In a span of two centuries America saw the foundation of the largest number of cities ever established in such a short period of time. From the six European countries involved in the American venture - namely Portugal, Spain, France, England, Denmark and Holland - only Spain felt the importance of trading from organized communities and created a set of planning guidelines to consider when building the new towns. The guidelines did not only provide an action plan to establish new towns but also a plan to grow them sustainably through the years.
The guidelines for the planning of the new cities were developed in a 70 year span in a process that included constant feedback from the new territories.
Once Columbus set sail, Queen Isabella's instructions on how to settle in any potential new territory began to unfold. Her first (loose) instructions went 1501 to Fray Nicolás de Ovando, the governor of Hispaniola (Dominican Republic): "Since it is paramount to found towns on the island and it is not possible to give specific instructions from here, get a feel yourself for the places in the island, and choose the more suitable sites according to the qualities of the land and the inhabitants". (1)
1513 King Ferdinand got more specific in the "Instrucciones" to Pedrarias Dávila before his expedition to the province of Castilla del Oro (coast of Central America): "Let the city lots be regular from the start, so once they are marked out the town will appeared well ordered as to the place which is left for a plaza, the site for the church, and the sequence of the streets; for in places newly established proper order can be given from the start." (2)
Emperor Charles V continued the mission and issued several instructions to this end, like the "General Instructions for the Founding of Cities in the Indies" from 1521, the "Instructions to Hernán Cortés" from 1523 (3) and the "Imperial Provisions" from 1526 (4).
These instructions culminated in the "Ordinances Concerning Discoveries, Settlements and Pacification of the Indies" ("Ordenanzas de Descubrimiento, Nueva Población y Pacificación de las Indias") issued on July 13th 1573 by King Philip II, a complete set of urban guidelines with 100+ decrees concerning the founding of new towns (see below).
It is interesting though, that despite the late drafting of these Ordinances, its content had been in use since the arrival of the first settlers who had already built 200 new towns between 1500 and 1573. Valerie Fraser's view on this is that there was "some sort of cultural memory, an inherited, almost instinctive knowledge in town planning" early settlers were drawing on. (6)
The first urban centres began in Hispaniola (Dominican Republic) and then progressively expanded around the Caribbean and to Central America. Santo Domingo was the first town, built in 1502, followed by San Juan (1509), Santiago de Cuba (1514), Havana (1515), Veracruz (1519), Panamá la Antigua (1519), Santa Marta (1525) and Cartagena (1533). These early towns already show the basic aspects of the Spanish colonial town: a compact layout, a main square and a city grid laid out with respect to the cardinal points.
|Santo Domingo, Hispaniola (Dominican Republic) | est. 1502|
|San Juan, Puerto Rico | est. 1509|
|Havana, Cuba | est. 1515|
|Veracruz, Mexico | est. 1519|
|Old Panama City, Panama | est. 1519|
|Cartagena, Colombia | est. 1533|
|The "ordered" village by Juan de Matienzo, 1567|
|Lima, Peru | est. 1536|
|Santiago, Chile | est. 1541|
|Bogota, Colombia | est. 1553|
|Caracas, Venezuela | est. 1567|
|Buenos Aires, Argentina | est. 1580|
|Nueva Guatemala de la Asunción, Guatemala | est. 1776|
The 1573 Ordinances, a document that according to Axel I. Mundigo has left a "formidable physical imprint and social heritage" (7), are about:
* Consensus with locals and a masterplan
110. (...) On arriving at the place where the new settlement is to be founded - which according to our will and disposition shall be one that is vacant and that can be occupied without doing harm to the Indians and natives or with their free consent - a plan for the site is to be made, dividing it into squares, streets, and building lots, using cord and ruler, beginning with the main square from which streets are to run to the gates and principal roads and leaving sufficient open space so that even if the town grows, it can always spread in the same manner. (...)
* A healthy location:
111. Having made the selection of the site where the town is to be built, it must, as already stated, be in an elevated and healthy location; [be] with means of fortification; [have] fertile soil and with plenty of land for farming and pasturage; have fuel, timber, and resources; [have] fresh water, a native population, ease of transport, access and exit; [and be] open to the north wind; and, if on the coast, due consideration should be paid to the quality of the harbour and that the sea does not lie to the south or west; and if possible not near lagoons or marshes in which poisonous animals and polluted air and water breed.
* A space for gatherings and social activities:
112. The main plaza is to be the starting point for the town; if the town is situated on the sea coast, it should be placed at the landing place of the port, but inland it should be at the centre of the town. The plaza should be square or rectangular, in which case it should have at least one and a half its width for length inasmuch as this shape is best for fiestas in which horses are used and for any other fiestas that should be held.
113. The size of the plazas shall be proportioned to the number of inhabitants, taking into consideration the fact that in Indian towns, inasmuch as they are new, the intention is that they will increase, and thus the plaza should be decided upon taking into consideration the growth the town may experience. (...)
114. From the plaza shall begin four principal streets. (...)
115. Around the plaza as well as along the four principal streets which begin there, there shall be portals, for these are of considerable convenience to the merchants who generally gather there; (...)
116. In cold places, the streets shall be wide and in hot places narrow; but for purposes of defence in areas where there are horses, it would be better if they are wide.
118. Here and there in the town, smaller plazas of good proportion shall be laid out (...).
129. Within the town, a commons shall be delimited, large enough that although the population may experience a rapid expansion, there will always be sufficient space where the people may go to for recreation and take their cattle to pasture without them making any damage.
119. For the temple of the principal church, parish, or monastery, there shall be assigned specific lots; (...)
121. (...) the hospital for the poor and those sick of noncontagious diseases shall be built near the temple and its cloister; and the hospital for the sick with contagious diseases shall be built in such a way that no harmful wind blowing through it may cause harm to the rest of the town. If the latter be built in an elevated place, so much the better.
122. The site and building lots for slaughter houses, fisheries, tanneries, and other business which produce filth shall be so placed that the filth can easily be disposed of.
126. The plaza (...) shall be used for the buildings of the church and royal houses and for city use, but shops and houses for the merchants should be built first, to which all the settlers of the town shall contribute, and a moderate tax shall be imposed on goods so that these buildings may be built.
* Equal land distribution:
127. The other building lots shall be distributed by lottery to the settlers, continuing with the lots closer to the main plaza, and the lots that are left shall be held by us for assignment to those who shall later become settlers (...).
103. (...) The person responsible for the town must select urban lots, farm, and pasture lands for the person willing to populate the town, who shall receive the amount of peonias and caballerías on which he is willing and able to build as long as no one is awarded more than five peonias nor three caballerias if given the latter.
134. They shall try as far as possible to have the buildings all of one type for the sake of the beauty of the town.
|La Candelaria Historic District | Bogotá|
|Colonial House | Bogotá|
|La Candelaria Historic District | Bogotá|
|San Felipe (Casco Antiguo) | Panama City|
|San Felipe (Casco Antiguo) | Panama City|
|Main Plaza in Antigua, Guatemala | Photo J. Zanella|
The Spanish Crown believed that an open, ordered and beautiful town confers its inhabitants what they called polity, i.e. a set of virtues and values that grant the ability to live a dignified and happy life.
Whereas it is difficult to assess if polity was indeed created, a sure fact is that the 16th century Spanish colonial city model remains an invaluable addition in the quest for a better living.
(1) Instructions to Fray Nicolás de Ovando | 16 Sept 1501 | De la ciudad ortogonal aragonesa a la cuadricula hipanoamericana como proceso de innovacion-difusion, condicionado por la utopia | Vicente Bielza de Ory | Universidad de Barcelona 2002, note 16
(2) Instructions to Pedrarias Dávila | 2 August 1513 | City Walls: The Urban Enceinte in Global Perspective, note 61, p136 & in La ciudad en un cruce de caminos: Panamá y sus orígenes urbanos p73
(3) Instructions to Hernán Cortés | 26 June 1523
(4) Ordinance by Emperor Charles V | 1526 | Los origenes del urbanismo novohispano, Xavier Cortes Rocha
(5) Ordinances Concerning Discoveries, Settlements and Pacification by King Philip II | 13 July 1573
(6) The Architecture of Conquest: Building in the Viceroyalty of Peru 1535-1635 | Valerie Fraser | Cambridge University Press 2009
(7) The City Planning Ordinances of the Laws of the Indies Revisited. Part I: Their Philosophy and Implications | Alex I. Mundigo and Dora P. Crouch | Liverpool University Press 2004 p1 Intro
Urbs Domingo in Hispaniola, John Ogilvy | Barry Lawrence Ruderman Antique Maps Inc.
Plan of San Juan de Puerto Rico, 1794 by Cosme de Churruca | Barry Lawrence Ruderman Antique Maps Inc.
Map of Havana, 1798 by D. José del Rio | Barry Lawrence Ruderman Antique Maps Inc.
Map of Veracruz, 1777 by D. Sebastián Canel | Biblioteca Nacional de España
Map of Cartagenas de Indias 1550 Unknown
No records for other maps
* City Walls: The Urban Enceinte in Global Perspective | edited by James D. Tracy | Cambridge University Press 2000 * Ciudades Tropicales Sostenibles | Bruno Stagno & Jimena Ugarte | Instituto de Arquitectura Tropical 2006
* De la ciudad ortogonal aragonesa a la cuadricula hipanoamericana como proceso de innovacion-difusion, condicionado por la utopia | Vicente Bielza de Ory | Universidad de Barcelona 2002
* La ciudad en un cruce de caminos: Panamá y sus orígenes urbanos | María del Carmen Mena García | Escuela de Estudios Hispano-Americanos 1992
*Normas y leyes de la ciudad hispanoamericana: 1492-1600 | by Francisco de Solano y Pérez-Lila | Consejo Superior d eInvestigación Científica 1995
* Royal Ordinances Concerning the Laying out of New Towns (in Spanish) | Zelia Nuttall | The Hispanic American Historical Review Vol. 4, No. 4, Nov., 1921
* The Laws of the Indies: Ordinances for the Discovery, Population and Pacification of the Indies | Alex I. Mundigo and Dora P. Crouch | Liverpool University Press 2004
* The City Planning Ordinances of the Laws of the Indies Revisited | Alex I. Mundigo and Dora P. Crouch | Liverpool University Press 2004
* Un régimen urbanístico en la América hispana colonial: el trazado en damero en los S. XVI y XVII | Alan Durston 1994
by PS unless otherwise stated. Cover picture, Panama City old town