The Original High Line
This past weekend I took a day trip to Lucca, a small city about an hour northwest of Florence, Italy. The city’s history is visible everywhere and legible even to an uninformed outsider. The shape of the ancient Roman amphitheater has been maintained in the shops and homes that ring the central square, the meticulously-planned Roman street grid is preserved in sharp contrast to the surrounding rabbit warren, and the medieval defensive walls, Lucca’s claim to fame, are 100% in tact and crucial to the city’s functioning as a tourist destination.
For me, however, the walls were a spectacle because they were not simply an historical vestige, but a functioning part of the modern city. In 1818, during Napoleon’s occupation, the walls (12 curtains and 11 bastions) were converted into a distinctly stunning urban park that runs the parameter of the city. City planning is a product of zeitgeist, and much like fashion, cuisine, architecture, and music, trends are revived and recycled with each new generation. As I biked atop the walls on a well-maintained recreational path, I was reminded of more recent urban repurposing projects—Lucca’s Parco del Muro (Wall Park) is the predecessor of New York’s High Line, San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf, and Seattle’s Pike Place Market.
Each of these projects required a willingness to think outside the box (a railway became a park, a port became a community market, etc.) as well as a conscious decision to preserve history in the urban landscape. Records from the post-Renaissance era, in fact, prove that there was a conscious effort to restore and modernize rather than raze and rebuild. This mindset was absent during the post-war boom and obsession with progress, but thankfully has been restored to modern planning conscience.