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The decades after the 1848 revolution saw a veritable explosion in government-led urban redesign projects throughout Europe. Only in that period did urban planning enter the canon as an academic field, as an area of law and administrative responsibility. Its rise was paralleled by a profusion of innovations in engineering, transport infrastructure, sewage and public hygiene. Planners such as Baron Haussmann legitimised their projects through technical and scientific necessity. One of the most influential theorists on the emergence of modern planning, Leonardo Benevolo, explained that the technicization of urban planning allowed central governments to exert ever-greater control over their capitals and regional cities while eschewing political accountability. The rhetoric of technicality and objective necessity, he claimed, masked political aims of conservative governments such as those of Bismarck, Disraeli or Napoleon III.

Turns to one of Germany’s greatest urban transformation projects, this paper offers a contrasting view. Strasbourg, annexed from France in 1871, was one of the fastest-expanding cities in the German empire. Bismarck hoped that stringent political hierarchies and interventionist planning laws inherited from the Napoleonic would guarantee the success of a planned expansion would transform Strasbourg into a showcase of imperial control. In practice however, it was local politics, not central government who proved most influential on Strasbourg’s plan. The municipal administration skilfully adopted a technicist rhetoric and garnered expert advice in order to push through its interests vis-à-vis Bismarck’s government. It exploited a latent conflict between adherents of the new ‘technical’ and the old ‘artistic’ school of planning to subvert the will of the imperial government. It conducted an open planning competition – one of the first in Germany – to legitimise the new plan under the eyes of a wider audience and an fledgling professional scene.

The story of Strasbourg challenges Benevolo’s long-held thesis that the modern discipline of technical urban planning catered predominantly to central governments, or indeed to conservative forces. Planning was equally attractive for citizens, liberals and local administrative institutions as an active means of bottom-up political participation.


Philipp is a third-year PhD student at the University of Cambridge, supervised by Prof. Chris Clark. His thesis compares urban planning in Strasbourg and Sarajevo, 1848-1918, two of the most tumultuous cities in the two central European empires. It explores how planning, itself still a nascent discipline, legal and administrative practice, unfolded in turbulent context and at the margins of imperial control.

All welcome- this seminar is free to attend but booking in advance is required.