Wednesday, 4 May 2011

A journey through time in urban ideas

By Michael Hegarty
Director, PLACE
The concept of an ideal and healthy city is first explored by Plato. In ‘Republic’, he depicts two cities, one healthy and one with 'a fever' (the so-called luxurious city). The citizens of the luxurious city 'have surrendered themselves to the endless acquisition of money and have overstepped the limit of their necessities.' The luxury of this city requires the seizure of neighboring lands and consequently a standing army to defend those lands and the city's wealth. The main character Socrates says that war originates in communities living beyond the natural limits of necessity.
In short, the healthy or true city is sustainable, limiting its consumption to actual needs, while the luxurious city is not and is in a perpetual quest for more. Plato spends the rest of the Republic attempting to reveal the political organization and virtues such as moderation that become necessary for the luxurious city to be more just, more healthy, and thereby sustainable.
While Leonardo da Vinci was living in Milan, much of Italy and the rest of Europe was struck by plague. Leonardo felt the high number of deaths was partially due to the condition of the dirty, densely populated cities where germs spread rapidly.  Leonardo designed an ideal city where the streets were wide, underground waterways carried garbage away and a paddlewheel system could clean the streets. His city was based on 2 levels, the top level was for the foot traffic and the bottom for carts and animals.  In this city Leonardo hoped that improved living conditions would help to avoid the spread of contagious diseases. 
A century after Leonardo’s model, work began on the first planned city in Ireland, Derry was conceived as a new town for London (hence Londonderry) in 1613 much in the way that ancient Rome built the city of Carthage.   The central square (the diamond) within a walled city with four gates was considered primarily to be a good design for defence.  The main streets were wide and the buildings make visual reference to the renaissance.   
Photo of Derry's Walls by Gary Potter.

However the pre-existing landscape topography defines the city as much as the imposed plan.  Any city is inseparable from the landscape in which it is set and can only be understood in terms of its geographical situation, its climatic and meteorological facts, its economic bases and its historic heritage. 

‘Town plans are therefore no mere diagrams; they are a system of hieroglyphics in which man has written the history of civilisation, and the more tangled their apparent confusion, the more we may be rewarded in deciphering it.’ 
Patrick Geddes, Cities in Evolution, Oxford University Press, (1950)
Over the years the city grew, built on whatever land could be purchased, on a field-by-field basis.  In this way the streets retain the field pattern.  The twists in the landscape which had become land divisions became translated into the urban form as a memory.   This kind of growing, organic, self-repairing city fits into a view of architecture and urban design where intuitive decisions are valued as much as grand visions, where the specific place is more important than the general location.  This view has been given intellectual rigour and structure by theorists like Christopher Alexander. 
The Derry-Londonderry built heritage has remarkably been substantially preserved despite bombing campaigns, slum clearance and roads projects.  New high quality buildings, public spaces and foot bridges are being constructed.   I think this journey of ideas through time should make the case for shortlisting Derry as a Great Town in the Urbanism Awards. 

1 comment:

Michael Hegartyy said...

For info on Urbanism Awards see