European Villages Are Showcases Of Old Urbanism

In installment #4 of the "World City Profiles" series, a traveler describes the old villages of western Europe, and what the U.S. can learn from them.
By Asher Meyers | Oct 28, 2018 |
By Asher Meyers | Oct 28, 2018 |

“Urbanism has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried”  —  a paraphrase of G.K. Chesterton

There is always the lurking suspicion that great urbanism is a museum piece, something we cannot recreate. We have to console ourselves with guarding what’s left. Even then, some feel it unfit for ‘modern life,’ that humans cannot live as their recent ancestors had. Urbanists tend to celebrate cities and spaces of great renown, which makes remaking our own little corner of the world seem futile.

I spent a year living in Europe–visiting Belgium, Italy, Spain and France, among other places–and found that the best places were not the big cities, but old villages, often very wealthy in times past. And it’s easy to miss what’s special about these quiet gems: the little streets and paths within them that people call home.

A newly-built mall in Leuca, Italy showcases an older design sensibility.

A bike tour led me to several towns in southern Italy—among them, Castro was my favorite aesthetically, with warm, immaculate streets around the center that were nonetheless devoid of many people.

Castro, Italy
Castro, Italy

Long before going to Europe, I had seen this meme photo:

Lo and behold, one such camera appeared right above where I parked my bike.

But overall, Bari’s old city was my favorite, with all the life coarsing through its streets. Families would open their doors and put out folding chairs in the streets. They made the streets their living room, while literally airing their dirty laundry in the rafters between buildings.

Bari, Italy
A quiet street in Leuven, Belgium—perhaps my favorite of all.
A Flemish parking lot—the Grand Beguinage, Leuven, Belgium

Reims, France

In Reims, I got to tour some underground cellars that formerly stored champagne. With cool temperatures, high ceilings and lush moss lining the walls, I thought—I’d love to live here! Should people be banned from living or working underground?

San Cristobal de la Laguna, Spain

Great urbanism flows from one critical element: walking. And these towns are first and foremost built for that. In the central city, all the alternatives, especially driving, are inferior, if not outright impossible. Those who have never been outside North America cannot know what a town for walking is like. Even my idea is limited, since I never lived in such a place. These European cities are not walkable in the American sense. Instead, walking here is not merely possible, but inevitable.

Within such walking cities, a number of virtues result:

  • Frugality: Space is economized, to keep trips reasonably brief. This means less road-space to maintain, fewer pipes to lay, smaller properties to manage and heat, and few vehicles to own.
  • Art: Gazing at streetscapes in a city for cars is about as rewarding as taking a magnifying glass to a billboard. Where walking prevails, art is rewarded with by a genuine audience. A palace in the city pleases not only the people in it, but also those passing by—and most of these palaces are in fact churches and other landmarks open to all. Such cities have infinite ornaments and intricacies; whereas cities for cars have a wearisome sameness, with ubiquitous outlays of signage, concrete and blacktop.
  • Stewardship: walk the same land year after year, and one feels obliged to secure it for posterity. It is a sense of ownership, met with dignity and responsibility. Far from a supposed ‘tragedy of the commons,’ I typically saw an abundance of care. The local environment is guarded and cherished, which also provides a measure of safety. Buildings here are like a pair of goodyear welted dress shoes—a bit costlier upfront to make, but built to last with regular maintenance.
  • Silence: fast and big vehicles simply make a lot of noise. Without them in abundance, cities are surprisingly quiet. Noise is confined to chatter and laughter, birdsong and children.
  • Propinquity: Without the obstacles of time and distance, people can form more and closer bonds. Chance encounters happen daily. Children are freer to roam beyond the confines of lawns and daycares.

According to urbanist Nathan Lewis, such cities can comfortably have population densities of up to 100,000 per square mile, with buildings as tall as 6–8 stories. If we allow for cycling and low-speed transit averaging 10 mph and up to 30 minute commute times, a 5 mile radius city could accommodate up to 8 million people. With higher average speeds (through bus rapid transit, electric bicycles, rail, etc.) or longer commute times, more people at lower densities could be housed, especially if job centers are scattered citywide.

While people shouldn’t be forced to live in such places, I believe many would be attracted to them nonetheless. So why isn’t the market building them?

Legalize Walking

Such cities are now illegal throughout North America. Vestiges of it can be seen occasionally, including in some of Los Angeles’ beach towns, where I lived for three years. But at the very least, a few things would need to change:

  • Narrow streets ~15 feet wide throughout a neighborhood. Admittedly, this is difficult but not impossible to do in an existing city; it’s easier where land is dear.
  • Minimum setback requirements would be small to none.
  • Parking requirements would be abolished.
  • Allowing small-scale retail and office space to coexist with residences.
  • Subdividing inner-city areas for smaller homes and lots

Even restoring these traditional principles on a couple acres here and there within established cities could help North America resemble the walkability of Europe. Just consider how an entire storefront can emerge using a mere truck.

There is an unconscious sense that the cities of yesteryear are obsolete, that technology, principally the car, made them irrelevant. Yet thanks to modern medicine, sanitation and construction, nothing could be further from the truth. Just like people in general, the old geometry of city life remains unchanged—it just needs to be unshackled.

[This article was originally published on Medium, and is installment #4 in The Market Urbanism Report's "World City Profiles" series on global urbanization. Here are the other installments, about Havana, Cuba (here and here) and Queretaro, Mexico)