How Leonardo da Vinci designed an ideal city – and helped invent urbanism

Ferrara, Italy bears some resemblance to da Vinci’s design. Image: hectorlo/Flickr/creative commons.

The word “genius” is universally associated with the name of Leonardo da Vinci – a true Renaissance man, he embodied scientific spirit, artistic talent and humanist sensibilities. Exactly 500 years have passed since Leonardo died in his home at Château du Clos Lucé, outside Tours, France. Yet far from fading to insignificance, his thinking has carried down the centuries – and still surprises today.

The Renaissance marked the transition from the Middle Ages to modernity, after the spread of the plague caused a global crisis resulting in some 200m deaths across Europe and Asia. Today, the world is on the cusp of a climate crisis, which is predicted to cause widespread displacement, extinctions and death, if left unaddressed. Then, as now, radical solutions were called for to revolutionise the way people live and safeguard humanity against catastrophe.

Around 1486 – after a pestilence that killed half the population in Milan – Leonardo turned his thoughts to urban planning problems. Following a typical Renaissance trend, he began to work out an “ideal city” project, which – due to its excessive costs – would remain unfulfilled. Yet given that unsustainable urban models are a key cause of global climate change today, it’s only natural to wonder how Leonardo might have changed the shape of modern cities.

The birth of urbanism

Although the Renaissance is renown as an era of incredible progress in art and architecture, it’s rarely noted that the 15th century also marked the birth of urbanism as true discipline.

Palmanova, a Renaissance star fort town in north eastern Italy. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

The rigour and method behind the conscious conception of a city had been largely missing in Western thought until the moment when prominent Renaissance men pushed forward large-scale urban projects, such as the reconfiguration of Pienza, the expansion of Ferrara and the construction of the fort town Palmanova.

These works surely inspired Leonardo’s decision to rethink the design of medieval cities, with their winding and overcrowded streets and with houses piled against one another.

Discovering Leonardo’s city

It is not easy to identify a coordinated vision of Leonardo’s ideal city because of his disordered way of working with notes and sketches. But from sources including the Paris manuscript B and the Codex Atlanticus – the largest collection of Leonardo’s papers ever assembled – a series of innovative thoughts can be reconstructed, regarding the foundation of a new city along the Ticino River, designed for the easy transport of goods and clean urban spaces.

A page from Manuscript B, featuring da Vinci’s famous mirror writing. Image: Ministero dei beni e delle attività culturali e del turismo.

Leonardo wanted a comfortable and spacious city, with well-ordered streets and architecture. He recommended “high, strong walls”, with “towers and battlements of all necessary and pleasant beauty”, and felt the place needed “the sublimity and magnificence of a holy temple” and “the convenient composition of private homes”.

His plans for a “modern” and “rational” city were consistent with Renaissance ideals. But, in keeping with his unconventional personality, Leonardo included several innovations in his urban design. Leonardo wanted the city to be built on several levels, linked with vertical staircases. This design can be seen in today’s high-rise buildings, but was absolutely unconventional at the time.

Indeed, his idea of taking full advantage of the interior spaces by positioning flights of stairs on the outside of the buildings wasn’t implemented until the 1920s and 1830s, with the birth of the Modernist movement. While in the upper layers of the city, people could walk undisturbed between elegant palaces and streets, the lower layer was the place for services, trade, transport and industry.

But the true originality of Leonardo’s vision was its fusion of architecture and engineering. Leonardo made designs for extensive hydraulic plants to create artificial canals throughout the city. The canals, regulated by locks and basins, were supposed to make it easier for boats to navigate inland and transport goods.

Leonardo also thought that the width of the streets ought to match the average height of the adjacent houses: a rule still followed in many contemporary cities across Italy, to allow access to sun and reduce the risk of damage from earthquakes.


Fiction and the future

Although some of these features existed in Roman cities, before Leonardo’s drawings there had never been a multi-level, compact modern city which was thoroughly technically conceived. Indeed, it wasn’t until the 19th century that some of his ideas were applied. For example, the subdivision of the city by function – with services and infrastructures located in the lower levels and wide and well-ventilated boulevards and walkways above for residents – is an idea that can be found in Haussmann’s renovation of Paris under Emperor Napoleon III.

It is necessary to wait even until the 20th century to see the same ideas represented in the vertical city of Futurist architects, or in the modern city of Hilbeseimer or Le Corbusier – as well as in dystopian tales such as Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and Philip Dick’s Blade Runner. Certainly, creating a city with different levels opens up the possibility of greater inequality between city-dwellers.

Today, Leonardo’s ideas are not simply valid – they actually suggest a way forward for urban planning. Many scholars think that the compact city – built upwards instead of outwards, integrated with nature (especially water systems) with efficient transport infrastructure – could help modern cities become more efficient and sustainable. This is yet another reason why Leonardo was aligned so closely with modern urban planning – centuries ahead of his time.

The Conversation

Alessandro Melis, Principal Lecturer in Sustainable Cities, University of Portsmouth.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

Older people need better homes – but then, so does everybody else

Colne, Lancashire. Image: Getty.

Towards the end of last year, I started as an associate director at the Centre for Ageing Better, working particularly on our goal around safe and accessible homes. Before I arrived, Ageing Better had established some ambitious goals for this work: by 2030, we want the number of homes classed as decent to increase by a million, and by the same date to ensure that at least half of all new homes are built to be fully accessible.

We’ve all heard the statistics about the huge growth in the number of households headed by someone over 65, and the exponential growth in the number of households of people over 85. Frustratingly, this is often presented as a problem to be solved rather than a major success story of post war social and health policy. Older people, like everyone else, have ambitions for the future, opportunities to make a full contribution to their communities and to continue to work in fulfilling jobs.

It is also essential that older people, again like everyone else, should live in decent and accessible homes. In the last 50 years we have made real progress in improving the quality of our homes, but we still have a lot to do. Our new research shows that over 4 million homes across England fail to meet the government’s basic standards of decency. And a higher proportion of older people live in these homes than the population more generally, with over a million people over the age of 55 living in conditions that pose a risk to their health or safety.

It shouldn’t be too difficult to ensure all our homes meet a decent standard. A small number of homes require major and expensive remedial work, but the overwhelming majority need less than £3,000 to hit the mark. We know how to do it. We now need the political will to make it a priority. Apart from the benefits to the people living in the homes, investment of this kind is great for the economy, especially when so many of our skilled tradespeople are older. Imagine if they were part of training young people to learn these skills.


At a recent staff away day, we explored where we would ideally want to live in our later lives. This was not a stretch for me, although for some of our younger colleagues it is a long way into the future.

The point at which the conversation really took off for me was when we moved away from government definitions of decency and accessibility and began to explore the principles of what great homes for older people would be like. We agreed they needed light and space (by which we meant real space – our national obsession with number of bedrooms as opposed to space has led to us building the smallest new homes in Europe).

We agreed, too, that they needed to be as flexible as possible so that the space could be used differently as our needs change. We thought access to safe outdoor space was essential and that the homes should be digitally connected and in places that maximise the potential for social connection.

Of course, it took us just a few seconds to realise that this is true for virtually everyone. As a nation we have been dismal at moving away from three-bed boxes to thinking differently about what our homes should look like. In a world of technology and factory building, and as we build the new generation of homes we desperately need, we have a real chance to be bold.

Great, flexible homes with light and space, in the places where people want to live. Surely it’s not too much to ask?

David Orr is associate director – homes at the Centre for Ageing Better.