan for a park. In 1857, Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux’s Greensward Plan was selected as the winning design by the state-appointed a Central Park Commission. According to Olmsted, the park was

of great importance as the first real Park made in this century—a democratic development of the highest significance…

The park was officially completed in 1873.  it was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1963.


1855 The First Model Tenement House, New York City

The First Model Tenement House, New York City, 1855

Flagged Hallway in the "Big Flat" - Jacob Riis

By the 1850’s single family houses were not enough to house the influx of people moving to New York City. This led to the construction of the first multi-unit residential buildings. Among the first was The Big Flat, a model tenement built by the Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor (now the Community Services Society). It was the largest multiple dwelling built in New York before the 1880′s.  The six-story building was restricted to African-American families.

Originally there were eighty-seven apartments in the building, or about fourteen to a floor.  Each had three rooms and a closet large enough that could be used as an extra bedroom. In most of the apartments only one room had access to outside air and the inner rooms were always dark and practically unventilated. Pressure was often inadequate to carry water above the street floor. In winter the toilets, the sink traps, and the water pipes, which were outside the building, froze solid.

In 1867 the Association sold the Home to the Five Points House of Industry, who renamed it the Workingwomen’s Home. It was to serve as a refuge where women whose wages were small would be “withdrawn from temptation and brought under moral and Christian influences.” The Home did not fill up and was sold a year later.  Under private management the Big Flat lost whatever attributes of a model tenement it had once possessed. It was demolished over the winter of 1888-1889.


1868 First Suburb—Riverside, Illinois

Riverside Water Tower, Wikimedia Commons

Riverside was the first planned suburban community stressing rural as opposed to urban amenities. It was designed by Frederich Law Olmsted, Sr. and Calvert Vaux as a garden suburb.

The town’s plan, which was completed in 1869, called for curvilinear streets, following the land’s contours and the winding Des Plaines River. The plan also highlighted a central square, located at the main railroad station and a Grand Park system that included both large parks and  smaller parks and plazas provide for extra green spaces.* Residents could commute by rail to Chicago.

The Riverside Landscape Architecture District, was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1970


1885 First Skyscraper

Home Insurance Building, Wikimedia Commons

Chicago’s Home Insurance Building was designed and built by William Le Baron Jenney in 1884-85. It was the first high building to use a steel skeleton construction technique making it the first skyscraper (although not the tallest building in Chicago at the time) When built, the building was 10 stories high and 138 feet tall.  Two floors were added in 1890 .

In his designs, Jenney used metal columns and beams, instead of stone and brick to support the building’s upper levels. As a result, the building weighed only one-third as much as a ten-story building made of masonry allowing for the construction on taller structures.

The Home Insurance Building is an example of the famed Chicago School of architecture. The building was demolished in 1931 to make way for the 45-story Field Building (now the LaSalle National Bank Building).


Notable Cities

  • 1803 Chicago Grew from Fort Dearborn
  • 1837 Houston
  • 1843 Altanta Originally known as Marthasville
  • 1843 Victoria BC (my hometown!) Incorporated 1862
  • 1847 Salt Lake City Orginally known as Great Salt Lake City
  • 1850 Bytown Now know as Ottawa
  • 1858 Denver
  • 1867 Minneapolis
  • 1868 Phoenix
  • 1886 Vancouver BC


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Yuri Artibise

Yuri Artibise is an experienced policy analyst, community engagement practitioner and social media specialist. I have a Master of Public Administration degree with over 10 years of public policy research, analysis, and advocacy experience.