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.

 
 
 
 

Barcelona’s car-free “superblocks” could extend lives. So will they catch on elsewhere?

Barcelona. Image: Getty.

The world’s biggest cities have larger populations and higher economic outputs than some countries. But as they grow in size and complexity, cities are also facing thorny challenges that threaten the health and happiness of residents. Congestion, pollution and a lack of community spaces have become major drags on people’s aspirations and experiences of urban living.

In response, cities must manage their resources and priorities to create sustainable places for visitors and residents, and foster innovation and growth. Enter Barcelona – the capital of Catalonia, in Spain – where a bold stroke of urban planning first introduced “superblocks” in 2016.

Image: ISGlobal/FAL.

Superblocks are neighbourhoods of nine blocks, where traffic is restricted to major roads around the outside, opening up entire groups of streets to pedestrians and cyclists. The aim is to reduce pollution from vehicles, and give residents much-needed relief from noise pollution. They are designed to create more open space for citizens to meet, talk and do activities.


Health and well-being boost

There are currently only six superblocks in operation, including the first, most prominent one in Eixample. Reports suggest that – despite some early push back – the change has been broadly welcomed by residents, and the long-term benefits could be considerable.

A recent study carried out by the Barcelona Institute for Global Health estimates that if, as planned, 503 potential superblocks are realised across the city, journeys by private vehicle would fall by 230,000 a week, as people switch to public transport, walking or cycling.

The research suggests this would significantly improve air quality and noise levels on the car-free streets: ambient levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO₂) would be reduced by a quarter, bringing levels in line with recommendations from the World Health Organisation (WHO).

The plan is also expected to generate significant health benefits for residents. The study estimates that as many as 667 premature deaths from air pollution, noise and heat could be prevented each year. More green spaces will encourage people to get outdoors and lead a more active lifestyle.

This, in turn, helps to reduce obesity and diabetes and ease pressure on health services. The researchers claim that residents of Barcelona could expect to live an extra 200 days thanks to the cumulative health benefits, if the idea is rolled out across the city.

Space to play. Imag: Mosa Moseneke/Unsplash.

There are expected to be benefits to mental health, as well as physical health. Having access to such spaces can stave off loneliness and isolation – especially among elderly residents – as communities form stronger bonds and become more resilient.

Stumbling blocks

It was Salvador Rueda, director of the Urban Ecology Agency of Barcelona, who first championed the introduction of superblocks – and he argues that the idea could be used in any city. Even so, authorities looking to expand the concept in Barcelona or beyond will need to be mindful of some concerns.

Changes like these require capital investment. Even as the car-free streets are transformed with urban furniture and greenery, the remaining major roads will likely have to accommodate heavier traffic.

Nothing comes for free. Image: Zvileve/Flickr/creative commons.

Further investments in local infrastructure – such as improving surrounding roads to deal with more traffic, or installing smart traffic management system – could be required to prevent serious congestion. Then the question remains, how to finance such investments – a higher tax rate is unlikely to be popular.


What’s more, whenever a location becomes more desirable, it leads to an increase in property demand. Higher prices and rent could create pockets of unaffordable neighbourhoods. This may lead to use of properties for investment purposes and possibly, displacement of local residents.

It’s also worth noting that Barcelona is an old and relatively well-planned European city. Different challenges exist in emerging global cities across Asia, Africa and Latin America – and in younger cities in the US and Australia. There is a great deal of variation in scale, population density, urban shape and form, development patterns and institutional frameworks across the cities. Several large cities in the developing world are heavily congested with uncontrolled, unregulated developments and weak regulatory frameworks.

Replicating what’s been done in Barcelona may prove difficult in such places, and will require much greater transformations. But it’s true that the basic principles of superblocks – that value pedestrians, cyclists and high quality public spaces over motor vehicles – can be applied in any city, with some adjustments.

Leading the way

Over the history of human civilisation, great cities have been at the forefront of innovation and social progress. But cities need a robust structure of governance, which is transparent and accountable, to ensure a fair and efficient use of resources. Imposing innovation from the top down, without consultations and buy-in, can go squarely against the idea of free market capitalism, which has been a predominant force for modern economies and can lead push-back from citizens and local businesses.

Citizens must also be willing to change their perspectives and behaviour, to make such initiatives work. This means that “solutions” to urban living like superblocks need to have buy-in from citizens, through continuous engagement with local government officials.

A man speaks at a public consultation on the Eixample superblock in Barcelona. Image: Ajuntament Barcelona/Flickr/creative commons.

Successful urban planning also needs strong leadership with a clear and consistent vision of the future, and a roadmap of how that vision can be delivered. The vision should be co-developed with the citizens and all other stakeholders such as local businesses, private and public organisations. This can ensure that everybody shares ownership and takes responsibility for the success of local initiatives.

There is little doubt that the principles and objectives of superblocks are sound. The idea has the potential to catch on around the world – though it will likely take a unique and specific form in every city.

The Conversation

Anupam Nanda, Professor of Urban Economics and Real Estate, University of Reading.

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