Cities in Developing Countries

5 City Types

Cities of developing and emerging countries can be clustered into several types like UN Habitat does. (9) Of course, any classification is more or less based on generalization. Given the complexity of urban life and form this is inevitable. Noteworthy, many studies mention the existence of the pre-colonial town only casually, though indigenous towns are still a formative element of many cities in developing countries, and are playing an important role with respect to the overall configuration of the urbanized area. Examples are Shahjahanabad (Old Delhi) in India or Old Cairo (Egypt) with its distinctive architectural identity and the largest concentration of Islamic monuments on a global scale. Since such old core cities have become elements of a wider spatial context, it is comprehensible not to regarded them as being a discrete type of city. Of course, this excuse rises the question whether there is any clearly definable city type at all. Or, to pose the question more provocatively: Isn't realitity sometimes squeezed into generalizing models just for the sake of scientific self-satisfaction? (10)

5.1 Colonial Type

Most cities of this type are characterized by a properly constructed formal center boasting a geometric layout. The city center is surrounded by extensive areas of informal settlements mostly having an irregular street pattern. Arguably, colonial powers supported this random settlement structure at times, interpreting it as a sign of their alleged superiority.

The city core was protected by respective colonial powers from invasion and encroachments. This rigid line of demarcation between the rulers and the native population lead to an appearance resembling European feudal realities of a walled town with the poor living beyond this physical and social barrier.

In India apart from traditional towns and cities cantonments (home to military personnel) and civil lines (for civilian staff) were developed. Those settlements mostly represented expansive, suburban grid developments characterized by tree-lined avenues and spacious bungalows. New Delhi represents a prime example of colonial city development as well as the intentions of the architects. The underlying design concept was to create a grand, monumental, larger-than-life city space which would inspire awe among the indigenous citizens and be symbolic of the implied socio-cultural superiority of the British. (11) The colonial imprint persisted, insofar New Delhi still is a low-density and primarily residential area, interspersed with only a few low-rise commercial and office buildings. This fact is starkly contrasting the theory that central areas are densely built and dominated by commercial uses. (12)

Spanish colonial towns were planned with a central plaza surrounded by an orthogonal grid of streets forming square blocks. Plazas served as the social, economic, political, and cultural center of a town, They are bordered on each side by one of the (formerly) most important buildings: church, town hall, bank, and mercantile house. Downtown was usually a mixed-use area, housing stores and restaurants as well as the residences of affluent citizens. Middle-class quarters were located in adjacent areas, with poor neighborhoods in the outer rings. The guiding principle of town planning was the compactness of the urban fabric. A structural feature was a gradual decline of building height from downtown towards the urban fringe.


(9) See, among others, UN-Habitat: The Challenges of Slums. Global Report on Urban Settlements 2003.

(10) Naturally, every model has to be based on a certain level of abstraction. The question, however, is at what level a model is losing its practical relevance.

(11) See Kumar, Ashok: The Inverted Compact City of Delhi. Published in Planning Metropolitan Landscapes. Concepts, Demands, Approaches. DELTA Series 4, Wageningen, The Netherlands, 2004.

(12) Compare Paromida Roy. Thesis Spring 2004: Outline (