Monday, October 24, 2011

Urban Planning in Ancient Central Mexico

1. Plaza at Dos Pilas, Maya city
There is much to learn from archaeological maps of ancient cities. Even in places where we have no written documents, archaeologists can often get a good idea about aspects of ancient urban planning from maps alone. Consider political capital cities in central Mexico. Sites such as Teotihuacan, Tula, and Tenochtitlan (the Aztec capital) are visited my millions of tourists every year. The progression of city plans in this area over time gives us insights into the people who built and inhabited these urban centers. I am going to review the situation in five stages. This will be a simplification of often-complex archaeological findings, and for more details you can check the references at the end.
2. Tikal

1. The Basic Mesoamerican Urban Plan

3. Yagul
Mesoamerica is the culture area that runs from northern Mexico through northern Central America. It includes the Aztecs, the Mayas, and many other cultures. The most widespread and ancient pattern of urban planning in Mesoamerica has several features. First, the plaza was the basic unit of planning. Public buildings like temple-pyramids, palaces, and ballcourts were arranged around rectangular public plazas (see fig. 1, Dos Pilas, a Maya city). Second, the largest public buildings and plazas were concentrated in a "downtown" area that shows definite planning of layouts. Figure 2 shows the downtown of Tikal, one of the largest Maya cities. I also include a photo of Yagul, a small site in Oaxaca, that shows the kind of planning found in the downtown areas of Mesoamerican cities, from the Maya to the Aztecs. A third principle of Mesoamerican urban form is that residential neighborhoods were not formally planned. Residences were built in a hap-hazard fashion with little attempt to line them up or closely coordinate their locations or form. The many small squares surrounding downtown Tikal are patio groups, the main form of housing at Classic Maya cities.

5. Teotihuacan
2. Teotihuacan Innovations: An Urban Experiment
4. Teotihuacan (1950s)
Teotihuacan started off around the time of Christ as one of several competing chiefdom centers in the Valley of Mexico. After lava from the eruption of Mt. Xitle destroyed its main competitor, Cuicuilco, Teotihuacan entered a period of rapid urbanization. Two huge pyramids were built (figure 4) and the city rapidly expanded to cover nearly 20 square kilometers. The builders of the city made several major innovations in urban layout to create a city unlike any that had come before or after in Mesoamerica. First, they laid the city out around a central avenue, the so-called "Street of the Dead," instead of using public plazas for structure. Second, they extended the planned district from the downtown to cover the entire city. The whole city shows an orthogonal layout (fig. 5). Third, a standardized form of multi-family residence was used, called the apartment compound. The degree of standardization in housing and the extent of orthogonal planning are without precedent in Mesoamerica. Some authors have suggested that these (and other) traits suggest a highly regimented society with strict controls on individual behavior. Although I am skeptical of some of these arguments, it is clear that the builders of Teotihuacan were very powerful and imprinted their power on the entire urban landscape. The city was burned and its government collapsed around AD 600.

7. Tula
3. Toltec Revival: Rejection of Teotihuacan Ideals

6. Downtown Tula
 After the fall of Teotihuacan, cities during the "Epiclassic" period (AD 700-900) were built on fortified hilltops, employing more traditional Mesoamerican planning principles. Xochicalco and Cacaxtla are the two best know of these sites in central Mexico. Then the Toltec peoples (AD 900-1100) built Tula, a large capital north of the Valley of Mexico (figs 6, 7). This urban plan was a radical break from the Teotihuacan plan. The Toltec kings returned to ancient Mesoamerican planning principles. Not only is Tula based around a large public plaza, but the arrangement is one of the most formal and monumental plazas in all of Mesoamerica. Large buildings are balanced symmetrically across a square plaza, and all buildings adhere strictly to the same orthogonal grid. That grid does not extend to the residential neighborhoods, however; housing at Tula is haphazardly arranged, just as at most Mesoamerican cities. The plan of Tula represents a rejection of Teotihuacan planning principles, and a return to the ancient Mesoamerican planning ideas, with a vengeance. This is the most "Mesoamerican" of urban plans within ancient Mesoamerica.

4.  Aztec City-State Capitals: Keeping the Toltec Ideals Alive
8. Coatetelco
9. Coatetelco, ballcourt

After the fall of Tula, the Aztecs arrived on the scene. The Early Aztec period (AD 1100-1300) was a dynamic time of population growth and the expansion of city-states across the landscape. Kings established dynasties, and they claimed descent from the Toltec kings as the basis of their legitimacy. To the Aztecs, the Toltecs were the wise, great, and wonderful ancestors. So it is hardly surprising that these petty kings, who ruled small city-states, copied their cities after Tula as one way of claiming Toltec descent. Compare the plan of Coatetelco (fig. 8) to that of Tula: they are almost identical (except that Tula is much larger than Coatetelco!). The architecture and layout of these Aztec city-state capitals were political statements by the Aztec kings, proclaiming not only their power and glory, but their links to the Toltec past (this is one of the main arguments of my book, Aztec City-State Capitals).

5.  Tenochtitlan, the Imperial Capital: Back to Teotihuacan and the Toltecs
10. Tenochtitlan

11. Tenochtitlan
Tenochtitlan, was not founded until 1325, during the Late Aztec period. At first Tenochtitlan was just another city-state like Coatetelco and many others. But as the Mexica people (inhabitants of Tenochtitlan) grew politically and economically powerful, they soon started to dominate their neighbors, and in 1428 the Aztec Empire was established, with Tenochtitlan as its capital. Its wealth and power grew dramatically, and soon the Mexica kings felt the need to differentiate their capital from the many small cities of the other Aztec peoples. First, they walled off the downtown; in place of the open public plaza, they created a walled sacred precinct. Then they turned to the ruins of Teotihuacan and Tula for inspiration. The entire island city was laid out with an orthogonal grid, probably in imitation of Teotihuacan (although I should note that the city expanded by filling in raised agricultural fields, which had an orthogonal layout to begin with). The Mexica built Teotihuacan-style shrines and used Toltec-style ritual objects in their state ceremonies. The king sent people to excavate at Tula to find the buried riches of the Toltecs. Then, in 1519, Hernan Cortés arrived to conquer the Aztecs, and Tenochtitlan was built over to become Mexico City (whose street pattern today originated in the Aztec urban plan).

This story has several lessons. First, looking at ancient city plans can be very informative. They give us insights into political and social processes from hundred, or even thousands of years ago. Second, urbanism and planning were highly dynamic processes. There was no "standard" pattern of central Mexican capital city. City plans, forms, and significance changed over time, and careful analysis, city-by-city and period-by-period, is needed to tease out these changes. Third, even though we cannot name the planners and architects responsible for these cities, we can reconstruct something of their context and aspirations. Many of their urban creations lasted for centuries (in some cases, far longer than most modern cities have survived so far), and left impressive marks on the landscape.

Read about these ancient cities and visit their ruins in Mexico. They are an important part of the Wide Urban World.


Andrews, George F.
1975    Maya Cities: Placemaking and Urbanization. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman.

Calnek, Edward E.
2003    Tenochtitlan-Tlatelolco: The Natural History of a City / Tenochtitlan-Tlatelolco: La Historia Natural de una Ciudad. In El urbanismo en mesoamérica / Urbanism in Mesoamerica, edited by William T. Sanders, Alba Guadalupe Mastache, and Robert H. Cobean, pp. 149-202. Proyecto Urbanismo dn Mesoamérica / The Mesoamerican Urbanism Project, vol. 1. Pennsylvania State University and Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia, University Park and Mexico City.

Cowgill, George L.
1997    State and Society at Teotihuacan, Mexico. Annual Review of Anthropology 26:129-161.

Diehl, Richard A.
1983    Tula: The Toltec Capital of Ancient Mexico. Thames and Hudson, New York.

Smith, Michael E.
2007    Form and Meaning in the Earliest Cities: A New Approach to Ancient Urban Planning. Journal of Planning History 6(1):3-47.

Smith, Michael E.
2008    Aztec City-State Capitals. University Press of Florida, Gainesville.


  1. I should mention that Dr. George Cowgill, my former undergraduate advisor and current (emeritus) colleague at Arizona State University, is being honored this week for his many decades of research at Teotihuacan. The Mexican government is sponsoring an international symposium in George's honor. The best way to learn about this ancient city is to read George's various papers, including the one cited in my list of references.

  2. Very interesting post, Mike. At the Mesa Redonda honoring George, Julie Gazzola reported on her work at the Preciudadela, under the plaza of the later Ciudadela (also reported in an Arqueologia article from this year). There's the possibility that the earlier incarnation possessed a more typical (Formative) plan, including a primary temple to E and ballcourt to W (though the latter is unconfirmed and partially destroyed). If it proves to be the case, perhaps we have an example of Teotihuacano city planners innovating from a basic Meso plan in one or more areas of what becomes the Classic city.

  3. @David-Thanks, that is exciting work. We really need to know more about the expansion and growth of Teo.

  4. hello!
    It's gorgeous!
    Do you know where I can find a 3D reconstruction of the other buildings Tlatelolco?

    As well as other cities:


    Azcapotzalco (altepetl)-



    Texcoco (altepetl)-


  5. i liked your blog on gated communities. I am an urban designer by profession and I also teach in a college of Architecture. The information and photographs you have provided are very useful.
    thanks !!

  6. Hey Michael I just want to thank you for writing up this very digestible article. I'm creating an "Aztec" fantasy graphic novel and knowing HOW to build the city's with authenticity has helped. Saludos!