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Learning from Vitruvius

Today’s city planners could learn a lot from ancient history when creating resilient cities, says Tim Stonor, managing director of Space Syntax

In his book, De Architectura, the Roman architect Vitruvius asserted that a good building must have three qualities: “firmitas, utilitas, venustas”, in other words, it must “last long, work well and look good”.

While the relative importance of these attributes can be debated, what is certain is that together they can deliver resilience. Cities exhibiting strength and stability; that function to the benefit of their citizens; and that are pleasant places to live, work and visit are, by their very nature, resilient.

Unfortunately, the last hundred years of planning demonstrate that by abandoning these principles, resilience has been overlooked. The rise of car ownership, combined with a desire to zone and segregate, has led to highly disconnected places, particularly in terms of walking and cycling, and removed what is the very essence of cities: human transactions.

Cities engender collective purpose, deliver great benefits - social, economical and cultural – and drive innovation. This great mechanism, that brings people together, is risked when planning centres around the car.

What has been lost, and what planners need to move back to, is the principle ancient cities were built upon, involving mixed use developments of shops, businesses and homes, all connected together by simple grids of streets.

The danger is that the planners of new cities adopt a car-led approach, with commercial and residential zones and shopping malls, all linked by highways, not people-friendly streets. This is not a panacea for resilience but is likely instead to contribute to huge social and economic problems in the future.

Segregation exists in the professional world too. Architects, engineers, planners and others are educated separately and tend to operate in silos. Cities, on the other hand, cannot be categorised. They may appear to be chaotic but science now shows us they are in fact complex and sophisticated ‘machines’ involving a huge number of interdependent systems; and, that street-based cities out-perform car-dominated ones both socially and economically.

To create resilient cities we need to connect people, deliver good social outcomes and make cities more equitable and fun. We also have to create links between professional silos, to create new ways of thinking that can influence national and city level policy for the better. Again, science has a role to play in providing the data and the analysis to understand urban systems; and the predictive modelling to test urban planning proposals in advance.

Ultimately, city governments and planners have a choice – are their decisions dictated by the car, or by the personal interactions of their citizens? Should they rely on the gut feeling of individuals or the evidence of the new “science of cities”?

It is clear we can learn more about resilience from the first 9,900 years of cities than we can from the latest 100. The greatest lesson of all may well be this: to meet Vitruvius’ test of lasting long, working well and looking good, cities should be designed with the connecting street grids of ancient Rome, not the segregating highways of 20th century planning.

Designing City Resilience

Designing City Resilience is an international summit taking place on 16 and 17 June 2015 in London. It will include the City Resilience Challenge, a workshop providing a unique opportunity for professionals from the built environment, government, insurance, finance, technology and communications to work on real issues faced by cities around the world. It is hoped outcomes will be applied by cities to improve their resilience and help with future growth and investment.

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