From Improvement to City Planning

Spatial Management in Cincinnati from the Early Republic through the Civil War Decade

Henry C. Binford
Book Cover

PB: $39.95
EAN: 978-1-4399-2085-5
Publication: Sep 21

HC: $125.50
EAN: 978-1-4399-2084-8
Publication: Sep 21

Ebook: $39.95
EAN: 978-1-4399-2086-2
Publication: Sep 21

358 pages
6 x 9
6 tables, 23 figs.

A “pre-history” of urban planning in the United States

Read the Introduction (pdf).


From Improvement to City Planning emphasizes the ways people in nineteenth-century America managed urban growth. Historian Henry Binford shows how efforts to improve space were entwined with the evolution of urban governance (i.e., regulation)—and also influenced by a small group of advantaged families.

Binford looks specifically at Cincinnati, Ohio, then the largest and most important interior city west of the Appalachian Mountains. He shows that it was not just industrialization, but also beliefs about morality, race, health, poverty, and “slum” environments, that demanded an improvement of urban space. As such, movements for public parks and large-scale sanitary engineering in the 1840s and ’50s initiated the beginning of modern city planning. However, there were limitations and consequences to these efforts.

Many Americans believed that remaking city environments could also remake citizens. From Improvement to City Planning examines how the experiences of city living in the early republic prompted city dwellers to think about and shape urban space.


“Binford’s fine and meticulous scholarship builds a compelling and important argument about the early decades of civic activism and planning in U.S. cities. Cincinnati is far less studied than other midwestern cities, but as Binford shows, it has a rich nineteenth-century historiography. His book shows how the physical and social fabric of the city were inextricably intertwined, neighborhood by neighborhood and block by block.”
Carl Abbott, Emeritus Professor of Urban Studies and Planning at Portland State University, and author of How Cities Won the West: Four Centuries of Urban Change in Western North America

“An intellectual history as well as an urban history, From Improvement to City Planning demonstrates that Cincinnati was one of the most important cities west of the Appalachian Mountains during the nineteenth century. Binford effectively integrates issues of physical spatial management, evangelical religion, and applied science in the forms of new engineering and medical technologies. His argument is precise and distinctive and is sure to be influential. This important book has broad implications.”
Timothy Gilfoyle, Professor of History at Loyola University Chicago, and author of A Pickpocket’s Tale: The Underworld of Nineteenth-Century New York

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
Preface and Acknowledgments
List of Abbreviations


1. Foundation: The Spatial Legacy of the First Cincinnati, 1786–1820
2. Improvement: Commerce, Religion, and the Location of Urban Value, 1820–1840
3. An Eastern Queen in a Western Realm: Spatial Management in Cincinnati, 1820–1840

4. Environmentalism: The Location of Urban Danger, 1835–1860
5. Uncertainty: Cincinnati Wrestles with Industrial Urbanism, 1835–1860
6. Toward Planning: Experiments in Spatial Management, 1849–1862
7. Civil War and Cincinnati Reinvention: The Radical Moment at the Local Level
8. Planned and Unplanned Cincinnati: The Conflicted Legacy of Improvement

Appendix: Influential Actors in Cincinnati
Bibliography of Primary Sources

About the Author(s)

Henry C. Binford is Professor of History at Northwestern University and the author of The First Suburbs: Residential Communities on the Boston Periphery, 1815-1860.


In the Series

  • Urban Life, Landscape, and Policy edited by David Stradling, Larry Bennett, and Davarian Baldwin

    The Urban Life, Landscape, and Policy Series, edited by David Stradling, Larry Bennett, and Davarian Baldwin, was founded by the late Zane L. Miller to publish books that examine past and contemporary cities. While preserving the series’ foundational focus on the policy, planning, and environmental issues so central to metropolitan life, we also join scholarly efforts to push the boundaries of urban studies. We are committed to publishing work at the shifting intersections of cultural production, community formation, and political economy that shape cities at all scales, from the neighborhood to the transnational.