Prior to the American Revolution, municipalities had strong powers to control the use of land and thus shape their own form. These powers came out of a European tradition that treated the town or village as an independent corporation, which might own, control, or dispose of most of the land within its boundaries. Many U.S. communities started as grants to individuals or groups, which then, by virtue of the grant, had the power to dispose of land within their borders. Communities had broad powers to control economic activities within their borders. For example, municipal governments frequently had the power to decide whether an individual was to be allowed to practice a particular trade or business. Thus colonial towns had formidable powers to shape their patterns of development. They also faced weaker growth pressures than was later to be the case.
Today one can see the results of prerevolutionary town planning in many communities where subsequent growth pressures were not so overwhelming as to sweep away all traces of earlier times.1 Prerevolutionary planning survives well in parts of New England away from major metropolitan areas, including much of New Hampshire and Vermont as well as parts of Maine, western Massachusetts, and parts of Connecticut and Rhode Island. The urban patterns that characterize such towns—the town square, the reasonable amounts of space between buildings, the simple rectangular street pattern—are all legacies of the town planning of the period. The regular pattern of development and the open areas in Savannah are also an example of prerevolutionary town planning. The land for the city was a grant to a single individual, James Oglethorpe, who as grantee had the power to plan and impose an orderly and gracious pattern upon subsequent development.
The Revolution changed much of this. A certain amount of disorder was one price to be paid for political and personal freedom—a small price for what was gained, but still a price. Quite obviously, the Revolution ended the practice of creating municipalities through the mechanism of royal grants to individuals. More importantly, it placed the bulk of political power in the hands of the states. Substate units of government possessed only those powers granted them by the states. Municipal powers to control the use and disposition of land were thus greatly diminished.
James Oglethorpe's 1733 plan for Savannah (top left) and the gracious and open results from an 1855 drawing (top right). William Penn's 1682 plan for Philadelphia is shown at bottom. In both plans, note the symmetry, the differentiation between primary and secondary streets, and the provision of public open space.
The Constitution contains numerous safeguards for the rights of private property. (See, for example, the quotation from the Fifth Amendment in Chapter 5.) The protection of private property rights limits the capacity of a municipality to control development on privately owned land. Finally, the Revolution ushered in a very different set of attitudes, which weakened the influence of hierarchy, social status, and authority; strengthened the claims of individualism, and enhanced the prestige of entrepreneurial activity. That general change in consciousness favored a more freewheeling and less orderly process of development.2