The planning values and principles of New Urbanism are deeply rooted in human history. What does this look like, and what can we learn from it? The archaeology of an ancient Mayan city sheds some light.


Less well known to popular audiences is the ancient city of Chunchucmil, in Northwest Yucatan. Archaeological research at Chunchucmil started under Bruce Dahlin in the 1990s. Dahlin was later joined as co-director of the research by Traci Ardren. Chunchucmil dates to the middle of the Classic period in Maya history, AD 400-600. Its urban area covers 20-25 square kilometers. Some 10,000 structures were built there, grouped into over 1,400 house compounds bounded by stone walls or albarradas. The size of the population is estimated between 30,000 and 45,000 people. The population density of 3000 people per square kilometer in the city's six-square-kilometer center (Figure 2) approaches the density of modern cities.

Chunchucmil was not a typical Mayan city in terms of monumental architecture. Unlike other large Mayan cities, it lacks a single civic-ceremonial core defined by a huge temple-plaza complex. It also lacks free-standing carved monuments that glorify individual rulers. Instead, Chunchucmil contains over a dozen monumental compounds or quadrangles having modestly sized "patios" and temples only 6-18 meters high. These quadrangles served as civic-ceremonial focal points for several distinct residential neighborhoods. The city's public spaces also look very "secular"; i.e., they're not designed for worship by large groups of citizens and pilgrims. Indeed, the largest public space in the city seems to have served as a marketplace (Figure 3), with smaller open spaces perhaps given to the same function. Thus, Chunchucmil is not a "regal-ritual" city in the classic Maya sense. Chunchucmil is also puzzling because of its location in an area of marginal agricultural productivity. Soils are poor, rainfall is scarce, and yields are low. The contradiction between agricultural marginality and high population density, plus the city's secularized character, alerts us to a different reason for its existence: as a trading center in desirable products such as obsidian (a volcanic glass) and salt. Various services related to commercial activity were also likely on offer, in the areas of transportation, security, hospitality, and entertainment.

Figure 2. Plan of central Chunchucmil showing Quadrangles and Marketplace
Figure 2. Plan of central Chunchucmil showing Quadrangles and Marketplace © Scott Hutson


Thus, analysis of Chunchucmil in light of our contemporary urban condition suggests that the ancient Maya were effectively practicing and living by the tenets of "New" Urbanism 1,500 years before that term was invented by Western architects and planners. A check of New Urbanism's Charter indicates that Chunchucmil successfully realized every one of its most important principles: 

  1. A "coherent and supportive physical framework" with clearly defined neighborhoods and corridors.
  2. Neighborhoods "diverse in use and population."
  3. "Universally accessible public spaces and community institutions."
  4. A "regional economy that benefits people of all incomes."
  5. "Citizen-based participatory planning and design," reflected by the freedom that Chunchucmil's residents apparently had to make bottom-up decisions about albarrada and callejuela construction and the use of open space.

Of special significance is the fact that Chunchucmil appears to have avoided the residential segregation and displacement that normally accompanies the infusion of wealth into today's cities. Chunchucmil's long-term prosperity may, in fact, have depended upon equitable inclusion of its citizens into the urban and wider regional economy. An additional line of evidence for this is the extension of the practice of albarrada construction into the city's residential periphery. Here, there was no particular need for residents to delineate houselots with stone walls. Yet they did it anyway—perhaps as a symbolic marker of shared identity with those living closer to the city center. Chunchucmil truly seems to have practiced an "urbanism for all." But I don't believe that Chunchucmil was exceptional in this regard. Based on my reading of the global archaeological literature it strikes me that a similar ethos governed other ancient cities in Asia, Africa, and the Americas.

Given the relatively compact, pedestrian-scaled and environmentally-constrained nature of ancient cities it's not entirely unexpected that New Urbanist principles have a genealogy that's deeply rooted in human history.