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.

 
 
 
 

In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 


The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.