September 26, 2002

Understanding history improves future of cities

  • A look at Athens and Rome can help today’s developers and civic leaders


    How do you go about creating “livable” cities? What roles do architects, constructors, real estate appraisers, public and private developers play in shaping the urban environment? What concepts, values and attitudes drive the making of contemporary North American cities? Can an understanding of the history of city form help our leaders and developers make a better city?

    These are some of the questions that I address in my course, “The Theory of Urban Design and Development” each spring semester at Washington State University. I consider my class unique in that it incorporates three traditionally separate areas of study — the history and theories of city form (urban design), the principles of urban planning, and the development process — into one comprehensive course.

    City form

    The history and theories of city form traces how the shapes of cities have been generated by the prevailing contemporary social institutions and technologies of the times.

    Both ancient Roman cities and ancient Greek cities were similar in that highly symmetrical buildings (based on Platonic geometries — circle, square, rectangle) were placed onto a higgly-piggly system of streets. Hence we have the Parthenon, placed on the highest hill in Athens, fed by the meandering Panathenaic Way, which passes through the chaotic agora (market place), defined by colonnaded stoa, serving as the covered, market stalls.

    The point is that the shape of the public space was not symmetrical, and public spaces didn’t become symmetrical until the Renaissance “discovery” of perspective and consequently, the “invention” of the public square in 17th century France (Place des Vosges).

    Similarly, ancient Rome was a hodgepodge of, what has become to be known as classical architecture, in the form of fora (governmental buildings), residential tenement blocks, villas, and a pantheon and coliseum scattered here and there.

    The city of Rome around the beginning of first millennium had a population of 1 million. It also administered hundreds of Roman planned towns throughout the empire — western and eastern Europe, North Africa and the Near East, and Britain. The Roman Empire had become the largest, most influential juggernaut of urbanization in the Western world.

    The ancient Greeks established satellite “new towns,” to relieve the population pressure on centers, such as Athens. In part, this was in response to the idea that the ancient Greeks’ particular form of democracy worked best if the population of any one city-state (polis), did not exceed 30,000 people.

    Unlike the traditional city-states which grew organically, the new towns were some of the world’s first planned cities. Designed by the Greek urban planner, Hippodamus, the layout was based on a gridiron street plan and zoned into residential, commercial and civic precincts.

    Ancient Rome carried many of these concepts into the planning of their military garrisons in outreaches of the empire. City names of Britain with the suffix “chester” — Rochester, Chichester, Manchester, and yes, Chester — are all places that were formally Roman garrison towns.

    The typical Roman garrison town was one-mile square with four gates located at each cardinal point — north, east, south and west. The primary streets linked the gates — north to south, east to west — and where they crossed in the center, the roads were widened to become the marketplace-forum.

    Much of ancient Rome’s success in city building and urban expansion was due to its unique political and economic institutions — a centralized head of state with the ability to bring organization, resources and military efficiency to meeting its objectives. But another factor played just as important a role in Rome’s success, something the Greeks didn’t have — the keystone arch.

    The Greeks were limited by a post-and-beam (trabeated) building system. Rome’s arcuated building system was far superior for spanning great distances, using sophisticated masonry technology. The ancient Romans built a masonry and concrete sewer system under the streets of Rome (the cloaca maxima), which is still in use today. They built towering aqueducts and road bridges using a series of arches.

    Arches and vaults were used to build the great colisea, where ten of thousands of citizens could attend games and ceremonies. And, high-ceilinged domes and vaults formed huge interior spaces, such as the pantheon, the great baths, and forum buildings to conduct the affairs of government. The typology of the latter, also known as the basilica form, was adopted by the early Christians to accommodate the new liturgy, which included believers coming together to worship in “mass.”

    It is my contention that understanding these facts about the history of the city contributes to better contemporary development. The entire development community — politicians, bankers, professional developers, architects and constructors — benefit from knowledge of the precedents of the past — both the successes and the failures. Moreover, a historic study of cities gives us a common vocabulary. Those involved with contemporary city building should all be able to conjure up images and recognize legacies from former city traditions: ancient (as described above), medieval, baroque/monumental, industrial, garden city and suburban, modern (as defined by Le Corbusier), and megastructure (the city as a building).

    I require students to evaluate current North American cities in relation to these traditions, many of which form part of our contemporary cities — Washington, D.C., is an example of the monumental tradition, the Pike Place Market conjures up visions of the crowded medieval marketplace.

    After gaining a vocabulary in city forms, I have my students read James Howard Kunstler’s “Geography of Nowhere.”

    After completing a series of papers and discussions, students begin to recognize the issues related to our contemporary urban pattern — dependence on the automobile, sprawl, loss of the “commons,” the dearth of civic space, etc. The students are asked what role does their chosen profession — architecture, public administration, real estate, construction management — play in creating either a livable city or a geography of nowhere.

    The principles of urban planning

    The second part of the course deals with how contemporary cities are actually planned and built:

    • The legal basis for planning — the right of government, under police powers, to take (eminent domain) and regulate (subdivide, zone, etc.) land for the general welfare of the community.

    • The instruments of planning — what is comprehensive planning, zoning, environmental impact assessment, etc.

    • The concept of urban design — visioning the blending of function and aesthetics, design guidelines, design review boards, etc.

    By this point, students have begun to recognize the components and overall structure of cities — how they get built, and how they can be evaluated in terms of livability, sustainability, and as containers for supporting the individual and collective goals of a democratic society. Next, the development of individual components of the city is introduced.

    The development process

    I define the development process for any substantial structure — a building, a road, a bridge, a park — as having six elements, no matter where in the world, when in history, or what size of development:

    Element 1 — Program. The program describes the purpose, function, and capacity of the development.

    Element 2 — Site selection and property acquisition. Every development needs a location and an owner and/or steward of the land.

    Element 3 — Budget and finance. Every development has a budget, and most often, because capital costs tend to be expensive, developments need some type of financing scheme.

    Element 4 — Government permits. All developments at anytime in history have required some sort of government approval, including projects built by the government.

    Element 5 — Design. Every development requires a vision, typically illustrated in drawings, prepared by professional designers like architects, engineers, etc.

    Element 6 — Construction. Developments are built using a variety of contractors and subcontractors with a variety of methods — general contracting, construction management, design/build, open and limited bidding, sole source, etc.

    These six elements apply to both the private and public sectors. I stress the principles and procedures of the public, or government, sector because all the elements are clearly spelled out under law or as administrative procedures for every jurisdiction — federal, state, county and city.

    For the selection of architecture/engineering firms for example, governments must follow a process that is fair and open. Fee-bidding is not allowed. The same rules do not always apply to the private sector, and consequently do not always represent a commonly understood and accepted approach.

    Development case study

    For their term project, students prepare an evaluation or case study of a development. Typically, these are substantial public or privately-owned buildings located throughout the Northwest. Over 18 years, more than 200 projects have been evaluated.

    In teams of three, students must investigate how the six elements of the development process were applied to the development. Students interview architects, developers, owners, constructors and project managers to gather the information, they analyze the issues related to each aspect of the process, and they ascertain whether the development they have chosen is contributing to creating better cities. Hence the students come full circle and are able, to some extent, to connect their contemporary experience with the city traditions of the past.

    Creating good cities

    I conclude by asking what is the most essential contribution that WSU graduates can provide to assure that our cities are successful for all of our citizens? I urge that students go beyond merely doing their jobs and picking up a paycheck. Building upon an understanding of history and principles of urban planning and the development process, I suggest they are in the enviable position of being able to articulate a vision of what cities can be, and how their respective professions can make it happen.

    Vision is what brings people and resources together to solve problems, particularly if the vision is shared. The result is good development practices, and good development practices are the building blocks of good, sometimes great cities.

    Michael S. Owen is an associate professor at the School of Architecture and Construction Management at Washington State University.

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