Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

William Penn’s plan or the City of Philadelphia was an honest, inspired effort, fully imbedded in-as well as espousing-his Quaker beliefs. His new province and new city would be free of religious persecution and would, at the same time, pro­vide opportunities for even the most humble individual to achieve a level of financial success simply not available in the Europe of that time. In a very real sense the Philadel­phia of Penn’s “Holy Experi­ment” was the harbinger of the nineteenth century Utopias: Economy, Zoar, Bethel, Oneida and many others, established religious freedom and eco­nomic security.

The deliberate act of actu­ally planning a city prob­ably dates from the earliest of periods when the human race, or segments, evolved from a nomadic existence to one of farming, producing sur­pluses. These settlements sub­sequently became trading places and centers of com­merce. People gathered to­gether in certain locations, based on the towns or provinces from whence they came or ac­cording to their special trades. As the politics of ensu­ing years became less amen­able to free trade, the cities became fortresses, the bastides, in the Middle Ages; the world eventually emerged from the Dark Ages and cities rose with grand avenues, vistas, squares and plazas during the Renaissance.

In March of 1681, England’s King Charles II signed a charter establishing William Penn as governor and pro­prietor of Pennsylvania, and Penn had already developed in his own mind the image of a grand new city in the New World. Indeed, at the time he was much involved in the colonization process in the Jer­sey Provinces. He was con­cerned with the planning for such communities as Bur­lington in West Jersey and Ambo Point (now Perth Amboy) in East Jersey. These experi­ences gave him an open dimen­sional/spatial sense which was something new – and not derived from the European experience with its compacted medievalisms. It was actually greater in scope than en­visioned by the architects and planners of the Renais­sance.

This spatial Liberation com­bined with two urban traumas to further influence his planning concepts. The Great Plague descended upon London in 1664 and left dead, at its peak in Septem­ber, eight thousand persons each week. The second catastrophe followed in just two years when a fire in 1666 leveled most of London. Penn never specifically wrote of it, but his plans for Philadelphia clearly showed his concerns that these urban tragedies should be avoidable. He did allude to the problem in instructions to his com­missioners: “Let every house be placed, if the person so pleases, in the middle of each plat, as to the breadth way of it, that so there may be ground on each side for gar­dens, or fields, that it may be a green country town, which will never be burnt, and al­ways be wholesome.”

Well traveled in Europe, William Penn had visited cities and towns developed under Spanish influence, basically gridiron systems with squares and plazas of specific pro­portions. The colony of New Haven, Connecticut, with its nine large blocks arranged around and including a central park and settled in 1638, was no doubt known to him. He was probably famil­iar with many of the Lon­donderry plantations in North­ern Ireland which also were established on a gridiron pat­tern. But most importantly, Pennsylvania’s proprietor was influenced by the plans for the reconstruction of London following the Great Fire.

The gridiron concept, the origins of which rest in antiquity, was the nucleus of most of the proposals sub­mitted for the reconstruction of London. Several schemes clearly evidenced the French influence of the radial­-induced “Rond Points,” best known at the Gardens of Versailles and the town of Richelieu, commissioned by the cardinal and statesman in 1630. How London should be rebuilt became the dominant urban planning event of the seventeenth century, generat­ing heated debates, from nearly every citizen to the benches of Parliament. How­ever, none of the city de­signs – including those by acclaimed architect Sir Christo­pher Wren – were even executed; the rebuilding took place as faithfully close to the original as was physically possible.

But the ideas of the plans lingered. The plan submitted by Richard Newcourt in 1666, although not an extra­ordinarily imaginative presen­tation, showed uniform city blocks measuring 855 feet by 570 feet. Specifications featured a large open space in the center and four smaller open spaces, one placed in each quadrant. William Penn’s plan for Philadelphia in 1682, drawn just sixteen years later, proposed a large open space in the middle and four smaller open spaces in the quadrants. The Philadelphia plan shows the center park intersected at the middle of each side of the square by the chief axis, a feature, as it turns out, of the Law of the Indies promul­gated by Philip II of Spain
in 1573.

The east-west axis, now Market Street, was called High Street in the original plan. The north-south axis was, and still is, called Broad Street; still today, the two do not meet as they encircle, counter­clockwise, the center of Wil­liam Penn’s city of Phila­delphia. The quadrant parks are Franklin Square, Washington Square, Rittenhouse Square and the open space known as Logan Circle. Independence Mall, significant as it is, does not derive from the original plan for Philadelphia. A coincidence in design, this five park sequence? Perhaps. More important is what happened after Charles II granted William Penn the proprietorship of Pennsylvania.

Four months after obtaining his charter, William Penn outlined details for the colon­ization of the new province with initial promotional litera­ture published in July 1681: “That so soon as it pleaseth God … a certain quantity of land or ground plat shall be laid out for a large town or city … and every purchaser and adventurer shall, by lot, have so much land therein as will answer to the pro­portion which he hath bought or taken up upon rent.”

So much for preamble. Under the dateline of Septem­ber 30, 1681, Penn authored specific instructions for a com­mission of three people, acting as his emissaries, who were selected by him to accom­pany the first group of set­tlers. The instructions first called for the selection of a site for the city he envisioned. The site should be at an acces­sible location, provided that the situation was also “healthy” with “good soil for provision.” From the outset Penn was deeply concerned that this new place would have commer­cial viability. Despite all the more important tenets of his Quaker faith, Penn knew that a city in the New World would have to be commer­cially competitive; it was im­perative that ships could navigate “. . . of deepest draught of water, if possible to load or unload at the bank or key-side, without boating or lighterage.”

By early summer of 1682, the commissioners had determined the site of Philadel­phia. In April Penn had appointed Capt. Thomas Holme as surveyor-general, and Holme arrived in Pennsylvania in June to direct the planning of the City of Philadel­phia. For three months Holme and the commissioners worked at this planning task. The full gridiron plan with its five public squares, streets reaching from the Delaware to the Schuylkill, and from Vine Street on the north to Cedar Street on the south, did not immediately emerge from these preliminary planning efforts. The first plats, of which none seem to have survived, laid out lots from the Dela­ware shore westerly. And on the basis of these, a draw­ing for lots was held on September 9, and Holme and the commissioners certified the owners.

Considerable developmen­tal pressure swelled due largely to Penn’s own fervent enthusiasm and vision. The preamble offered a fabulous incentive. For every purchase of five hundred acres of land in the colony, the purchaser would be entitled to ten acres in “… the first great town or city … if the place will allow it.” To all who came he offered land at $50 for 100 acres. It was a powerful enticement. In the first year twenty ships sailed from England with as many as 3,000 passengers aboard.

It was not until October that Penn himself reached Pennsylvania after a trip of fifty-three days aboard the Welcome, a small sailing vessel of about three hundred tons. A barge carried him from Chester to Dock Creek. During his stay in Philadel­phia he lived in a small frame house on Chestnut Street, between Front and Second streets. His principal concerns were establishing the frame­work of provincial govern­ment (astonishingly liberal even in twentieth century terms) and cordial relationships with the Indians and neighboring colonists. But there existed some city planning matters to which he had to attend.

One of these matters was the full extension of the plan for Philadelphia from the Dela­ware to the Schuylkill. In a rare petulancy, Penn wrote in a 1685 account of his province that the town seemed con­trived for the first buyers. He annexed the Schuylkill por­tion to provide more room for newcomers and determined that the Delaware River bank was to be a public walk, free of commercial develop­ment – a curious romanticism given his realistic approach to the idea that cargo ships should be able to load or unload at the river’s edge.

Early in 1683 the entire, re­vised plan was in place and in effect, the operation was open for business. Holme, the surveyor-general, pre­pared a plan and description of the city which was published in London later that year. Translating the advertise­ment into current idiom, he described Philadelphia this way:

The city consists of a wide street along the bank of each river. Near the middle of the city, form river to river, runs High Street, one hundred feet wide. Also in the middle of the city, from side to side, runs Broad Street, it too is one hundred feet wide. In the center of the city is a square of ten acres, on which square will be located buildings for pub­lic purposes such as those of Moorefields in London (a public space available to all residents, not merely those whose properties fronted thereon). Eight streets, besides Broad Street, run from side to side. All these streets are fifty feet wide.

Penn returned to England in the summer of 1684. Before he embarked, on a journey saddened by his learning of con­tinued persecutions of the Quakers in England, he shared his exuberance of the New World with a friend, Robert Spencer, Earl of Sunderland:

Our town plot has a navi­gable river on each side – about 80 houses are built, and 300 farms are settled contiguous to it. The soil is good – air serene and sweet, from the cedar, pine and sassafras, with a wild myrtle of great fragrance. 1 have had better venison, bigger, more tender, and as fat as in Eng­land. Turkeys of the wood I had, forty and fifty pounds in weight. Fish in abundance, especially shad and rock. Oysters are monstrous for bigness. In woods are divers fruit, wild, and flowers that for colour, large­ness, and beauty, excel.

As his ship, the Endeavor, sailed in August, Penn wrote his famous valedictory to Philadel­phia.

And thou, Philadelphia, the virgin settlement of this prov­ince, named before thou wert born, what love, what care, what service, and what travail hast there been to bring thee forth and preserve thee from such as would abuse and defile thee.

Unfortunately, the seeds of abuse were already planted. Or so it most certainly seemed. Burgeoning development did not adhere to the plan; it spread wildly along the Dela­ware River shoreline. Penn himself made note of it: “There is also a fair Key (quay or wharf) of about three hundred foot square, built by Samuel Carpenter, to which a ship of five hundred Tuns may lay here broadside, and others intend to follow his ex­ample.” Others did just that. Another street parallel to Front Street was built on the beach below the high bank and there immediately began in­tense waterfront development, quickly catapulting Philadel­phia into its role as the premier city of the American colonies.

The generous city blocks of the Holme plan, measuring approximately 400 feet by 600 feet, began to suffer from the construction of streets so narrow that they seemed nothing more than alleys. Important public and commer­cial buildings did not appear at the central square as it was too far from the urban action. The plan, it appeared, was beginning to come un­glued. An alteration to the Holme/Penn plan was made affecting the location of Broad Street. It was shifted a few blocks west of the origi­nal location. Why was the thoroughfare moved? Histori­ans surmise that Penn was concerned because the original site of Broad Street was not on as high ground as it should have been given its design focus, and he personally ordered the alteration. Smaller squares in the quadrants were not moved, and the strict symmetry of the original arrangement was lost.

The fact that the original design for the city has been ir­revocably altered is not bothersome. What does matter is that historians, urban planners and students recog­nize that Philadelphia, with its sequence of five squares, remains the principal in­spiration for the gridiron plan. The gridiron design for New York City did not emerge until 1811 and the plan of Chicago not until 1834. And for neither of these two metropolises were any sys­tems of public parks proposed. Only the parks of Savannah remain from the earliest of the colonial endeavors to challenge Philadelphia in the open spaces of their respec­tive plans. But Philadelphia remains, as a whole, the Queen City, and her founder remains one of the earliest and most effective city planners. And this for a very special reason.

William Penn’s plan for Philadelphia appeared to be un­ravelling in the late seven­teenth century but, two hun­dred years after the plan of 1682, the center of Philadel­phia emerged at the con­fluence of Market and Broad streets precisely where Penn intended it should. And by that token alone Penn’s plan becomes a monument in the annals of urban planning.


For Further Reading

Bacon, Edmund N. Design of Cities. New York: The Vik­ing Press, 1967.

Fiske, John. The Dutch and Quaker Colonies in America. Cambridge, Mass.: The River­side Press, 1903.

Garvan, Anthony N.B. “Pro­prietary Philadelphia as an Arti­fact.” In The Historian and the City, edited by Oscar Handlin and John Burchard. Cambridge, Mass.: M.I.T. Press and Harvard University Press, 1963.

Hinds, William Alfred. The American Communities. Onei­da, New York: Office of the American Socialist, 1878. Reprint. New York: Corinth Books, 1961.

Reps, John W. The Making of Urban America. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1965.

Wallower, Lucille. Colonial Penn­sylvania. Camden: Thomas Nelson & Sons, 1969.

Wildes, Harry Emerson. The Dela­ware. New York: Farrer & Rinehart, Inc., 1940.


Perry L. Norton is professor emeritus of urban planning of New York University, from which he retired after twenty years. He served six years as associate dean and director of doctoral studies for the university’s Graduate School of Public Administration. He has also served as a planning consultant and acted as the executive director of the Insti­tute’s Journal for six years. The author was awarded bache­lor’s and master’s degrees by the University of Michigan.