Tag Archives: urban theory

The Qualities of Public Spaces: Four Case Studies

Fra_Carnevale_-_The_Ideal_City_-_Walters_37677Successful public spaces are those places where celebrations are held, social and economic exchanges occur, friends run into each other, and cultures mix. They are the “front porches” of our public institutions – libraries, field houses, schools – where we interact with each other and government. When these spaces work well, they serve as the stage for our public lives.

What Makes Some Places Succeed While Others Fail?
The Project for Public Spaces has identified four qualities generally shared by successful public spaces around the world: 1). they are accessible – the have good connectivity; 2). people are engaged in activities there; 3). the space is comfortable and has a good image; and finally, 4). it’s a sociable place, one where people meet each other and take people when they come to visit. Continue reading

What American Cities Can Learn From Italian Piazzas

Looking down on the Piazza Del Campo from the Torre del Mangia

Looking down on the Piazza Del Campo, Sienna from the Torre del Mangia

When the paradigm of American modernist architecture crumbled, urbanists began a quest for credible alternatives that often took them to the streets and squares of old Italian cities.

Deciphering the code of Italy’s thriving public life became a process of redemption from the sterilizing over-rationalization of the urban landscape that had been carried out by professionals of the previous generation. Continue reading

What Makes a Great Public Space?

b_730_82467935-5807-445b-9193-13ece12c901aIt’s a question that’s often asked and answered by urban planners and placemakers. The current media debate about costumed panhandlers in New York City’s Times Square adds even more grist to the mill. Numerous physical and social qualities that make a great public space have been proposed. These lists often run into double digits. Numerous illustrative examples have also been proffered. Such an exercise, of course, is highly subjective. Scholars and citizens reasonably disagree over the extent to which size, scale, degree of physical enclosure, amenities, aesthetics, and other variables matter. Continue reading

Vying for Position: The World’s Most Sustainable Cities

Curitiba, Brazil widely regarded as the world's first and largest experiment in sustainable urbanism.

Curitiba, Brazil widely regarded as the world’s first and largest experiment in sustainable urbanism.

There exist various lists, or indexes (pl. indices), identifying which cities around the globe are considered to be “greenest” according to each index’ author. Continue reading

City Planning According to Artistic Principles

 The Piazza della Signoria in Florence Bernardo Bellotto, c.1742 Oil on canvas. Szépművészeti Múzeum, Budapest, Hungary


The Piazza della Signoria in Florence
Bernardo Bellotto, c.1742
Oil on canvas. Szépművészeti Múzeum, Budapest, Hungary

Camillo Sitte (1843-1903) was a noted Viennese painter, architect, theorist, and planner. He distinguished himself in the art of city planning culminating in his seminal work City Planning According to Artistic Principles with great influence and authority on the evolution of urban planning and its regulation on the European continent. This work has subsequently gone on to influence generations of urban designers and architects throughout the world.

City Planning According to Artistic Principles was an aesthetic criticism of the design of urban spaces as they were being realized at the end of the nineteenth century. While mainly concerned with urban planning, the book has had a deep influence on architecture inasmuch as the two are integrally intertwined disciplines.

modenapiazzeFor Sitte, the most important aspect of civic buildings was not the architectural form of the buildings themselves but rather their how their form, characteristics, and deployment as building blocks contributed to the character and quality of urban spaces. In preparing his work, Sitte travelled extensively to study the spatial structures of then-contemporary city plazas of his own native Vienna, in Paris, Salzburg, Rothenburg on the Tauber, Dresden, and dozens of other European cities, carefully sketching their physical planimetrics, elevations of their significant buildings, and placement of statues, fountains and other monuments within those spaces.

He similarly studied their earlier precedents in Athens, Rome, Florence, Venice and Pisa. He applauded the practice in ancient Greece, Rome, and during the Italian Renaissance of deploying buildings of monumental character as the physical walls of those plazas and urban spaces. Imagining what civic life in these urban spaces must have been like in the times of Pericles, Julius Caesar, and Lorenzo the Magnificent, he reflected on how the architects and city planners of those times had designed aesthetically superior spaces reinforcing civic culture.

Sitte criticized the trend of contemporary urban planners to isolate the placement of significant civic buildings, churches, and monuments as celebrated objects, confronting them as to how such elements had been presented in former times, not as individual objects but instead as ornaments woven into the tapestry of the urban space.

He similarly criticized the regular, obsessive order of contemporary plazas being built by contrasting them to the irregularity of those of the medieval city. More importantly, he identified camillo-sitte-study-of-medieval-plazasfrom a psychological viewpoint the importance of proportion to human scale as critical to the design of effective civic spaces. In so doing he opposed trends among his contemporaries towards broad, over-scaled boulevards, avenues, and squares, enjoining instead that, “a square should be seen as a room: it should form an enclosed space”.

Among his most valuable contributions to urban design theory and practice is his implementation of the figure-ground diagram. His diagrams, carefully drawn to scale, captured planimetrically the formal patterns of the urban spaces he studied. By delineating the solid masses of buildings (“figure”) against the negative space between them (“ground”) he helped popularize an invaluable tool in the analysis of civic spaces.