GreatStreetsJacobsIn my free time, I’ve been reading Great Streets, the 1995 urban design art book, by Allan Jacobs — and a great birthday present from Honey :). Jacobs dedicates an entire chapter of Great Streets to Venice’s Grand Canal, making the case that certain cities’ urban canals are essentially liquid streets: as thoroughfares, places for public gathering, retail business, the showcasing of architecture, and cross-cutting neighborhood vistas.

Now, Google seems to have taken Jacobs’s position, offering extensive and striking StreetView images of the canals of Venice, treating them as the equivalent of city streets. Here’s a view of the Grand Canal, near the Rialto Bridge:

Here’s the Campanile di San Marco, seen from the water:

And here is a satellite view of the entire old city, surrounded by the Lagoon.

It’s fitting that the outline of Venice looks like a fish.

Now, in some ways, the canals of Venice are more than just technically streets. One could argue that in light of the role Venice played in the emergence of the modern commercial world the patterns of urbanization that developed there actually served as an early prototype for the growth of modern cities. The traffic flows in the city’s canals were not so different from those of land vehicles in modern or ancient cities. But the liquid nature of these streets presumably allowed for one less break of bulk between the arrival of goods in the city and their delivery to local end users — and this was good for the productive economy. In Roman Ostia, vast warehouses were used to store shipments of olive oil and wine amphorae that had been imported from Africa, Greece, and Spain. Each shipping company had its own branded warehouse, from which it sold goods to merchants one step down the supply chain, or stored them until its own distributors were ready to take them to market. Much smaller quantities were then transported, separately, up the Tiber to the city proper; or over land to other Italian cities and towns. This made for a supply chain with a lot of middle men, barriers to purchasing in bulk, and, presumably, high markups between the seaport and Roman workshops.

In Venice, the innovation would be that these points of delivery could be distributed throughout the city, rather than concentrated in a single seaport. In Venice, the urban fabric and the seaport became one, a development that predicted the more distributed pattern of industrial space in modern cities. Canals and their branches and slips would, of course, continue to be an important part of city-building for years to come, but only a few cities would have both the topography and trading frequency to justify the kind of extensive canal building that took place in Venice. Amsterdam comes to mind. More commonly, the post-Renaissance economy would interpret the lesson from Venice in another way: The most successful cities to be founded after the Renaissance would be those built on sites where natural waterways conveyed an almost Venetian advantage, and allowed for distributed delivery points. Think of New York City, with its miles and miles of natural waterfronts. Likewise, Hong Kong, San Francisco, and Sydney. Finally, the pattern of distributed industry would really be broken open, in the 19th century, by the railroads, which would slice through the fabric of every European and American town and city as thoroughly as the canals sliced through Venice.

Another interesting point is that Venice is also arguably more of a direct continuation of the Roman tradition than Byzantium was. That is to say, while the Eastern Empire may have carried on the apparatus of the Roman state from Constantinople until 1453, is was essentially a Greek cultural entity for its entire history; but Venice was founded in the fifth century by Italian Romans who had taken refuge from the fall of the Western Empire in an inaccessible Italian swamp, and who went on to preserve a slice of distinctly Latin culture — eventually building a city that carried on many parts of the Italian Roman tradition, and served as a unique cultural bridge between Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages and, ultimately, the Early Modern age. This is a simplification of Venetian history, but it illustrates the important thread. Because the plan of Venice — and especially its canals — more literally captures the tradition of Western commercial cities growing out of the sea, than almost any other example of European urbanism. From Ostia to Venice, and from Amsterdam to New Orleans, the mercantile tradition in the West has a long tradition of shaping a maritime urbanism in which the riches brought by sea trade have driven extensive urban growth on the land around the ports. And this growth has always been premised on the trading patterns of the merchants within the seaports.

The sea has always been a saturating element in trading cultures. Look at the Odyssey. Look at its haunting omnipresence in this Roman wall painting of Perseus and Andromeda, on view at the Metropolitan Museum, found in Boscotrecase, near Pompeii:


Perseus and Andromeda, from the Villa at Boscotrecase. Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Amidst its clear references to religion and fantasy, it is the sea, and not Vesuvius, which might consume all. I thought of this painting recently at work, where I’m writing decision letters for a post-Sandy recovery project here in New York City. Three years after that storm, the conflict between the city and the ocean is still being sorted out, block by block, house by house. Some people are selling their land back to the state; some are elevating their homes, with or without public subsidies; many are keeping their fingers crossed and going on as if nothing had happened in 2012.

The same forces of commerce, greed, politics, and ambition that built the world’s port cities are now driving the global climate change that threatens them. New Orleans was nearly wiped out in 2005; Venice now deals with flooding on a regular basis; in New York, Manhattan seems mostly oblivious, but the sprawling coastal neighborhoods of the outer boroughs are not looking very healthy. The paradox of mercantile cities, the wealth that they draw from maritime trade, and the ever-present danger of the sea, will not go away. It is only getting stronger.

Photo: Guillaumeo via Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Slate has a fun quiz: Test your ability to identify great landmarks, in 2D.


Today’s City Hall Park sits on the oldest part of the New Amsterdam and New York Commons — a public site in the planning tradition of the northern European town green. The Commons dates from the 1600s, and its checkered past has included workhouses for the poor, a burial ground for the colonial town’s African slaves, and many public executions — as well as the civic and religious buildings and military parade grounds that have historically been located at town centers.

Here are some photos I recently took in City Hall Park:

I think it’s interesting that, after almost four centuries, this park continues to function as a living gathering place in the city’s center. I recently ate lunch in the park. I listened to a man play the saxophone, beside the fountain; I noticed others spending their lunch hours there, reading the paper, tapping at a cell phone, or having a smoke. Tourists passed through and took pictures; poor people asked strangers for money; a man napped on the grass in the shade.

What draws everyone in, day after day? Is it the patch of nature? Views of the surrounding architecture? The buzz of human activity? The respite from car exhaust and street noise? How many of them realize that they’re not just passing through one of the city’s hundreds of small parks, but taking part in a 400-year-old tradition? That they are standing in what was once the only town green of a strange and distant colonial outpost of Western Europe?

Meanwhile, the city’s largest cluster of courthouses and public office buildings sits around Foley Square, a few blocks north along Centre Street. (Note that the English spelling is still used.) This is roughly where the northern end of the Commons once was, and its intensity of public uses represents the centuries-long persistence of the tradition of siting your community’s civic buildings near the town green:

Here’s a map of the Commons from about 1754:

NY Commons

And an overlay with today’s landmarks:


And some thoughts:

All three are located in the Bedford Park section:

356 Bedford Park Boulevard, New York, N.Y.


280 Bedford Park Boulevard, New York, N.Y.


2806 Pond Place, New York, N.Y.

The LegalTowns map and database of these houses can be found here. Some background on the inspiration for tracking them can be found here, and here.

Night Shadows. Edward Hopper (1921).

Night Shadows. Edward Hopper (1921).

I recently read Tom Slater’s 2002 article, “Fear of the City: 1882-1967: Edward Hopper and the Discourse of Anti-Urbanism.” It’s really a fascinating piece. Slater argues that much of the imagery in Hopper’s art is part of a deep and old tradition of suspicion of cities in the American worldview. Slater claims that a “negative discourse of the city … began with the pastoral musings of Thomas Jefferson and was furthered significantly by the transcendental contemplations of Ralph Waldo Emerson, [and] grew stronger and became embedded in social life through powerful representations of urban malaise in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century American literature, art, and social theory.” He then closely analyzes four pieces by Hopper — Night Shadows, Nighthawks, Approaching a City, and Sunday — to illustrate his thesis. I strongly recommend reading the piece.

Slater cites Hopper’s childhood in then-rural Nyack, N.Y. as the source of the artist’s skepticism about city life, and he describes the contrast between the ideals of small-town America and the exploding urbanism of large, east coast cities that occurred in the late 19th century. Of Hopper’s relocation to New York City — where he would spend most of his life — Slater writes:

Hopper lived through a time of continuous changes to the cityscape, and changes in the neighbourhood where he lived, Greenwich Village, were as profound as in any area of the city. Hopper was dismayed by the ‘crushing of Washington Square’ by the erection of tall buildings around the park which he saw as ‘huge coarse and swollen mounds—blunt, clumsy and bleaching the sunlight with their dismal pale yellow sides’ (citation omitted). Such signs of unruliness and dislocation were serious violations of all that he had been brought up to believe, that humans should be in harmony with nature and situated away from anything which would disrupt this most Victorian, even puritan, way of existence.

(Slater, 141.)

It seems to me that by the late Victorian period, some of the contrarian hallmarks of early 19th-century Romanticism — especially, the idea that humans should make an effort to live in harmony with nature — had calcified into a set of bourgeois notions of propriety, in somewhat the same way as the countercultural values of the 1960s have been repackaged into the predictable platitudes of Whole Foods advertising, today.

Nighthawks. Edward Hopper (1942).

Nighthawks. Edward Hopper (1942).

Slater sees Hopper’s haunting imagery of dark, foreboding, and lonely urban scenes as part of a long (and presumably unwarranted) tradition of city-hatred in American thought, rooted in this culturally idealized view of nature. He cites this larger narrative as a key source of the American political establishment’s long hostility toward urban interests. In that, Slater identifies something real: There certainly is a tradition in America of ignorant hostility toward big cities. (Is it not the inevitable reciprocal for a country with a frontier mentality to also have some degree of contempt for those who choose to live in more thickly settled locations, rather than strike out for the West — or the suburbs?) But I would hesitate to assign Hopper’s work to that thread. His city scenes are layered: Though often dark and alienating, his settings are also mysterious, enchanting, and beautiful. Inhabitants frequently seem conflicted, or unfulfilled, or stoic, but not necessarily miserable. These internal contradictions remain true of large cities and their inhabitants today. To acknowledge them, and their inherent sadness, is not to malign the city. It is simply to observe it honestly.

Furthermore, one must concede the reasonableness of Hopper’s skepticism — if that’s what it is — about many of the circumstances that he depicted in New York and elsewhere. The early urban planning movement was made up of people whose biases were quite the opposite of anti-urban, and who were driven by precisely the same visceral and moral reactions that Hopper seems to have experienced in response to the excesses of industrial urban life in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. There is something undeniably harsh about a society whose excesses are not tempered by humane concerns. This is something that radical, reformist, and conservative thinkers all observed in Hopper’s time (and continue to observe, today). Its expression is hardly the hallmark of a puritanical, anti-urban mind. More to the point, as I interpret his images, the object of Hopper’s disapprobation is not urbanism, per se, but the heavy industry that pervaded cities in his lifetime, and the rapid change that it imposed on those in its path, including its disruptive impact on the individuals and traditions that required stability and patience to flourish. Though not mentioned in Slater’s piece, House by the Railroad has long struck me as one of the most haunting and tragic of all Hopper’s works. Notably, it is set not in a large city, at all, but in the small Hudson Valley town of Haverstraw, N.Y.:

Edward Hopper. House by the Railroad (1925).

House by the Railroad. Edward Hopper (1925).

Slater’s article is fascinating on many levels, and I strongly recommend reading the entire piece.

432 Park. Source: Macklowe Properties / CIM. (Fair use.)

432 Park. Source: Macklowe Properties / CIM. (Fair use.)

Matthew Gordon Lasner, who teaches at Hunter College, believes they should. (He also provides a nice, succinct history of residential shared-ownership arrangements in the United States.) There has been an uptick recently in the amount of ink spilled about luxury condominiums as cash-stashes, rather than residences. The Times has been running a series called ‘Towers of Secrecy’, and New York magazine had a long-form article last June about the same phenomenon. The statistic that struck me most from the New York article:

The Census Bureau estimates that 30 percent of all apartments in the quadrant from 49th to 70th Streets between Fifth and Park are vacant at least ten months a year.

So, in a city with no affordable market housing, much the best residential real estate sits almost completely vacant. Wonderful. If the laws can be tweaked to discourage this, they should be. Lasner suggests limits on the numbers of absentee or anonymous buyers — I think those kinds of measures could help.

Still, the results of this development trend are a mixed bag for New York City, even in the realm of social equity. When I worked on Mount Laurel analysis at Rutgers (for New Jersey’s constitutionally-mandated affordable housing programs), one of the factors that we analyzed was filtering — or, the tendency of new, market-rate units to take some of the price pressure off of the existing housing stock. In theory, at least, a larger number of units in a particular region will bring down the degree of competition for housing units, across the board. So, even the development of incredibly expensive luxury units ought to have some knock-on effect for housing affordability in the local market, by taking wealthy buyers out of competition for (and gentrification of) existing units in the same city.

111 West 57. Source: SHoP Architects. (Fair use.)

111 West 57. Source: SHoP Architects. (Fair use.)

Finally, on a purely aesthetic level, I do like the architecture of many of the city’s new sliver skyscrapers. Vishaan Chakrabarti, in particular (who led the design of 111 West 57th Street, above), has an incredible eye, and a vision of urbanism that goes far beyond luxury investment units. Technology allows for the development of slender, elegant towers that were physically impossible in the past. They represent the forefront of engineering and design, and some of them are truly striking. Beautiful architecture — even if it contains private spaces — can still bring value to everyone who spends time in the city.

The Roman Forum. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The Roman Forum. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

This week, a lot of media outlets covered anthropologist Scott Ortman’s recently published paper, Settlement Scaling and Increasing Returns in an Ancient Society, which analyzes the growth of cities in ancient Mexico to argue that the efficiency incentives that are driving urbanization today were also intrinsic to the growth of cities in ancient times.

I’m not sure I buy the authors’ basic assumption that the scale of monument construction can be used as a reliable metric for the incentives of urbanism. (This strikes me as a classic social scientist’s attempt to quantify something that should have been analyzed more liberally.) But, apart from that, the paper highlights something urbanists intuitively understand: cities become more productive, and dynamic, with growth. And Ortman’s work adds to the evidence that urbanists crave, namely, that people have long been drawn to urban settings by their opportunities, as well as by their mystique.

The urbanism of the Classical world offered lots of (non-numerical) ancient examples of large cities as better engines for economic and cultural output. Athens, in the fifth century B.C., was the largest city in the Greek world — and also the center of learning, artisanship, and trade, within that universe. Likewise, Alexandria was the economic and cultural capital of the Near East, during Hellenistic times; and Rome, for the entire Mediterranean basin in the first and second centuries, A.D. Modern examples might include London in the 19th century, and New York in the first half of the 20th.