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As we look at the ways the recent pandemic has changed retail ownership and wonder about the future of city planning, it helps to examine how these aspects of society have changed over the centuries. From the 1700s to now, many developments have altered the ways cities are laid out and stores are owned and managed.

But how does now compare to the past? What was city planning like in the 1700s? What was the nature of management and ownership of the average shop?


By looking into the past and comparing the developments, perhaps we can get a glimpse at how the nature of cities and shopping will continue to change in the future.

City Planning

While the looks of modern cities are wildly different from what they were in the 18th century, the nature of a city’s functions is not so different. Still, we tend to plan our cities around a central hub that often serves as the heart of activity. In modern terms, our downtown areas are much of what the bazaars and marketplaces of the 1700s once were.


But how have cities changed as they expanded outwards? What is different between modern planning and the way developers thought of cities in the 18th century? The answers might surprise you.


While in the past the formation of cities often went without any kind of planning—forming organically out from a certain point like a marketplace or busy crossroads in often circular, disorganized patterns—planned cities focused outward from a specific source: the seat of the state’s sovereign or ruler.


This took the form of palaces, castles, and mansions formed about strategic points. Many city layouts also implemented a design to maximize military movement and circulation — as long as the focus on pleasing and glorifying the ruler was maintained — but trended more towards authority than actual comfort and functionality for the citizenry.


The Philadelphia city design was a significant turning point from that method of planning.


The grid system developed for the City of Brotherly Love served as inspiration in the development of the West going into the 18th century. This system made it easy to divide and sell land in what had become the marketplace of the New World, and while towns still developed around a certain point or crossroads, this lattice-work of roads and buildings quickly became an organized standard for city development.


As far as building codes were concerned, they were simple and imprecise. London, for example, instituted the Rebuilding of London Act after the fire of 1666, legislating that all new constructions in the city must be made of brick or stone. Most codes and regulations were made out of practicality and basic safety and were minimal at best.


Meanwhile, the maintenance of city infrastructure was improved as the 18th century went on.  Trade routes furthered roadbuilding by nations and militaries, and vehicles improved. The 1700s paved the way — often literally — for the roads and railroads that were to come.


Philadelphia's grid system was implemented in 1682. Today, many cities are still built with these systems in mind. From New York to Los Angeles, the West has made use of the grid in city planning since the 1700s. While significant differences in construction exist now with the birth of zoning codes and modern innovations, the basic layout of cities has largely remained the same but scaled for modern transportation.


Zoning codes were first implemented in New York City as building heights grew to levels that were obscuring sunlight and diminishing other property values. Suddenly, restrictions and distinctions existed that were never before issues. Many cities followed suit, dividing business and residential districts.


In the 18th century, one could build without needing to get many permits or going through bureaucratic red tape. Now, even a maintenance task like flushing water lines often requires contractors and permitting. It goes without saying that there is a lot more to planning a city today than in the 1700s.

Retail Ownership and Management

The retail stores we still know and love as “mom and pops” propagated in the 18th century as the West was being developed and industry in its nascent stages. Retail popped up where a need and opportunity existed — often in boomtowns. Now, retail is worldwide, with franchises operating on almost every continent.


But what was retail ownership and management like back in the 18th century? How does it compare to today?


Often beginning a career as a “peddler,” a traveling merchant in the 1700s would invest in wares and travel to a location where they could bet on a good bit of business. As the century progressed and we saw the first settling of the New World, the idea of the retail store began to emerge closer to the way we know it now. New areas being invaded for their mining, logging, and resource scouring potential required supplies. As peddlers earned enough capital to purchase land and build a storefront in these areas, they developed family-owned businesses that in turn allowed the new settlements to grow and flourish. The idea of the country store began to emerge.


In emerging townships, a storefront could serve many functions, from a local gathering place to a bank and even a post office. Back then, the owner of a general store often also functioned as the postmaster, receiving and doling out mail to the locals.


 A wide variety of stores were gaining in popularity, from haberdasheries to booksellers. These shopkeepers had little concerns in the way of maintaining landscaping ordinances, but often decorated and painted where possible. The essential nature of these shops ensured they would not be without business.


Modern retail has changed significantly. While mom and pop stores still operate and employ 60% of the workforce in the US, the dominance of massive retailers has often overcome the country store feel of the past. Large chain stores and global franchises exist that provide goods at a level that could never have been dreamed of in the past.


Today, the retail store manager has to be up-to-date on corporate workings of often distant headquarters, possibly in different states. Their expertise in communication and business management deals with complex shipping, receiving, and inventory management the likes of which could not have been imagined in the 18th century. While much of the financial management and record-keeping required of retail store managers has not changed in essence, retail store managers now have to consider corporate policy and competing with online retailers rather than operating as the town post office and gossip.

Changes, Similarities, and the Future

While the world is inarguably very different from what it was in the 18th century — from the way cities are built and codified to the way we shop — some things stay more or less the same. Cities remain planned more often than not in grids, with centrally located gathering places a common feature.


After a global pandemic, perhaps the trend of a community gathering place will change somewhat, with city planning trending more outwards with less density. Time will tell how cities continue to change, but even after 300 years, not everything is different from what it once was.


About the Author:
Frankie Wallace contributes to a wide variety of blogs and writes about many different topics, including politics and the environment. Wallace currently resides in Boise, Idaho, and is a recent graduate of the University of Montana.