Early Williamsburg and Urban Planning

May 7, 2019  

  • Blog

The origins of zoning are often traced to the early twentieth century in America, or the late nineteenth century in Germany. While not false, this belies the extent to which urban planning has long required design and building practices that would today typically be mandated by zoning. In The Urban Idea in Colonial America (Temple University Press, 1977) Sylvia Doughty Fries describes the creation of Williamsburg, VA. Fries emphasizes the cultural and aesthetic roles that Williamsburg would play for the students at the College of William and Mary as well as others in Williamsburg: “What is remarkable about the Act [of 1705, mandating the creation of Williamsburg] is the care taken to determine, as a matter of law, the total appearance of the city.” (116) Building materials, minimum setbacks, and uniform appearance from the street were among the measures dictated by law. The streets themselves were rigorously planned, with reference both to the aesthetic appeal of the streetscape and to more formal mathematical principles. These aesthetic concerns were not undertaken merely for their own sake, but also for their salutary and pleasing effects on residents and visitors. (117-19) As the economic base of cities came to depend less on heavy industry and other large-scale enterprises during the twentieth century, we have seen the emergence of aesthetic justifications for zoning. The creation of Williamsburg seems embedded deep in the colonial past, but it may yet have lessons to teach about the future of zoning.