Vibrant cities need to breathe in and don their urban girdles
The defence of towns and cities, often achieved by walls, has unwittingly produced great rewards. The walls around Lucca in Tuscany, which were started in the 16th century, are 4.2km of uninterrupted structure.Their construction was initiated by the Medici family as it went to great lengths to expand its stately domain. A host of military architects was commissioned to execute the task, which took approximately 100 years to complete. The only adaptation to the walls - 10m high, and in some places 30m thick - in later years, was the modification of Porta San Jacopo to accommodate the car.
These walls were mixed-use and built to a density (including height) which would be the envy of the modern urbanist. For many years the walls defined the image of the city as it lay in the valley. Enemies would see a well-defended place. There were no suburbs - it was all city. From a strategic, military point of view, the walls were functional, but they were also beautiful. I am not sure if an idea of beauty was on the designers'agenda, and yet they managed to create something that has been sustainable for 350 years.
Today, the walls are a raised garden which provides good picnic places as well as areas of retreat from the internal density. They are used for cultural events, as well as acting as a promenade or jogging track. I can think of no city that would not give handsomely to have such a facility today but, sadly, the detritus of past defence requirements has mainly been destroyed. Napoleon thought Lucca so good, that he gave it to his sister as a birthday present. Of course, since the threat of attack has subsided, car use has become the norm, and national and international lines have taken precedence over city boundaries. Now the city has leapfrogged over the wall, resulting in a sprawling mass of suburbia which, quite frankly, is not engaging in any way. Napoleon would certainly not have given the current city to his sister.
Why did Norwich allow its walls to virtually disappear? The definition of this city - formally of one cathedral,52 churches and 365 pubs - has suffered dramatically as it expanded beyond its former corset onto surrounding arable land. As you leave the city, the gap between houses gets larger, to the point where each household is its own dominion and notions of civic responsibility are lost. Any sense of place is superseded by the concept of convenience and the quest for a lifestyle that is peddled by second-rate television programmes.
It could be argued that West Berlin was significantly more interesting as a place when the Berlin Wall existed. Even though the place was artificially maintained, it represented vibrancy within a clearly defined area of geography. Once the unification process was started and rebuilding commenced, the subsequent dilution of the city gave way to the usual commercial tat. Suddenly, Berlin became the same as numerous other cities around the globe. It would be tempting to suggest a finite size to cities, and to advocate the building of walls. (Happily, inter-town relationships have improved). What we do have today are ring roads, which represent a visible girdle. It must surely be possible to permit any town or city to expand up to the ring road and prevent any development beyond it. In this way, we might succeed in increasing density which, in turn, might produce more innovative and interesting housing design. Thank God for the M25. It could become a salvation, instead of a threat.
The ring road would also be a memorial to all those traffic engineers who are as anonymous as the designers of Lucca's walls.
WA, from the pool side of Locanda D'Elisa