Student blog of the Stanford University Urban Studies Department

Tag Archives: Europe

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.     


The Baths of Caracalla


This weekend I saw the Coliseum, the Roman Forum, Palatine Hill, the Pantheon, and the Vatican, and although all of these monuments far exceeded my expectations, it was a lesser known monument—the Baths of Caracalla—which truly blew me away. The Caracalla facilities (Terme di Caracalla) are generally agreed to be the most elaborate of the Ancient Roman baths. I haven’t seen the others, but I am inclined to believe this after my visit to the ruins.

I have been trying to think of a modern equivalent for the past few days and I simply cannot think of a a place that matches both the scale and social importance of the Caracalla site. As impressive as the other sites are, I can think of contemporary equivalents: the Coliseum is the precursor to the modern stadium (Wembley Stadium in London, Cape Town (FIFA) Stadium, Beijing “Nest” Stadium are a few noteworthy examples), the Forum is to Rome as the Mall is to Washington D. C., and Palatine Hill is the Ancient Roman version of Beverley Hills. It is this unfamiliarity with the public baths that was so captivating, and as difficult as it was, I was determined to visualize the ancient atmosphere of each and every room.

The Baths were begun in the 3rd century AD and it is estimated that 9,000 laborers installed 2,000 tons of raw material each day for 6 straight years in order to complete the massive complex a mile south of the Forum (the ancient city center). And massive is really the best adjective I can think of to describe this place. In total the complex covered approximately 33 acres and the main building stood about 12 stories high. In addition to the three central bathing halls—the caldarium (hot), tepidarium (warm), and frigidarium (cold)—there were two gyms (most commonly used for wrestling and ball games), an Olympic-sized outdoor swimming pool, two libraries (one with Greek literature and one with Latin literature), a courtyard for socializing and performances, shops, restaurants, and even sleeping quarters for visitors.


This sounds like some of the “super” malls that can be found in America, and I would agree except for the fact that that bathing was a daily activity for most Roman citizens. The baths were not a luxury spa experience or an amusement park for the rich, but a public meeting space and a social right in the ancient capital.

Although the baths were left to deteriorate after the aqueduct system was damaged in the 6th century, they remain a significant site for Romans. When Rome hosted the 1960 Olympics, the baths served as a shell for the gymnastics facilities. Since 1937, the Teatro Dell’Opera di Roma has used Caracalla as a dramatic backdrop for its summer season, with performances by legends such as Luciano Pavarotti and Placido Domingo. A final fun fact: the architecture of the central frigidarium was so impressive that architects continue to replicate it nearly 2000 years later. The architects of Liverpool’s St. George’s Hall, Chicago’s Union Station, and New York’s Pennsylvania Station all visited Caracalla and studied the engineering before making their final blueprints. Does the video below look familiar for those of you who’ve been to these places? 

Urban Trekking?

I am writing this post after having lived in a city (Florence, Italy to be specific) for the first time in my life. I have already been here for almost a month, which is exceptionally hard to believe. I have been experiencing phenomenon and urban issues that I have been studying, researching, and blogging about for 3 years now. I walk 20 minutes to school each day, I buy lunch at coffee shops and delis, I ride public transportation if my destination is more than 3 miles away, I live in a small apartment in a mixed-use building, and I am constantly surrounded by people, sights, and smells that are foreign and novel. I expected all of the things on this list.

What I didn’t anticipate, however, is the difficulty of finding a place to exercise. This sounds trivial, but for someone who is used to simply stepping out the front door to a plethora of running paths, hiking trails, bike boulevards, and for that matter, neighborhood parks with recreation equipment, city life is a big departure.  There is really only one park here—Cascine Park—and although it is lovely to run through, it does not exactly invite joggers to stop for stationary exercises (push-ups, jumping jacks, sit-ups, etc.). 

I went on my first run the other day and chose a path that runs along the Arno River and through Cascine Park. To be fair, the route was beautiful and provided ample space to keep my heart rate up for a while. The only trouble was how to navigate the before and after portions of my workout. Walking to the park was not such a big deal (although Italians never wear shorts or t-shirts in the city), but weaving my way back to my apartment, sweaty and flushed, on the crowded sidewalks, was definitely uncomfortable. I see no way around this though, if I am going to go for a jog outside. This brings me to the possibility of exercising inside: buying a gym membership or enrolling in a studio class are the two main options.  Indoor exercise is fine (I do play basketball after all), but there is just something freeing and truly exhilarating about blowing off some steam in the open air.


From the Urban Trekking Website. 

Maybe outdoor recreation is a suburban luxury or maybe it is a Californian’s misconception of how the world works. Alternatively, maybe I am just looking at outdoor recreation too narrowly. Today I saw an ad in the newspaper for the Ninth Annual Urban Trekking Day in Italy. The event takes place every spring and autumn in about two-dozen cities across Italy. The guided walks, which move at a faster pace than normal tours, can cover anywhere from 1 mile to 5 miles and take anywhere from 1 hour to 4 hours. This spring’s treks focuses on the importance of water in urban life. Step aside “yogging” (as the Italians pronounce it)! Urban trekking is my new sport of choice.


The Psychology of Urban Culture

I recently read an intriguing post on This Big City called How London Tried (and Failed) to Become a Cycling City. The author makes the argument that part of the reason for this failure may be the attitude towards bicycling fostered during World War II, thus providing a psychological explanation for the disappointment of the city’s cycling initiatives. In the Netherlands, the occupying Germans stole thousands of bicycles from the residents, depriving them of their primary mode for short, efficient travel. In London, on the other hand, World War II brought unprecedented bicycle use out of necessity because of strict gasoline rationing. By the end of the war, the Dutch could not wait to get back on their bikes while the British quickly readopted the automobile. 

The post also supplements the explanation of London’s failure (specifically to meet its 12% bicycle modal share by 2012) with spatial and infrastructure-based reasoning, revealing the challenges in having an extremely concentrated financial district and a lack of small mixed-use developments. But overall, I was completely fascinated by this connection between historical events and culture. Can the perspective-changing, culture-defining role that World War II has played in the urban imaginary of European cities be justifiably used as an explanation for behavior patterns–and their stubborn stagnance?



Newton’s law is convenient here: we’re all taught that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Amsterdam was stripped of its bicycles, and thus jumped right back on them as soon as they could, reinforcing their thriving bicycle culture. London was bound by scarcity, and thus adopted the car in a frenzied postwar attempt to demonstrate progress. If these cities were defined by their deprivation, is America a nation defined by being deprived…of everything? Is our insatiable thirst for consumption a remnant of our immigrant past and contining immigrant reality, driven forward by the desire to acquire houses, clothes, food, gadgets, vehicles–in essence, lifestyles–that weren’t available in our countries of origin? 

The tendency of people to react with consumptive tendencies in the face of scarcity is natural, and given a traumatic era like that which spanned both World Wars, explosive growth in automobiles before another war came around does not seem out of place. What is unnatural, though, is our clear ability to consume (pioneered by Americans, but proving increasingly contagious) even when we know that it is in our best interests to restrain ourselves. It is interesting to factor in this psychological component of historical deprivation because it provides an explanation that goes beyond individual greed to create a collective experience of absense or shortage.  

This isn’t to say that artificial actions will produce the reactions we desire. Urban waste won’t be solved by confiscating peoples’ compost bins, nor will shutting down homeless shelters produce an inevitable upsurge of community activism. Solutions to urban problems surely involve education, regulation, an proactive policies. But above all, they require understanding, and examining the historical underpinings of local resistance to behavioral change is a useful and informative exercise. 

Barcelona: Urban planning’s forgotten birthplace

I have been fascinated with the layout and design of cities for years, and always assumed that city planning had been an integral part of urban settlements for thousands of years.  While planned cities have certainly been around that long, I recently learned that the first model of urban planning, as we understand it today, was completed for Barcelona in the 1850s. The mastermind was Ildefons Cerdà, a Catalan architect who designed the expansion of Barcelona after its medieval walls were torn down.  The medieval city had been contained for centuries in order to repress the Catalan separatist spirit, but increasing densities pushed citizens to revolt and Cerdà’s design was accepted in 1859 to fill the completely open land outside the old city.


This seems much too recent, right? That was my first impression. It turns out that Cerdà’s plan to create the Eixample (literally meaning extension in Catalan) was the first expansion planned all at once including everything from sewage systems to intersection design. Unlike previous cities, which had either grown organically or in stages, Cerdà’s plan was comprehensive and all-encompassing. Even cities like Hippodamus’ Alexandria and L’Enfant’s Washington D.C. did not have the degree of research and planning specific to their site that the Eixample did.  Cerdà had intensively studied the relationship between density and mortality in Barcelona’s old city and planned for a new urban space to solve these urban problems. He didn’t simply set down a grid because he believed in its efficiency of form, but instead diagnosed, one might say, the region with particular problems that he could prescribe urban policies for. The resulting standardized—and unfortunately boring, in my opinion—plan truly was unprecedented and is still seen in Barcelona’s grid pattern surrounding the old city that remains today. And, get this: Cerdà’s plan even included cut-off corners!  


Cerdà had planned for relief of the monotony of the grid by including open green spaces on the inside of every block, with buildings built only on the “sea and mountain” sides of the block.  Developers, no less conscious of maximizing land value as those today, did not comply with this desire and built both higher and more densely than he had designed.  More problematic was the lack of relationship that the Eixample had with the Ciutat Vella, or old city. As you can see in the bottom left corner of the map of his plan, the old Barcelona seems out of place and disconnected from the vast swaths of land covered by the Eixample (reminding me, actually, of Greenwich Village within New York’s grid system).

Also intriguing is Cerdà’s most famous quote: “Rurizad lo urbano, urbanized lo rural,” or “ruralize the urban, urbanize the rural.” This mentality, more than any of the specific principles of his design, is a lasting legacy seen everywhere from Ebenezer Howard’s garden cities to every post-war suburb in the United States. For such a little-known planner, he had some big ideas.