THE NORTH/SOUTH DIVIDE IS KEY TO EUROPEAN CITIES
When considering the debate on density in British cities, the cultural condition of UK cities needs to be considered.
Of all theorists, none perceived more clearly than Christian Norberg-Schulz the differences between cities in the north and south of Europe. One of the things he says is that in a Mediterranean city the ground often consists of 'topographical configurations', meaning mountains and stone. Mediterranean people already expect a stone environment and do not need a large amount of greenery in a city. Hence there will be little in the way of parks and gardens. In a northern environment the 'ground' often consists of trees and greenery. A large amount of land used as parks will not be perceived as a wasteful use of space.
Hence we can understand how, in a Mediterranean city, public space is often perceived as paved squares, while in a northern European city it is perceived as parks. This might explain the Mediterranean preference for high-density, apartment living while people in the north of Europe like individual houses with gardens.
How does this affect the ongoing debate on density?
Well, in a British city the minimum level of density might be taken as the terraced house, which often has a density about three times the level of a suburban development. The gardens of these houses are not very large. This is presumably why planners try to create parks, even in areas of terraced housing with gardens.
None of this is an argument in favour of suburbanism.
The type of urbanism I would advocate would be that terraced houses or apartment buildings should be integrated into parks.
This is often totally ignored in British architecture.
I think it is important that our architects and designers perceive the understanding of the cultural condition of northern European cities shown by Norberg-Schulz. Only then will they be able to create sensitive and intelligent additions to our cities.
Kieran Gallagher, by email