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Reverse Zone, weblog on urban planning, sustainability, and technology.

Martin Laplante

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Wed, 23 Aug 2006

Why not Build Medieval Towns Here?

I just came back from a trip to Europe to visit relatives. While I was there I visited several medieval towns in Umbria. Looking at them I thought why don't people still build towns this way?image from Google Maps

The towns I saw were mostly built in the middle ages, but on top of a Roman town which itself was built on top of earlier Etruscan and Umbrian settlements from 2500 years ago or more. They are often built on rocky southern hillsides, taking away very little agricultural land and giving everyone some sunlight and fresh air.

These towns are the archetypal walkable neighbourhoods, built thousands of years ago according to urban planning rules we are only now rediscovering. Inside the medieval or Roman walls, the streets are relatively narrow. Everyone walks or bikes and cars are mostly parked outside the walls. The streets are animated with kids running everywhere. There is ground level retail with housing above. There are all sorts of squares and public spaces. The houses are stuck together, with quieter residential areas down narrow laneways. There are lush private rear gardens and courtyards, more private than here because they are virtually invisible from the street. Outside the walls, the density is lower, but still high by North American standards. There is a relatively sharp boundary between urban and rural. Despite thousands of years of agriculture and development, there are always old forests within a few miles.image from Google Maps

Now, even in Italy not everyone wants to live like this. But here I don't know of a single example of this type of town planning. I bet that if you build it they will come. Include the narrow streets so that there is a reason to only have the small yet remarkably roomy European type cars, and people will be happy to live a much more energy efficient lifestyle. It will be difficult legally; even New Urbanism developments have to get relief from a lot of zoning rules. But so worthwhile.



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